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The world is full of strangers—
They are very strange
I am never going to know them
Which I find easy to arrange.

Florine Stettheimer, untitled poem from Crystal Flowers


Recently, the Metropolitan Museum of Art publicly displayed all four of Florine Stettheimer's Cathedral paintings together for the first time in years.[1] It is difficult to imagine any other works that so vibrantly convey the excitement and feel of New York City's upper-crust social life during the 1930s and 1940s. Museum visitors generally traipse rapidly past paintings, giving them little more than a passing glance. By contrast, the bench in front of Stettheimer's work is inevitably crowded with viewers sitting to study the paintings. Unfortunately, the wall labels do not identify the myriad persons in the crowded compositions. As a result, little of Stettheimer's biting social commentary and intention is available to the casual audience. Nevertheless, viewers' reactions to the paintings confirm the significance of Stettheimer's work and its ability to transform paint and canvas into singular visual metaphors for the early years of American modernism.

Seeing the public's reaction to Stettheimer's work goes a long way toward confirming my commitment over more than a decade to researching the artist's work and life. I wrote about Stettheimer first as the subject of my doctoral dissertation (eventually published as a monograph) and then for the catalogue accompanying a retrospective exhibition of her work at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Today, when I come across a painting by Stettheimer, I invariably seek out the detail containing her self-portrait. Each time I find her image, I acknowledge the strong connection I still feel to the artist and remember my decade-long battle to get her work the recognition I felt it deserved. Writing about the experience now, I acknowledge what a central role, for a while, Stettheimer played in my life.

Choosing to spend time looking at, or writing about, a body of work requires a personal affinity with it from the outset. I responded almost immediately to Stettheimer's paintings. That the artist was a woman whose work had been erroneously neglected in art history made me determined to try to remedy the situation. Stettheimer's work had been largely relegated to minor status in art history for several provocative reasons. First, it did not conform visually, theoretically, or stylistically to the accepted canons of “modernism”; second, because the artist was a woman, she was left out of most historical writings on the period; and third, Stettheimer consciously did not affiliate herself with any male artist (either a partner or a gallery owner) to support or promote her work. As a result, no cogent biography of Stettheimer existed, nor was there a serious examination of the over 150 paintings and designs that during her lifetime were recognized as bold, ironic, inventive—and among the most interesting works produced in the early decades of the twentieth century.

I came upon Stettheimer's work by accident. I had come to graduate school with a fairly comprehensive background in canonical European art history. As my interest gradually turned from the nineteenth to the twentieth century, I decided to expand my outlook by spending a year focusing on African American art topics. As a result, I began to question the Caucasian, heterosexual, male orientation of most of the art history I had been taught.[2] I also looked for a dissertation topic that would have personal relevance.[3] While conducting preliminary research in the Beinecke Library, I found a letter from Georgia O'Keeffe to someone named Florine Stettheimer in which O'Keeffe complained about men, recounting a humorous incident that derailed a trip she and Alfred Stieglitz had planned to Lake George. In trying to find out more about the letter's recipient, I learned that a number of her paintings hung in the back-office corridors of the library.

My initial reaction to Stettheimer's paintings was the same as to O'Keeffe's letter: I burst out laughing. The works exhibited none of the characteristics I had been taught to look for in modernist painting; they

were overtly feminine, crowded, narrative, and funny. From the outset, I was attracted to Stettheimer's willful refusal to fit the traditional definitions of modernism. Distrustful of labels myself, I wondered if perhaps the problem was with the narrowness of the term modernism—defined as a rejection of past styles and the privileging of form over content—rather than with Stettheimer's work.[4] With their style based on Persian miniatures and medieval and Renaissance painting, as well as their multiple narratives, temporalities, and crowded compositions, the paintings defy this definition. Unlike anything I had seen, Stettheimer's work engaged me to the point where I wanted to find out more. As I continued looking at her paintings, I realized that I had found a dissertation topic, but it took a while to convince my advisor that Stettheimer's work warranted being the subject of my research.

Initially I considered writing about Stettheimer's work by comparing it to that of her contemporaries, such as O'Keeffe and Demuth, and positioning her as an “alternative modernist.” But factual information about her life, her philosophy, and her works proved so difficult to find that it became clear that what was first needed was to organize her work and life in the form of a monograph. I realized that I did not want to approach her work with predetermined theories that might blind me to other alternatives. Nor was I interested in configuring the artist according to the traditional, “heroic” model often used in monographs of male artists. Instead, I wanted to trace what I found compelling about her paintings and to have that guide my writing. Despite inherent flaws in the monographic approach (its being too limiting and/or tied to the idea of linear evolution), it still appeared to be the best construct for organizing information about Stettheimer's life and her work. As Nancy Miller observes, “To justify an unorthodox life by writing about it is to reinscribe the original violation, to reviolate masculine turf.”[5] With her idiosyncratic style and feminine-oriented subject matter, Stettheimer reviolated the inherently “masculine” turf of modernism. Given the multiple complexities and paradoxes of her life and work, the challenge of framing them within a monographic format was particularly intriguing.

Virtually all of Stettheimer's paintings represent specific moments, locations, and people. All but a few are filled with image puns—words and jokes that members of her social circle would have easily recognized and understood. To “read” Stettheimer's paintings today, one must learn about each of the characters who inhabit them—many of

them recognizable portraits of her friends and acquaintances that include details of their vocations, avocations, and peculiarities. These paintings constitute cryptic visual biographies so that a monographic format gives the works context and identification. Exploring Stettheimer's maturation and aesthetic development and placing her paintings in a contemporary social, economic, and political setting seemed a straightforward and worthy goal. Instead, in virtually every environment, from academia to museums, I found that I had to constantly defend the monographic approach and argue against configuring the artist's work to suit others' theoretical agendas. This was exacerbated by the fact that, in Stettheimer's case, so little primary research had been uncovered to substantiate or disprove such theories.

In retrospect, I believe the unorthodoxy of Stettheimer's work and personal life explained many of the obstacles I encountered. It is worth considering whether Stettheimer, like so many other women artists in the past, cultivated eccentricity and obscurity in her personal life in order to control how her work would later be perceived. The absence of factual and personal information—much of it deliberately destroyed by the artist and her sister Ettie—gave her work a chance to breathe, freeing it from the encumbrance of bias against women working in a largely male profession. It also created intriguing divisions between the works, the artist's “public” face, and the mysterious private persona she cultivated for friends and the public.

Stettheimer was highly ambitious, a trait she shared with other contemporary women artists such as Georgia O'Keeffe and Frida Kahlo, who also achieved recognition for their work during their lifetime.[6] Unlike them, however, she chose not to have a prestigious partner or husband to guide her professional development. That she was nevertheless able to achieve considerable professional recognition for her work in her lifetime is one of her singular achievements. It indicates the power of her work and her strength of will, both of which were at variance with her public role as a proper social hostess.

The radical nature of her paintings, theatrical designs, poetry, and furniture caused Stettheimer's contemporaries to cite her as one of the most important historians and visual critics of the period between the world wars. However, the contradictions in Stettheimer's private life thwart all attempts to canonize her. She was a quiet and shy woman—a Jewish spinster who spent her entire life in the confines of her matriarchal family. Stettheimer was never active socially unless surrounded

by her mother and sisters. Although her social reticence gradually eased, until she was in her sixties Stettheimer was intensely private, revealing little of herself except through her work. She rarely gave interviews, and her extant correspondence and diaries cover only a short period of her life.

One can discover the most revealing aspects of Stettheimer's personality only by closely, carefully “reading” her paintings and then tying them to the spare written fragments and known events of her life. A significant breakthrough in my research came after my fifth or sixth reading of her privately published poems, when I realized that many of the poems paralleled incidents from her life and referenced specific aspects of her paintings. Although several feminist art historians had “rediscovered” Stettheimer in the 1970s and 1980s, no one had ordered her work on the basis of gathered facts or chronology.[7] As a result, although they continued to influence younger artists, the paintings remained little known or understood by the general public. To build a chronology of her work, I began hanging Xerox copies of every known Stettheimer painting or drawing on my living room walls. By seeing them together, I was able to match early studies with completed paintings and, after living with the images for a while, more accurately date several of the works according to their stylistic evolution.

Further progress in organizing and identifying Stettheimer's work came when I compared old negatives from the Peter Juley archives in Washington, D.C., with actual paintings. Although Stettheimer never allowed anyone to see her paintings until they were finished, she invited Juley to her studio to photograph them when they were completed to her satisfaction. By comparing Juley's negatives to the paintings, I located a number of missing works and discovered that the artist had significantly altered a number of them, in some cases quite radically. Stettheimer entirely painted over some compositions and changed elements of others, often with telling results. The extant version of her painting Russian Bank, for example, includes an image of her younger siste, Ettie, sitting under a tree, although Ettie is not present in the Juley negative of the work. Relations between the two sisters were not always amicable, and the artist probably intended to leave her younger sibling out of the composition, only adding her later as an afterthought. After Stettheimer's death, Ettie refused to bury her sister in the family plot, instead scattering her ashes in the Hudson River several years after her demise.[8]


I began tracing Stettheimer's family background, contacting relatives, and from their recollections beginning a family tree. Fortunately, one of Stettheimer's nieces, Phyllis Gordan, who had refused to talk to earlier researchers, agreed to meet with me. A woman of substantial intelligence and wit, Gordan assisted me in tracing Stettheimer's maternal ancestors back several generations. She gave me access to early family photographs and artifacts that place Stettheimer's family in the midst of one of the most influential Jewish American families living in New York in the nineteenth century.

Gordan's recollections of the Stettheimer sisters offered an interesting, unique perspective on the family's generations of radical women. Stettheimer had eight maternal aunts, most of whom married well and were financially independent. Her Aunt Josephine Walter, after studying with some of the most innovative medical teachers in Europe, became the first woman intern in the United States. Josephine, who never married, later established an active practice in New York specializing in women's ailments. There is little doubt that her highly unconventional assumption of a traditional male role had an impact on Stettheimer's own artistic development.

Socially, however, Stettheimer was far more ambivalent than her aunt. On the one hand, she lived a cloistered life within her genteel family. On the other hand, Stettheimer's diaries reveal that she complained bitterly whenever she had to accompany her mother and sisters on any moves or travels, as it prevented her from concentrating on her professional training and work. The artist's days were often filled with social obligations as a wealthy, unmarried hostess and dutiful daughter, and this greatly affected her ability to paint.

To ensure herself a proper environment in which to work, Stettheimer rented a studio away from her family's home, thereby courting their overt disapproval. Unlike most of her contemporaries, she often wore harem skirts and black velvet pants, allowing her greater freedom of movement while painting. As Ettie noted, Stettheimer “took care of her delicately made body and strengthened it into an effective tool” for the benefit of her work.[9] Her efforts to balance her disparate roles in society and in her professional life often caused her personal turmoil. Only through careful reading of Stettheimer's layered, complex paintings are her efforts to manage those mutually exclusive responsibilities revealed.


During my doctoral colloquium, a colleague who had recently completed his dissertation on a male modernist (on whom several monographs had already been written) took me to task for choosing a monographic approach to Stettheimer, claiming that it was no longer valid or significant enough for “Yale scholars.” He suggested that I instead take a theory-based approach to the artist's work and that I view it in terms of the artist's sexual orientation. Prior to my research, and because of the paucity of biographical material, the issue of whether Stettheimer was or was not a lesbian often came up when her name was mentioned.

I resisted that notion, even though I believe that there are many valid theoretical approaches to Stettheimer's work and that an artist's sexual orientation can reveal information about and suggest a context for the work. However, I felt it would be misleading to postulate a theory about either an individual or a body of work unless it was rooted in primary research on the artist's life and development. In Stettheimer's case, no one had yet undertaken such research. Luckily, the department chair reassured me that the monograph was still an appropriate scholarly approach for a dissertation, even at Yale, and I continued with my work.

As most of Stettheimer's paintings were stored in museum basements across the country, if her work was to be reconsidered, it had to be seen. I therefore wrote to several museums proposing a Stettheimer retrospective like the one organized by Marcel Duchamp at the Museum of Modern Art in 1946. Thomas Armstrong, then director of the Whitney Museum of American Art, asked me to present my Stettheimer exhibition proposal to the museum committee. The Whitney staff responded enthusiastically, and I signed a contract agreeing to organize a Stettheimer retrospective for the museum with my dissertation as the accompanying catalogue. We began having the artist's work photographed, and as I knew where most of the Stettheimer works were located, I organized a checklist for the exhibition and sent it to the Whitney registrar to initiate loans.

Soon thereafter, however, the museum's administration changed, and everything was temporarily put on hold. I was invited to again present the proposed exhibition to the museum's curatorial staff, who remained supportive. I was then invited to a planning meeting, where I found myself having to again defend the monographic approach to an exhibition advisor whose overriding interest was Stettheimer's sexual orientation

rather than her work. As a result, the central question I was asked during the meeting was whether I believed Stettheimer was a lesbian. The exhibition advisor suggested that rather than deal with her life chronologically, I revise the exhibition and catalogue essays to discuss Stettheimer's interaction with homosexual life in New York between the wars.

Again I was caught off guard. My main motivation remained to rescue Stettheimer from art historical oblivion by locating and presenting as much of her life and work as I could. A great deal of my work involved exploring how cultural assumptions and conditions prevented Stettheimer's professional development. I also discussed the sexual mores of her time in some depth. Nowhere, however, in all of my years of research, had I found explicit evidence of Stettheimer's sexual inclinations. Instead, from everything I read, Stettheimer appears to have spent her life as a virgin, with heterosexual inclinations. A number of her poems and paintings, as well as several early flirtations alluded to in her diaries, strongly suggest that she was attracted to, and greatly admired, the male physiognomy:

I adore men sunkissed and golden
Like gold gods
Like Pharaoh amber-anointed.[10]

In a poem describing her early life in Berlin, Stettheimer noted that although she enjoyed seeing men in uniform who had “superforms,” “they did not quite conform to my beauty norm / the Belvedere Apollo.”[11] Throughout her adult life, she kept a reproduction of that statue on her bedroom mantle, facing her bed.

There is no evidence that Stettheimer was attracted to other women. She recorded that others had compared her body to that of the celebrated Australian swimmer and outspoken feminist Annette Kellerman, but otherwise she rarely mentioned other women or included women other than her sisters and mother in her work. She had no close female friends. Her father's early betrayal by leaving the artist's family when she was very young left the artist and her sisters distrustful of marriage and wifedom. By the time she was engaged with the New York avant-garde and painting her best works, Stettheimer was in her fifties and sixties. Art making was her one abiding interest, and she resisted anything that impeded it. By that time, she preferred the company of creative men, many of whom were gay, who shared her interests

and did not threaten any romantic entanglements that would interfere with her independence or, more important, her work. In her paintings Stettheimer inevitably displayed herself working or holding artist's attributes such as brushes and palette. In the few exceptions to this, such as Portrait of Myself (Figure 13), Stettheimer portrayed herself as a large-eyed visionary who wears an artist's beret and has a slim androgynous body. Wrapped in cellophane and floating toward the sun, she is sexless and untouchable.

Convinced that Stettheimer's work deserved an in-depth, retrospective exhibition as well as a monograph—and that only afterward could her sexual inclinations and other similar issues be fully explored—I terminated my contract for the exhibition. Once it became known that the Whitney show was canceled, the director of the Katonah Museum of Art asked me to organize a Stettheimer exhibition for the museum.[12] Because the Katonah Museum has a reputation for fine exhibitions but limited space, I concentrated exclusively on Stettheimer's portraiture and the context of her interaction with her family and friends. The resulting show won recognition from the New York Times as one of the best exhibitions of 1993. However, a number of critics, while praising the initiative, asked when a more extensive overview of Stettheimer's work might finally materialize.

A year later, I heard that the Whitney was organizing a Stettheimer exhibition. I was alarmed, as the museum had my checklist with all the known locations of Stettheimer's work. I contacted the Whitney and, after negotiations, signed another contract, this time to serve as cocurator for the 1995 New York exhibition. The resulting Stettheimer show, although wonderful, was not a retrospective because the museum still was not interested in a monographic approach to Stettheimer, instead declaring itself to be “deeply committed to the idea of presenting multiple perspectives on historical and contemporary artists.”[13] Consequently, there were compromises made to include in the exhibition only the artist's later “masterworks,” painted when the artist was past her mid-forties. Nonetheless, Stettheimer's paintings glowed on the walls, and the exhibition was a great success in critical reception, visibility, attendance, and continuing influence.

The catalogue accompanying the Whitney exhibition was not my monograph but a collection of essays by different authors: the cocurator, Elizabeth Sussman; Linda Nochlin (her contribution a reprinting of a seminal 1980 article); and me. In the meantime I had


13. Florine Stettheimer, Portrait of Myself, 1923, oil on canvas

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contracted with Yale University Press to publish my dissertation as a Stettheimer monograph. Not wanting to usurp my own upcoming publication, I decided to write on an entirely new topic for the Whitney catalogue. My essay explored Stettheimer's unusual use of time and her inclusion in a single composition of several distinct events that could not actually happen at the same time. I was not particularly pleased with the results because my writing was rather dense and because I knew readers would not have the context of the monograph as background. Additionally, the Whitney catalogue, although beautifully designed, failed to answer basic questions, such as: How did Stettheimer's style develop? What was the broader context in which she worked? Whom do the figures and objects in her paintings represent? Unfortunately, the unusually fragile condition of many paintings makes it unlikely that there will be another significant Stettheimer exhibition in the future.

These experiences, alternately frustrating and amusing, greatly lengthened my research, forcing me to consider every challenge and reexamine both my motives and the evidence from within Stettheimer's works. Today I remain convinced of the necessity of the monographic approach in order to best serve the artist. How can one explain the evolution of Stettheimer's work from an academic Art Student's League style in the 1880s to the completely idiosyncratic look of her mature work after 1916? The radical change is intelligible only when pegged to events and contexts in Stettheimer's artistic development and life. As Carolyn Heilbrun states, “We are in danger of refining the theory and scholarship at the expense of the lives of the women who need to experience the fruits of research,” and she cites the need for biographers of women to “retrace in detail the history of a liberation.”[14]

Even so, Stettheimer's elusiveness, in both her life and work, makes any attempt at a developmental approach difficult. First, few primary materials remain. Whether from jealousy or an overdeveloped sense of privacy, Stettheimer's sister Ettie went through all her sister's diaries and correspondence in the 1950s, cutting out everything she did not like or deemed “too personal.” Repeatedly, while reading the letters and diaries, one catches traces of Stettheimer's voice, only to come to a standstill where Ettie destroyed pages. Such intimate vandalism, performed after the artist's death, makes Stettheimer all the more enigmatic. Further, while other artists (such as Jo Nivison Hopper) give us insight into their lives and perspectives in their diaries, Stettheimer's diaries only

occasionally deal with her work. After Ettie's severe editing, it is difficult to place many of the artist's comments or tie them with specific works, people, or incidents.

After Stettheimer's death, Ettie and her lawyer offered single Stettheimer paintings to museums across the country, where they were generally relegated to basement storage. In some cases, key works such as A Day at West Point were lost and have not resurfaced. The disappearance or deterioration of the extraordinary furniture that Stettheimer designed to correspond with her paintings as unified ensembles reflects American museums' relative lack of interest in the decorative arts. Much of that furniture was donated after her death to Columbia University's theater department, where it was used as stage furniture and gradually destroyed. Ettie and her lawyer gave Stettheimer's early gilded and plaster screens to the Museum of Modern Art, where they remain, in terrible condition, with no plans for their conservation. The artist's early work, studies, and scrapbooks went to the Columbia University library system and were accessible to the public for decades, so that they are now in very poor condition. The fragile cellophane and fabric dolls and maquettes that Stettheimer designed for two operas, Four Saints in Three Acts and Pocahontas, on which she collaborated with Virgil Thomson, were also given to the Columbia Library, where I found them wrapped in damaging newsprint and stuffed into boxes.[15]

In the course of my research I met and spoke with some of the few remaining people who had known Stettheimer. Unfortunately, the stories, facts, and dates changed depending on the occasion. Lincoln Kirsten, for example, who certainly knew Stettheimer, responded to my inquiry by saying, “I never knew Miss Stettheimer, I did not like her work, and I did not like her.” Virgil Thomson and John Houseman were more forthcoming.

The significant problems Stettheimer faced as a woman artist also worked against building a strict chronology of her work and development. During the first forty years of her life, there was no clear career path for women artists. Stettheimer had to create her own art training piecemeal. She traveled, read voraciously, and used her intelligence and awareness of art theory and connoisseurship to develop a wide-ranging knowledge. To fully understand references in her paintings I had to read extensively on artists from Japanese Ukiyo-e printmakers to van Gogh, Giotto, Botticelli, Velázquez, Giorgione, Raphael, Manet, and Matisse.


Although Stettheimer loved her paintings and wanted them to receive critical recognition, she chose never to sell them. The conflict between ambition for fame and what she felt was unacceptable behavior for a woman in her social position is evident throughout her career. Stettheimer did not need the income from sales and preferred to live with her work. She hoped eventually to give it as a complete, intact collection to a major museum. Although she exhibited widely in every significant exhibition of contemporary art during her lifetime, she always priced the work so that it would not sell. By such tight control (she turned down Stieglitz's offer of a gallery exhibition several times) she courted future obscurity, provoking Georgia O'Keeffe to comment caustically, if inaccurately, “I wish you would become ordinary like the rest of us and show your paintings.”[16] After her death, Stettheimer's disinclination to sell was interpreted as a bizarre eccentricity. Writers who neglected the artist's vast exhibition history have falsely claimed that she “refused to let her paintings leave her bedroom.”

An observer rather than a vocal participant, Stettheimer was unobtrusive at social gatherings. Some casual acquaintances interpreted this behavior as shyness and described her as sweet, “frail,” and delicate, a description that is contradicted by the often bitingly ironic cynicism and savagely aggressive wit revealed in her work. In what remains of the diaries, moreover, she emerges as a determined, driven feminist and a caustic, short-tempered snob who disliked hotels, pretension, Germans, and marriage. In one entry she noted, “A bath is still a luxury in Germany—in fact an acquired taste—oysters they are trying to master—but a bath is still a thing of the future.” In another instance, on seeing abandoned crutches and a corset on a hillside near Lourdes, France, Stettheimer exclaimed, “Someone left a corset behind—I should think lots of women would do that. I shed mine long ago—but never thought of donating it to anything.”[17] The poetry she wrote for her own pleasure reveals both sides of her personality:

Tame little kisses
One must give
To Uncles Nephews
And Nieces
And to friends
Who say you are charming
One does likewise
Nothing alarming.



Sweet little Miss Mouse
Wanted her own house
So she married Mr. Mole
And got only a hole.

In her paintings, Stettheimer sometimes made unkind references to friends and social contacts. In an early portrait of Avery Hopwood, for example, she placed him in front of a sign publicizing his most celebrated work, the bedroom farce Fair and Warmer. In the painting the words “Fair and” were partially obscured, so that the viewer's attention focused on “Warmer,” a slightly derogatory German colloquialism for “gay man.” In another work, Soirée, Stettheimer poked fun at Leo Stein, who was both egocentric and hard of hearing, by showing him in a one-sided conversation with Hopwood: Stein holds his hearing aid as far from his body as possible to avoid having to listen to what the playwright says.

Stettheimer's late development as a painter—she painted her mature works when she was in her late forties and continued well into her seventies—compounds the difficulties of accurately reading her work. Many acquaintances could not see beyond her superficial appearance and social demeanor as a middle-aged, unmarried woman to the sly, critical persona evident in her work. Marsden Hartley, for example, whom the Stettheimer sisters supported financially, described Stettheimer's work as “quaint” and “fanciful,” terming it the “ultra-lyrical expression of an ultra-feminine spirit.”[18] This characterization is distinctly at odds with the paintings and with the cynical and ironic tone of her diary and poems. Even today, our culture has trouble reconciling older women and innovation. Stettheimer clearly understood the dilemma of the creative, mature woman, as she acknowledged mordantly in her poem “Civilizers of the World”:

They like a woman to have a mind
They are of greater interest they find
They are not very young
Women of that kind.

Only several years into my work on the artist was I was able to identify the painting titled Nude in Columbia's storage basement as a selfportrait, painted when Stettheimer was forty-four (Figure 14). It is re


14. Florine Stettheimer, Nude, ca. 1915, oil on canvas

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markable that in 1915 Stettheimer had the temerity to display herself thus and to make so pointed a comparison with Manet's Olympia, a prostitute offering her wares for sale. In so doing, Stettheimer aggressively took on the genre of the female nude in Western art history and its gender implications. Her own lushly displayed body in the self-portrait is less the traditional subject of a man's voyeuristic gaze than an exaltation of a woman's experience of her middle-aged body. Undoubtedly the disjunction between art historical traditional expectations and Stettheimer's candid but ironic appropriation of them blinded her contemporaries and other art historians to her true subject matter in the work.

Stettheimer was the first woman artist whose work I explored in any depth, in part because few of my academic classes ever dealt with women artists.[19] I remember a feeling of epiphany when I realized that as a woman I might have an advantage in understanding her life and work. It also worked to my advantage, I believe, that although I began my research on Stettheimer when I was in my early thirties, I completed it a decade later. Like most biographers, I found my subject alternately brilliant, infuriating, boring, silly, horrifying, and frustrating. I worked

through each of those reactions and gradually gained greater perspective and hopefully objectivity on her work and life.

While writing on Stettheimer, I was often reminded of Thomas Hardy's statement in Far from the Madding Crowd: “It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in language that is chiefly made by men to express theirs.”[20] Stettheimer's work stretched the patriarchal language of modernism to its limits. Her work was conceptually challenging and innovative, but she consciously camouflaged those features with a frankly feminine style. It remains difficult, if not impossible, to imagine a twentieth-century man writing the following Stettheimer poem, though it solicits an ironic smile from most women who read it:

A human being
Saw my light
Rushed in
Got singed
Got scared
Rushed out
Called fire
Or it happened
That he tried
To subdue it
Or it happened
He tried to extinguish it
Never did a friend
Enjoy it,
The way it was.
So I learned to
Turn it low
Turn it out
When I meet a stranger—
Out of courtesy
I turn on a soft
Pink light
Which is found modest
Even charming.
It is protection
Against wear
And tears…
And when
I am rid of
The Always to be

I turn on my light
And become

The largely autobiographical and contextual nature of Stettheimer's work necessitates knowledge of her life and interests, her acquaintances, and current events. Without such understanding, we risk misreading and possibly dismissing the work of a significant and influential twentieth-century artist.


1. I take no credit for the Metropolitan Museum's decision to show the works. In the past the museum has hung an occasional Stettheimer painting in exhibitions of their permanent collection. However, since the publicity brought about by the publication of the monograph and the Whitney exhibition, the frequency and prominence with which museums across the country exhibit Stettheimer's works have dramatically increased. [BACK]

2. I was fortunate that Robert Ferris Thompson and Skip Gates were teaching at Yale and I was able to sit in on lectures and seminars in the company of fellow graduate students Judith Wilson and Richard Powell. All influenced my subsequent work. [BACK]

3. My work in African American art, with its implications of “otherness,” initially led me to explore Charles Demuth's poster-portraits as a dissertation topic—the artist was both male and homosexual, and the work centered on the significant figures of American modernism. Concurrently I was also considering Thomas Eakins's images of women, again because I was interested in the notion of looking through another's eyes at difference. The idea of male artists capturing images of women was intriguing. When I saw Stettheimer's work, however, it quickly proved the most absorbing and irresistible topic. Her paintings were enigmatic and transgressive in terms of how American modernism had been defined in my studies to date. In addition, researching a woman artist appealed to me, particularly one who, in her caustic wit and her struggle to balance personal and professional life, reminded me of my Austrian grandmother. Once I began my Stettheimer research, however, her work and life proved so complex that I soon discarded such superficial comparisons. [BACK]

4. For example, in N.E. Lahti's Plain Talk about Art (Brooklyn, N.Y.: York Books, 1988), 84, modernism is defined as “the theory of Modern Art rejecting past styles.” [BACK]

5. Nancy K. Miller, introduction to Writing a Woman's Life, by Caroline Heilbrun (New York: Ballantine Books, 1988), 11. [BACK]

6. Stettheimer and O'Keeffe were the only women artists whose work was included in the 1938 exhibition of American art organized by the Museum of Modern Art to travel to the Jeu de Paume Museum in Paris. It was the first ex

hibition of its kind, and Stettheimer initially refused to participate because of her dislike of the Museum of Modern Art's New York exhibition walls. She relented after Tom Mabry, the Modern's curator, wrote to her, pleading, “I write this only because I want the exhibition to represent our best painters. We would lose much if none was in it by you.” Quoted in Barbara J. Bloemink The Life and Art of Florine Stettheimer (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1995), 213. Stettheimer's correspondence and diaries are located at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University. [BACK]

7. Most notably Linda Nochlin in her article “Florine Stettheimer: Rococo Subversive,” Art in America 68 (September 1980): 64–83, reprinted in Florine Stettheimer, Manhattan Fantastica, ed. Barbara J. Bloemink and Elizabeth Sussman (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1995). In 1976 the artist Barbara Zucker wrote about Stettheimer's work in “An Autobiography of Visual Poems,” Art News 76 (February 1977): 68–73. [BACK]

8. In writing about the life of the artist, an interesting problem arose: How to avoid the trivializing use of her first name? All three Stettheimer sisters were artists in their own right, and they lived together for at least the first fifty years of their lives. How, then, to distinguish between Florine Stettheimer the painter and designer, Ettie Stettheimer the novelist, and Carrie Stettheimer the hostess and dollhouse maker, not to mention their mother, Rosetta, or their other siblings? Finally, I used the American painter Charles Peale's family as a model. Although I tried to use Stettheimer's last name as often as possible, on occasion, for clarity, I was forced to use her first name. [BACK]

9. Ettie Stettheimer, introduction to Crystal Flowers, by Florine Stettheimer (New York: privately printed, 1949), unpaginated. [BACK]

10. Stettheimer, untitled poem in Crystal Flowers. Handwritten versions of the poems in this book, with some revisions, are in the Stettheimer Papers at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. [BACK]

11. Ibid. [BACK]

12. The Katonah Museum of Art is located about 50 miles north of Manhattan. George King was then director of the museum. I remain grateful to him and to Katherine Moore and Athena Kimball for their efforts on behalf of the exhibition. [BACK]

13. Quotation from 1994 letter to the author from the director of the Whitney Museum of American Art. It is worth noting that later that same year the Whitney mounted a major retrospective with a monographic catalogue on Stettheimer's male contemporary Joseph Stella. In its organization, catalogue, and orientation, the Stella exhibition was very similar to monographic/retrospective exhibitions the museum had organized earlier on Charles Demuth, Marsden Hartley, and Arthur Dove—again, all male contemporaries of Stettheimer. It is also telling that the National Gallery in Washington, and not the Whitney, organized the retrospective exhibition of Stettheimer's only significant female contemporary, Georgia O'Keeffe. [BACK]

14. Heilbrun, Writing a Woman's Life, 50. [BACK]

15. With permission of the head librarian, I was able to sort through the dolls, separate them into the two different productions, and wrap them in less

destructive materials. They are no longer available for public viewing without special permission. [BACK]

16. Letter from Georgia O'Keeffe to Florine Stettheimer, October 7, 1929, Stettheimer Papers, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. [BACK]

17. Stettheimer's correspondence and edited diaries are located in the Stettheimer collections at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. [BACK]

18. Marsden Hartley, “The Paintings of Florine Stettheimer,” Creative Art 9 (July 1931): 19. [BACK]

19. At Stanford University in the early 1970s, none of the many art history classes that I took mentioned women artists. In the early 1980s, at Yale, the only women artists mentioned in art history courses were Berthe Morisot, Mary Cassatt, Rosa Bonheur, and Mrs. Thomas Eakins, who was an artist but who was mainly referenced as one of her husband's sitters. [BACK]

20. Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd (1919; reprint, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991), 182. [BACK]

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