I first came across the work of Florine Stettheimer during a summer internship at the Detroit Institute of Arts. On one of my first days at the museum, I was toured around the galleries by the lead curator of the American Art Department where I was interning. Along the tour we made stops in front of Frederick Edwin Church’s “Cotopaxi”, numerous John Singer Sargent works, James Abbott McNeill Whistler‘s “Nocturne”, and many other examples of some of the most important works of American Art. But my eye continued to return to Stettheimer. The work at the DIA, “Love Flight of a Pink Candy Heart” is a perfect indication of her style – whimsical and sharp social commentary rendered in bright colors.
Detroit declared bankruptcy midway through my internship, and the city was threatening to pillage the museum to repay its debts. I may have been attracted to Stettheimer’s whimsy and brightness as an escape during this stressful time – it’s hard to say exactly. All I know is as the summer came to an end, my interest in Stettheimer’s work had not waned. I ended up writing my senior thesis on her oeuvre and trolling the internet for books on her work. What I found most fascinating is that Florine’s talents were hardly limited to painting alone. She was an accomplished musician, poet, designer and stylist who also hosted well-known salons attended by the likes of Marcel Duchamp and Gertrude Stein. She was a true renaissance woman.
I was absolutely delighted this past summer when the Jewish Museum opened an exhibit dedicated to the artist entitled “Florine Stettheimer: Painting Poetry.” With over 50 works displayed across multiple genres, the exhibit created a true 360 view of the artist and her sensibilities. At the bookshop afterwards, I picked up a copy of Crystal Flowers: Poems and a Libretto which was originally published by her sister upon Florine’s death, and re-issued in 2010. The poems have so many astute observations, not only of the beauty around us, but also critiques of society through subtle word play. One of my favorite poems is “This Morning” (below) because of its vivid and creative descriptions.
By a blue
The speck-like boats
With pointed sails
In a honey-sea.
Crystal Flowers also includes Stettheimer’s Libretto for “Orphée of the Quat-z-Arts,” a ballet she conceived after finding inspiration in Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Stettheimer designed sets and costumes for “Orphée of the Quat-z-Arts” or “The Revelers of the 4 Arts Ball.” Unfortunately, the show was never produced, but it’s easy to believe it would have been fantastic based on the designs (example below). Crystal Flowers is truly the culmination of all my favorite art forms in one volume, and it brightens my spirits every time I open a page!
Another great way to see Stettheimer’s work first-hand is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A room in the 20th Century wing displays (what I think is) Stettheimer’s best work: her “Cathedrals” series. The series features four monumental paintings that are sensational visions of New York’s important institutions – “The Cathedrals of Art”, “The Cathedrals of Broadway”, “The Cathedrals of Wall Street” and “The Cathedrals of Fifth Avenue.” These works are so intricate and colorful, I encourage everyone to try and see them in person if possible.
Fun fact: Florine often painted herself into her works, and we can see her in the bottom right-hand corner of “The Cathedrals of Art” holding a bouquet of flowers. Can you spot her in any of the other three?
I love that my favorite artist happens to have worked across multiple genres, and perhaps that’s why I am drawn to her. I feel like you understand an artist even more if you are able to do so through multiple mediums.
Who is your favorite artist? And why!?