Florine Stettheimer was an American painter of the Modernism, she was also a theatrical designer, poet, salonnière and feminist. Stettheimer developed a theatrical painting style while depicting her friends and experiences of New York, but she is best known for her four monumental works illustrating what she considered to be New York City’s “Cathedrals”: Broadway, Wall Street, Fifth Avenue and NY’s three major art museums.
She demonstrated artistic talent as a child, and in 1892 she enrolled in a four-year program at the Art Students League in New York, a school modelled on the private art school of Paris. There she mastered painting realistic, traditional, academic portraiture and nudes in both primary European styles.
Stettheimer filled her painting with bright, and often unmixed, primary colours against a flat white background, and many small highly detailed humorous touches. The primary colours were used as accents and often symbolically. Her paintings depicted controversial issues of race and sexual preference, she also depicted the leisure activities and parties of her family and friends. And with her sisters, she hosted a salon that attracted members of the avant-garde.
One of the distinctive features of her work is the biting humour, which is evident in many small narrative details of her compositions, like the small altar boy trying to peek under the bride’s gown in Cathedrals of Fifth Avenue (1931). She also filled compositions with visual performances of individually recognisable figures, arranged around actual prominent locations and detailed architecture.
The 1920s were Stettheimer’s most prolific period. She painted several individual portraits of male friends, family, and herself. Instead of trying to reproduce what the sitter looked like, her portraits reveal the personality of the sitters through illustrating a mixture of their habits, vocations, accomplishments, and contexts.
During the 1930s, she dedicated most of her time on her stage designs and costumes for Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson’s opera Four Saints in Three Acts and two of her Cathedral paintings. Some of her work of this period were increasingly introspective and returned to her familiar subject matter and locations.
Throughout Stettheimer’s life her work was mentioned favourably by critics reviewing the exhibitions in which she exposed. Some of them have considered her work as a representation of an international style of modernism that are sensorily and sensually charged, and they were talking about not only her paintings, but her poems too.
- Stettheimer taught herself art history by visiting museums and art galleries in France, Italy, Spain, and Germany. She studied the Old Masters and critique their works in her diaries.
- She felt captivated by the staging and choreography of Serge Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes in Paris in 1912; she even created a libretto, costumes, and sets for an opera of her own called Orphée des Quat’z Arts.
- During her lifetime, she exhibited her work at more than 40 museums exhibitions and salons in New York and Paris, but only one solo exhibition, it was at Knoedler in 1916.
- She painted what is considered as the first feminist nude self-portrait.