27 November 2017




While attending Florine Stettheimer: Painting Poetry at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), curated by Georgina Uhlyarik (AGO) and Stephen Brown (The Jewish Museum) it became increasingly apparent that this exhibition would be a museum muse.

LEFT: Florine Stettheimer, Family Portrait I (detail), 1915, AGO. Photo courtesy of Kathleen Lew (2017).
RIGHT: Entry Panel for Florine Stettheimer: Painting Poetry at the AGO. Photo courtesy of Kathleen Lew (2017).
At first, I was skeptical how Stettheimer and her work was “feminist,” as claimed by the AGO press. I wondered what feminist insights I could gain from what appeared to be an extremely privileged woman. The more I breathed in the flowers, I realized that I had been given the opportunity to enter Stettheimer’s fantastical world of floral, lace, drama, powerful women, and subversive ideas. It is what Stettheimer chose to create with her privilege and skill that is feminine and fascinating. 

 Florine Stettheimer, Family Portrait II, 1933. Source.
Stettheimer (1871-1944) was part of a wealthy, educated, and well-travelled Jewish family based in New York. She enjoyed painting, theatre, and poetry. With her mother, Rosetta, and sisters Caroline and Henrietta, Stettheimer ran a salon for artists and intellectuals. The exclusive salon was a place to share ideas and art, welcoming familiar figures such as Georgia O’Keeffe and Marcel Duchamp. Stettheimer’s work depicts an early 20th century New York through the Stettheimer gaze, one that is unapologetically female. 

Florine Stettheimer, Portrait of my Sister, Ettie Stettheimer (detail), 1923, AGO. Photo courtesy of Kathleen Lew (2017).
In Georgina Uhlyarik curator’s talk, Uhlyarik described how Stettheimer invented a world with her art, in which she was the subject, and controlled her own meaning and image. An “echo of domesticity”, Stettheimer depicted her family and female mentors, making influential women participants in her own art historical narrative. 

Florine Stettheimer, Spring Sale at Bendel's, 1921, AGO. Photo Courtesy of Kathleen Lew (2017). 
Stettheimer rarely publicly showed her work, having few exhibitions outside her salon. Stettheimer painted an incredibly personal representation of self. She wanted to share her art with a select group in an intimate setting. Resisting the male-dominated art market meant that her work would be widely unknown; however, she once stated, “letting people have your paintings is like letting them wear your clothes.” (Source.

Florine Stettheimer, The Model, 1915, at the AGO. Photo Courtesy of Kathleen Lew (2017). 
Stettheimer's The Model, 1915, is also considered to be the first feminist nude. While not identified by the artist, scholars have determined that The Model is Stettheimer, and is one of the earliest fully nude self-portraits in Western art. In this work Stettheimer’s gaze echoes her art-making, a confidence that does not welcome consumption. 

Florine Stettheimer, Portrait of Louis Bouché, 1923, at the AGO. Photo Courtesy of Kathleen Lew (2017).
Bouché was an American painter and muralist who thought lace was a symbol of Victorian bad taste. Stettheimer paints Bouché, surrounding him with “the despised Nottingham lace, most cleverly arranged and painted” - Henry McBride, critic (AGO, Painting Poetry panel) 
I think it is important to acknowledge that this was the type of woman that referred to her bedroom as a “cocoon of lace.” She used art to assert agency over her surroundings—whether it was the intellectual salon, a largely male-dominated art world, the segregation of Jewish peoples, high and material culture, or a lack of female perspective. Stettheimer produced depictions of subversive sexuality and gender performativity that celebrates women and their autonomy. I may be referring to my own bedroom as a “cocoon of lace” from this point forward. 

Florine Stettheimer, Self-Portrait with Paradise Birds, 1910s, AGO. Photo Courtesy of Kathleen Lew (2017).
Whether it was painting herself as a historical female nude, with her family, or as an artist, Stettheimer practiced art making on her own terms. Stettheimer did not compromise her artistic vision, insisting there be a place for herself and her family in art—creating some of the most unique and important works of her time. By entering Stettheimer’s world, we learn to be unafraid of exploring the distinctly female experience, whether it is a cocoon of lace or something more. 

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