black and white photograph of Stettheimer in a white dress in her garden

An Early Feminist masquerading as a Frivolous Society Girl!

 Who is this girl?                                                                                                         

black and white photo of Stettheimer in a white dress in her garden                                                    Photo of Florine Stettheimer about 1920               

Florine Stettheimer (1871- 1944).                                                                               
Painter, Poet, Costume Designer and Socialite.                                                         

Was she a typical hedonist/socialite?   Stettheimer’s childhood could certainly have produced such a person:  She grew up in a well-to-do family, spending her childhood between New York and Europe.  She was one of 5 siblings whose father left them to move to Australia.  She studied art in New York, in Germany, and in Switzerland.  When WW1 began, the family was initially stranded in Switzerland, finally returning to New York.

At a quick glance, she was a sophisticated sorta-superficial socialite who reveled in the 1920’s New York Art Scene.  She and her mom and two sisters lived together, and held regular salons where the intellectual and artistic  elite of NYC met.  Her life appeared to be endless rounds of food,  fashion, and entertainment.  This bit of her poetry seems on theme:

“I like slippers gold
I like oysters cold
and my garden with mixed flowers
and the sky full of towers”

But then there was this painting:

Painting of Spring Sale at Bendel's, 1920.                                Spring Sale at Bendel’s. 1920.

Bendel’s was an iconic Fifth Avenue luxury department store that existed from 1895 all the way through to 2019, when its last stores were closed.  

Strike ONE to the Frivolous Stereotype:

Depicting the chaos of a sale, this painting shows women crowding together, presumably vying for bargains.  Whatever you think of that concept, the bright colors, movement an energy are impressive.  So maybe Stettheimer was really invested in that lifestyle, here poking gentle fun at her friends?

Choosing to paint such a scene was itself a dismissal of the unspoken society art rules:  Who would think women shopping a sale a scene worthy of painting?  Certainly nobody who wanted to be taken seriously as a painter!

Another painting shows a day at the beach:

Painting Asbury Park South, 1920, brilliant yellows and reds

                      Asbury Park South.  1920.

 Like the snippet of poem and the Spring Sale at Bendel’s, on initial glance this painting also looks almost frivolous, documenting events and places nobody would consider ‘document-worthy’. 

But Asbury Park South was a well-known segregated (meaning open to people of color) beach in New Jersey.  This painting from a century ago was one of very few at that time showing ordinary black people doing ordinary things rather than the more caricatured renditions typical of her time.  I love this painting.  The bright warm colors, the almost Bosch-like figures running around, full of life and activity! 

OK, so maybe Stettheimer was not your average society woman?

That was Strike TWO to the frivolous stereotype!

And here comes Strike THREE:

Florine painted and displayed a nude self-portrait, which was considered absolutely scandelous at the time.  

Painting Model a Nude Self Portrait, showing the artist reclining on a bed holding a bouquet of flowers.                     A Model (Nude Self-Portrait).  Florine Stettheimer. 1915.

Stettheimer refused to to consider marriage, which she thought was suffocating.  She welcomed gays, lesbians, immigrants and blacks (groups ignored or worse by polite society of the day) to her salons.

Conclusion:  Florine Stettheimer was a feminist ahead of her time, a person without the typical prejudices of her time.  How I’d love to go back in time and visit one of her salons.  

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