Florine Stettheimer, Asbury Park South, 1920, oil on canvas, 50 × 60".

Florine Stettheimer, Asbury Park South, 1920, oil on canvas, 50 × 60".

Florine Stettheimer

Florine Stettheimer, Asbury Park South, 1920, oil on canvas, 50 × 60".

At first glance, the paintings of Florine Stettheimer (1871–1944) seem to be sugary confections, products belonging to a girly dream world wrapped in cotton wool and swathed in cellophane, an oblivious indulgence in gaudy luxuries and outlandish tastes, a resolutely private solar system unto itself in which the artist, her sisters Ettie and Carrie, their mother, and the regulars of their salon—Marcel Duchamp, Elie Nadelman, Carl Van Vechten, among others—revolve around each other at close range. That, at least, is the impression one might take away from the richly figured pastel-colored pictures in which Stettheimer captured her bohemian life in New York in an apparently naive and insouciant style. By presenting the first European retrospective of Stettheimer’s unconventional painterly oeuvre, Lenbachhaus in Munich has raised the question of what to make of her art, which departs from the canon of Western art history. How does one address the marginal position she has hitherto occupied?

The reality of Stettheimer’s life is hard to distinguish from the persona she fashioned and the lifestyle she and her sisters adopted. We know that her father—who, like her mother, came from a banking family of German-Jewish ancestry—abandoned the family early on. The three youngest daughters remained unwed and lived with their mother until her death, presumably because of a conventional trust-fund arrangement that gave unmarried daughters of the upper classes considerable incomes under their own control. For women in their situation, marrying and starting a family meant the cessation of these payments and legal and financial submission to their husbands. So however eccentric the living arrangements of the four Stettheimer ladies—the “Stetties,” as they were known—may seem today, they were a consequence of quite specific social conditions.

Outsider status was something Stettheimer deliberately cultivated. She did not come into her own as a painter until 1914, when, in her midforties, she permanently returned to the United States after long stays in Europe with her family. Her first and only solo exhibition, at M. Knoedler & Co. in 1916, was a commercial flop, and she vowed never to repeat the experience. She nonetheless contributed to numerous American and international group shows and was held in high esteem by leading curators, artists, and critics. Two years after her death, at Duchamp’s urging, the Museum of Modern Art mounted a retrospective of her oeuvre. To the artists who frequented her salon—among them Albert Gleizes, Francis Picabia, and Edward Steichen, along with those already mentioned—Stettheimer was by no means what Rousseau had been to the Cubists; she was not the circle’s naïf or primitive. Her works were regarded as thoroughly contemporary creations.

Stettheimer’s pictures are less the products of a hermetically sealed and diligently staged dollhouse world than direct responses, in terms of style as well as substance, to tendencies of her time. When one considers Stettheimer’s work in this light, the Harlem Renaissance in particular merits greater emphasis than the catalogue and the exhibition have placed on it. Van Vechten, whom Stettheimer portrayed on several occasions, may be regarded as a key figure in this regard: His scandalous novel Nigger Heaven, published in 1926, plunged deep into the world of Harlem’s African American artists. No less important is the use of gay codes and homoerotic allusions in his novels. Stettheimer’s pictures echo these themes, not only in the recurring sexual ambivalence of her protagonists (Duchamp as Rrose Sélavy, Nijinsky’s feminine pose in Le spectre de la rose), but also in the definite stances she took on issues such as racial segregation (Asbury Park South, 1920) and rampant consumerism (The Cathedrals of Fifth Avenue, 1931, not included in this exhibition). While solipsistic aestheticism and the self-satisfied contentment of the salon are part of Stettheimer’s program, they are far from the whole story: It was for good reason that Linda Nochlin would dub her a “rococo subversive.”

Daniela Stöppel

Translated from German by Gerrit Jackson.