Florine Stettheimer- A Life in Art by Parker Tyler

By Franklin Hill Perrell

Florine Stettheimer- A Life in Art by Parker Tyler
(Published 1963, Farrar, Strauss, and Company, Inc.)
Book designed by Patricia de Groot
“Prelude” by Carl Van Vechten

I had the good fortune to be given this book by my family when I was twelve years of age. The book was published in 1963, and this was three years after that. Looking at it now, I realize better what it meant to me. First, the introduction by Carl Van Vechten – famed as both a literary figure, critic and novelist, as well as photographer, created a link to the intellectual world of NY from the 30’s to the 50’s with reference spanning the Algonquin Round Table to the Harlem Renaissnce. Stettheimer’s collaboration with Virgil Thomson evoked a living figure who was enjoying then a vogue for his recordings; Gertrude Stein as well, the other collaborator (d. 1944), also was very much in style during the 60s, everyone having read Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.

It was the painting of Florine Stettheimer (1871-1944) herself that somehow resonated in the most concrete way. I suspect that first, there was some subliminal idealism in the representation of a painter who essentially wouldn’t sell her work. Her color sense, which Tyler dwells on emphatically in his writing, was the feature that impacted me the most. This was on some level fauve, in that the colors were often not terribly naturalistic: they had a life of their own, intensely saturated and often pure, with a wide range both of high keyed hues as well as pastels. Naturalistic to a degree, they were not altogether wild, but vivid, lively, and vibrant, emphatically. I loved the way they knit together with an equal level of tonal intensity throughout any composition, and communicate so well their imaginative and delicate message.

That some contemporary critics of the 2010’s ascribe to Florine a message of social realism is so beside the point of her paintings. They are moreover an expression of delight in her friends and her surroundings. That she achieved a breakthrough style, unlike any artist, at the age of 44, upon her return (1914) with her family from an extended stay, more than a decade in Europe, suddenly to drop her academic training and produce works in this new approach (some describe as faux naïf) is astonishing. Tyler speculates extensively about the underlying symbolism of color, accounting for it with snippets from Florine’s statements about color theory and motifs of male vs. female. I’m not sure that such was the reason. I’m inclined to think that when it came down to the actual making of the painting, intellectualism was subordinate to the fact that certain combinations simply felt right. The role of intuition in this kind of painting (and most art, in general) cannot be over-emphasized. Non artists insist there must be a logical explanation to an artist’s approach, but this attitude is over-worked.

Tyler endeavored to write a book the eschewed chronology and sought to evoke the soul and inner life of the artist. While the two had met, their acquaintance was limited, but Tyler was still a great choice as writer (he was selected by the executor for Florine’s heir, her sister Ettie Stetheimer). Tyler knew everyone who counted in the Stettheimer circle. He conjures up vividly an atmosphere, cloistered and privileged to be sure, but a life in which aesthetic pursuits and individualism were the sole interest.

Florine Stetheimer is a peculiar case in terms of career. It seems she is posthumously re-discovered about every twenty years, and each generation frames her importance in terms of the prevailing philosophy of a given moment. The multiple characters and settings portrayed lends itself beautifully to this sequence of changing attitudes.

Notably, her seeming obscurity is a function only of the market place. She has always had her audience within a certain group. Having her sole gallery exhibition in 1916, and selling nothing, she took a position that Van Vechten described as a “grievance complex.” New works were inaugurated in her elegant studio, for select friends, in an unveiling she described as a “birthday party.” One intended advance directive, the artist foreseeing her own demise, was her plan that the works adorn her mausoleum; another recommendation she proposed was their destruction, perhaps to be cremated along with the body.

Fortunately, her surviving sister, Ettie took neither approach. Their mutual friend, Marcel Duchamp arranged an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, two years after the artist’s passing, and then donations of works were made to museums around the country. That these were accepted by institutions such as MOMA, the Metropolitan Museum, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Boston Museum of Fine Arts affirms that even then, mid 1940s, serious people in the art world recognized her importance. However, it appears there was no estate active as a business with works for sale, and no ongoing gallery representation. The greatest concentration of Stettheimer paintings, seemingly everything remaining, went to Columbia. Thus surviving examples of her work, on the market, are exceedingly rare. Provenance of some works affirms that people in her circle owned works: but, these are exceedingly uncommon.

I am very glad that this volume, by Parker Tyler, came into my possession so early in my life, and that I have never given it up.

In my experience as a curator, over more than thirty years, I saw to it that a painting by Stetheimer was included in any exhibition where an available work might fit. I was always convinced of her importance. The present exhibition at the Jewish Museum, with its theme of “Painting Poetry” is a fabulous tribute to the artists and a perfect introduction for those unacquainted with her work and an enrichment, beautifully installed, for those who do. Incidentally, Van Vechten,whose photographs (and Stettheimer portrait) are well represented in the exhibition, as an artist, followed Florine’s examples, and eschewed commercializing his career on the marketplace. A novel approach!

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