New York

Florine Stettheimer

Columbia University

Florine Stettheimer (1871–1944) was as ultrasophisticated as she was primitivistic. Her mature paintings—one of the very best is, I think, a circus picture in the Hartford Atheneum—combine a delicately dematerialized Rococo handling of the figure, in an airy space, with an orange icelike brightness of hue.

From February to March, Columbia University exhibited more than 60 of Stettheimer’s paintings, watercolors, and drawings, together with sketchbooks and scenographic projects, in the rotunda of Low Memorial Library. The works, which comprise a gift to the University of the Ettie Stettheimer estate, are mostly undated, but they represent mainly the earlier part of the artist’s production, before she refined what an anthologist would consider to be her definitive style. For that reason, it is interesting to see both her more academic origins, which were actually European, and also works that show her coming into her own. Girl at the Well, a large Symbolistic nude that calls to mind the immense popularity of Ingres’ La Source, is a good example of the former, and one that relates to the Americanism of A.B. Davies as well; small landscape studies like Dinard and the sketch Path in the Woods show how good she was even while painting straight. Examples of the other category tend to be in a Bonnardian vein, like Two Flower Vases and Statue of Aphrodite. Works such as George Washington in New York and Sketch for Love Flight of a Pink Candy Heart show Stettheimer in full command of an idiosyncratic but convincing modernism whose very thinness and compositional slackness can seem all the more timely.

The most intrinsically satisfying work is a full length Portrait of My Sister Carrie in White Dress, in which the head presses up into a dark upper area jammed with Klimtlike leaves. Historically interesting are two sets of costumed dolls which are actually Stettheimer’s designs for the staging of the premiere of Gertrude Stein’s and Virgil Thomson’s opera Four Saints in Three Acts (1934).

––Joseph Masheck