This online exhibition focuses on the formative years and academic training of the American avant-garde artist Florine Stettheimer (1871-1944), leading up to her first and only solo exhibition in her lifetime in 1916 at Knoedler & Co. in New York City. Renewed interest in Stettheimer’s contributions to modern art has led to recent critically-acclaimed exhibitions, including at the Lenbachhaus Kunstbau in Munich and The Jewish Museum in New York. However, to date, no exhibition has focused exclusively on her artistic development prior to her settling permanently in New York at the outbreak of World War I. Columbia University received a gift of Stettheimer’s artwork in 1967 from the estate of her sister Henrietta (Ettie) Stettheimer, including Self-Portrait with Paradise Birds painted in the early 1900s, and thus holds the largest collection of the artist’s paintings, drawings and designs in the world. As a result, Columbia is in the unique position to best showcase the artist’s early oeuvre, in particular in 2021 as we commemorate her 150th birthday.
The exhibition, curated by candidates in the MA in Art History in the Department of Art History and Archaeology, comprises Stettheimer paintings, drawings and sketchbooks in the collections of Art Properties, Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, and the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Columbia. It is divided into four themes, titled The Life Study, Spaces of Femininity, The Organic in Nature and The “Eye-gay,” reflecting the breadth of styles, genres and media that Stettheimer engaged with from her teenage years and that laid the foundation for the later modernist aesthetic for which she is best known. Initially planned as a physical exhibition in Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, this project was reconceived as an online exhibition due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While the four themes remained the same, the online format allowed the curators to expand the number of works presented, many of which have never been shown to the public or even reproduced until now.
– Frédérique Baumgartner and Roberto C. Ferrari
The Life Study
By Zhirui Guan and Shuni Zhu
While Florine Stettheimer’s mature style that developed from the late 1910s has earned her a place in the history of American avant-garde painting, her earlier years as an artist have not been studied as much. During her teenage years, while living in Stuttgart and Berlin, Stettheimer received a rigorous academic education usually reserved for male students. Her formal training culminated in 1892 when she enrolled in New York’s recently founded Art Students League (1875), the country’s first art school with a curriculum similar to that of art schools in Europe. However, unlike the latter, which had instituted gender constraints for centuries, the Art Students League was among the first academies in the United States to offer life-drawing lessons to its female students. Stettheimer, while able to enter such an academic environment considering her privileged socio-economic background, could mostly access life models of her own sex.
As the academic studies exhibited here show, Stettheimer took advantage of the opportunity to work from the female life model to hone her skills in observation and familiarize herself with the anatomy of the human body. Two of the three oil-painted studies on view, Nude Study, Standing with Hands Clasped and Nude Study, Seated with Head Turned, are unfinished works, the model’s calves and feet simply sketched on the bare canvas. The model’s head, with distinctive red hair, is shown frontally, then in lost-profile. The sitting nude, turning her gaze away and slightly hunching her back, is rendered with a close attention to the interaction of light and shade and is competently modeled in both line and color. The gradation of the soft tones on her right thigh, arm and shoulder are the results of a deft handling of paint. The rippling shadows of the skin, captured in the two charcoal sketches, Nude Study, Standing, Back View and Nude Study, Standing, Side View, with Hands Clasped, are also striking in their closeness to imitating the texture of human flesh. Taking into account the unconventional nature of female artists working from life models at the time, these nude studies are especially provocative products of Stettheimer’s academic years. The training she received at the Art Students League shaped her in both skill and style, paving the way for her resolutely modernist rendering of the female nude, epitomized by A Model (Nude Self-Portrait) from ca. 1915.
Spaces of Femininity
By Sarah Faulkner, Ana-Sofia Meneses and Nínive Vargas de la Peña
Florine Stettheimer told many stories about women through her art, including during her early years. As a young woman, she occupied the same “spaces of femininity” that Impressionist women artists depicted as part of their contribution to modern painting and experience, as Griselda Pollock has compellingly argued. The women appearing in the Stettheimer drawings on view here were part of the European and North American high society that the artist belonged to. On the one hand, she was intimately familiar, by virtue of her gender and wealth, with the activities represented here – getting dressed (Woman Putting on a Stocking), reading (Woman Reading on a Porch), getting fresh air in scenic Vulpera, Switzerland (Woman in Blue Hat). On the other hand, Stettheimer did not simply lead a life of leisure while traveling throughout Europe from 1892 until her definitive return to New York in 1914; she also worked constantly, indeed with the determination of a professional artist in the making. In fact, a drawing such as Woman Reading on a Porch, showing a strong affinity with Mary Cassatt’s art that Stettheimer must have seen in the 1890s-1910s, is reminding us that the artist seized every opportunity to look at art and experimented with many different styles during her early career.
Three of the watercolors on view – Women Sitting on a Bench in a Park, Woman in Yellow Coat Sitting on Bench and Women Sitting on a Bench Among Trees – depict the protagonists in grand landscapes, sometimes sharing an intimate moment. The anonymous figures do not engage with the viewer and are as naturally composed as the trees around them. The space belongs to them, and they deserve to remain undisturbed. In contrast, Portrait of the Artist’s Mother captures the likeness of Rosetta Stettheimer, née Walter, who set the matriarchal tone of Stettheimer’s upbringing. This delicate charcoal study shows Rosetta with downcast eyes and a focused expression, as in Woman Seated in Black with Bird, though the former demonstrates more advanced draughtsmanship, just like the charcoal nudes shown in “The Life Study” section of the exhibition. Stettheimer connected with the women represented in the drawings featured here through shared experiences, whether she knew them intimately or not.
The Organic in Nature
By Luming Guan and Katie Pratt-Thompson
As she traveled throughout Germany, France, Switzerland and Italy from 1892 to 1914 in the company of her family, Florine Stettheimer depicted what she observed around her in her sketchbooks. In addition to portraying women from her privileged milieu, as shown in “Spaces of Femininity,” the artist executed many watercolor drawings of verdant landscapes, resulting from trips to various regions and demonstrating her unique interpretation of nature. Indeed, these drawings register her viewpoint as an artist extracting ideas from her travels and interpreting the natural spaces of her surroundings. With their diverse types and astonishing “figural” forms, trees constituted not only the background staffage of her compositions, as in Women Sitting on a Bench in a Park shown earlier, but also the dynamic embodiment of a human-like presence. Thoughtfully individualized, the artist’s studies of nature prompt the viewer to consider the connection between her arboreal studies and the human form.
Stettheimer’s sketchbooks housed at Columbia have rarely been shown. The ones displayed here illuminate a kinship between the anthropomorphic tree and the figurative form. Both the curvature of the trunk in Four Trees and the reaching appendages of its branches, articulated through the fluid medium of watercolor, echo the vibrant movement of the human body. In Study of a Tree Trunk, the exposed roots of the tree create an entanglement of limbs beneath the surface of the earth. Stettheimer’s early tree studies illustrate the way she animated objects and spaces of her surroundings and anticipates her elongated and androgynous representations of figures in her later panel paintings. Such figures make an early appearance in Landscape No. 2 with Bathers, on view here next to its study. Considered alongside the artist’s later work, such as Portrait of My Sister, Ettie Stettheimer where Ettie’s undulating body spreads diagonally across the composition, the figure-like quality of Tree with Leaning Branch is perhaps best understood not simply as a documentation, but as an indication of the artist’s proclivity toward the human form.
By Laleh Javaheri-Saatchi and Clara Zevi
Flowers are a frequent motif in Florine Stettheimer’s art. Her innate attraction to flowers is already present in her earliest work, as shown by Study of Bouquet, a delicate pencil drawing annotated with the words “12 years old” made during her training years in Germany. Her blooms with twisting stems are detailed and lively, with great care afforded to representing different flower varieties, including a rose in full bloom in the center, combined with morning glories and nasturtiums. Floral bouquets are a recurring subject of her early painterly work. A watercolor of a mixed bouquet in a clear vase bursts with colors, each stem deliberate and detailed, inspiring pleasure not only in the shapes of the flowers but also in the tasteful arrangement of white and pink carnations, purple bluebells and a single stem of yellow gladiola. Stettheimer was well-known in her circle for the floral arrangements she assiduously prepared and for the garden she tended to whenever her family sojourned in the countryside. Her own name, Florine, is derived from Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers and the subject of Stettheimer’s 1907 painting Spring featuring Flora in the center.
Stettheimer made her love of flowers explicit in her many bouquet paintings, for which she coined the term “eye-gay,” a play on the term “nose-gay” that emphasizes the visual rather than olfactory pleasure that her bouquets were intended to stimulate. Flower Bouquet No. 3, depicting four freshly blooming flowers brightly colored and held together in a green fringed receptacle, shows a development in style from her previous depictions of flowers that will only intensify in later years. No longer purely descriptive, her bouquet is now whimsical, bold and highly expressive. The silvery fringes that encircle the bouquet and dress the frame are a reminder of Stettheimer’s lifelong interest in design and ornament. Each flower has a persona, as was already the case in Flowers with Aphrodite. This individuality in character is reminiscent of the organic shapes of trees characteristic of the sketches displayed in “The Organic in Nature.” There is a clear evolution of style and form from the precise penciled drawing of a girl to the sophisticated blooms of the mature painter. Stettheimer, as she is photographed ca. 1917-20 in a flowery dress surrounded by vegetation and flora (Florine Stettheimer Leaning on a Sundial), always returned to her primal love.