Ornate unlike Duchamp: on Florine Stettheimer at the Jewish Museum

So much has been made of Florine Stettheimer’s life and social position that walking into Painting Poetry, a show of her paintings at the Jewish Museum in New York, is almost startling. Confronted with her Family Portrait II (1933) immediately upon entering the exhibition, her mastery of painting is clear, and it promptly supersedes talk of her family’s money, their Jewishness and her feminism, as well as the stories about her sisters, their salons and their famous friends. Seemingly bursting from the canvas, a larger-than-life crimson flower shares the centre of the picture with two other flowers, one pink, one white. The roots of each are entwined impastos of white and green. The four women in the picture—Stettheimer, two of her sisters, Ettie and Carrie, and their mother—are all depicted in an elongated, almost-Mannerist style: pictorial embodiments of consummate elegance. Throughout are Symbolist-style references: a book in her sister Ettie’s lap, the Chrysler Building, the address where the women lived and, unsurprisingly, Stettheimer’s palette in hand.

Painting Poetry brings together a selection of works from throughout Stettheimer’s career, attempting a chronological account of her life and art. It’s a befitting approach, yet it somehow doesn’t do justice to the dynamism of the artist and her work. This is a gorgeous exhibition and a deserving artist, yet rather than extrapolating the complexities of Stettheimer and her career, it’s almost as if the easier aspects of her oeuvre and her role in art history (like her place in Gilded Age New York as a salonista with an audacious sensibility) are highlighted while the nuances are left in limbo.

When moving the dialogue away from Stettheimer’s biography and into more critical terrain, the curators put an emphasis on her relationship with Marcel Duchamp. A dear friend of Stettheimer, the master trickster looms large. An image of his 1917 Fountain is included in the catalogue along with reference to all the Stettheimer works in which he is featured, while his portrait of her, in pencil on paper from 1925, is presented just after Family Portrait II, alongside Stettheimer family memorabilia.

Beyond an installation of ornately detailed drawings, maquettes and sculptures that Stettheimer made in 1912 after she saw a ballet by Claude DeBussey is a room presenting a series of mostly smaller-scale portraits. One wall is lined with three pictures of women: Stettheimer, Ettie and Carrie. The women’s eyes are depicted with red lines, to strange, ethereal effect. Along the opposite wall are Stettheimer’s whimsical, illustration-like images of men, including the photographer Baron de Meyer, the art critic Henry McBride and Duchamp and his female alter-ego, Rrose Selavy.

  • Florine Stettheimer’s Beauty Contest: To the Memory of P.T. Barnum, (1924), which belongs to the Wadsworth Athenaeum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut

  • Florine Stettheimer, Portrait of Marcel Duchamp (1923-1926). (Courtesy the Michele and Donald DíAmour Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, Massachusetts. Photograph by David Stansbury)

On the room’s other two walls are Stettheimer’s A Model (1915) (considered by some art historians to be the first full-body, nude self-portrait painted by a woman in the lineage of works like Manet’s Olympia) and her 1926 oil-on-canvas portrait of Duchamp’s disembodied head. His face, in shades of grey, is missing something, as if to emphasise that his sentience is cerebral rather than physical. It’s a sharp counter to another, more sensual work, where Stettheimer had painted herself holding a bouquet of lush flowers. Because it is hung just above Stettheimer’s self-portrait, one cannot help but imagine Duchamp gazing down on her lithe figure. It’s a curious installation, to say the least. Instead of allowing the painting—one of Stettheimer’s masterpieces—to command its own space, there is a forced mediation through Duchamp.

In addition to the pictures they made of each other, Duchamp was a regular visitor at Stettheimer’s salons and he organised her first museum exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art two years after her death in 1944. Yet the decision to emphasise Duchamp’s influence on Stettheimer pushes status quo art history rather than challenging the narrative. Instead of leaning on the fame of Duchamp, it would have been more enlightening, for instance, to see greater attention paid to Stettheimer’s undated Self-Portrait with Palette (Painter and Faun). Here, the artist, dressed all in white with red high heels, sits on a bench painting, her back against a tree. Below her is a small island of green grass amidst a dry field. Embedded within the smooth skin of her face, her eyes convey a subtle intensity. The titular faun, an androgynous human form with vacant eyes, sits leaning on the other side of the tree, its knees pulled to into its chest, in a position that is somehow one of agony. Despite being one of the most psychologically-charged and perhaps revealing works in the exhibition it is installed in isolation with no accompanying discourse.

Stettheimer is defined in part by her love of decoration, frills and luxury. Family portraits are notably opulent: her home is gilded and even her studio had tasseled tablecloths and a chandelier. Duchamp, on the other hand, when asked by Calvin Tomkins about the Matisse paintings in his home, replied: “Well, they belong to my wife, and I accept them… I could live with the worst calendar picture, and with any sort of furniture, because I never put taste in my life. Taste is an experience that I try not to let come into my life. Bad, good, or indifferent, it doesn’t come in. I’m so against interior decorations.”

One’s domestic decor isn’t necessarily a defining characteristic. Yet Duchamp and Stettheimer were artists; decor was not a passive decision. It was, for both of them, part of the way in which they understood themselves. While Stettheimer refused to stifle her love of ornament, Duchamp denied any appeal to aesthetics whatsoever. What can we make of this fundamental difference, or of Duchamp’s simultaneous dismissal of taste and his celebration of Stettheimer? Perhaps he didn’t disregard beauty as much as he said he did. Perhaps he knew, like Stettheimer did, that painting can be ravishing, intelligent and self-aware.

Sara Roffino is a writer and researcher based in New York.

Florine Stettheimer: Painting Poetry, Jewish Museum, New York, until 24 September

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