A Painter of Multitudes
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Published in: September-October 2022 issue.



A Biography
by Barbara Bloemink
Hirmer Publishers. 432 pages, $41.50


I WAS FULLY INTRODUCED to the “eccentric” art of Florine Stettheimer when the Jewish Museum in New York City mounted a major retrospective in 2017 (Florine Stettheimer: Painting Poetry). Until then, I had mostly been aware of her as the costume and set designer for the landmark Gertrude Stein-Virgil Thomson avant-garde opera Four Saints in Three Acts, which premiered in the U.S. in 1934.

            I know a good deal more about Stettheimer now thanks to Barbara Bloemink’s new biography of the artist. Bloemink revises the previous profile of Stettheimer as a “cloistered spinster” or an “eccentric maiden aunt.” She corrects the impression, fostered by gay film critic Parker Tyler’s 1963 commissioned biography, that a “timid” and “hypersensitive” Stettheimer was unable to encounter the world as a fully realized, capable woman. For example, Tyler incorrectly claimed that Stettheimer was so “devastated” by the lack of sales from her earliest 1916 exhibition that “she never (or rarely) exhibited publicly again.” Finally, Bloemink wants to overturn earlier commentary that dismissed Stettheimer’s œuvre with such terms as “naïve” or “overly feminine,” resembling “puff-pastry” and compared to “outsider” or “children’s art.” The work, in short, has been treated with condescension, and the artist widely misunderstood. (That said, I do demur from finding Stettheimer’s paintings of flower bouquets worthy of deep reflection.)

            Florine Stettheimer (1871–1944) had a privileged upbringing as one of five children whose parentage was German-Jewish, although also Dutch Protestant on their maternal side, and decidedly privileged financially.

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Allen Ellenzweig, a longtime G&LR contributor , is the author of the recently published book George Platt Lynes: The Daring Eye.