Today’s post comes from Kamaria Mion, class of 2014 and Art Center Student Docent.
Florine Stettheimer is one of the best examples of an artist whose life informs her work. Born into a wealthy New York family, her works chronicle the life of luxury that she was accustomed to. I was drawn to Stettheimer because although she painted her whole life, Stettheimer never had to sell a painting to support herself. This meant an extraordinary amount of freedom for an artist; we often forget how much of the work that an artist creates is geared toward appealing to consumers and the art market. In Natatorium Undine, Stettheimer paints an idyllic pool party scene into which she painted herself and several of her acquaintances—a truly personal glimpse of the artist’s life among the “1%” of New York City high society.
The scene she depicts is, for many, closer to the mythological world than to everyday life. For me at least, Stettheimer’s life seems like a dream: living in New York during the Jazz Age, partying all night and painting it by day. She presents a mix of her world and fantasy, including whimsical creatures that she and her friends recline on. In contrast, she includes very real figures: Florine herself can be seen lying on a chair at the upper left hand corner and her younger sister Ettie is seated near her, dangling her feet into the pool. She was known for having a very intimate circle of friends, made up of other wealthy people but also the artistic elite, painters, writers and dancers. Marcel Duchamp, Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe, Marsden Hartley, and art critic Henry McBride were all a part of that close group, many of whom appeared frequently in her works. However, while Stettheimer and her friends enjoy the party, curtained off to the side, a trio of African American jazz musicians works the party. They serve as a reminder that Stettheimer’s life was atypical, that the majority of Americans at that time were not able to enjoy such luxuries and that African Americans still lived in a deeply unjust and segregated nation.
Instead of showing her works in a gallery, Stettheimer was known for private unveilings of paintings she had been working on. Stettheimer is often quoted as having said, “Letting people have your paintings is like letting them wear your clothes.” Only those closest were invited; the events were a cross between a critique and a studio party.
Stettheimer died in 1944. In her will, she stated that she wanted all of her paintings to be destroyed. However, her sister Ettie ignored her directions and donated her works to a variety of museums, which is how the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center was lucky enough to receive Natatorium Undine.