Monday, September 1, 2014

MWA XXVIII: Stettheimer's Model

One of the more interesting aspects of my job at Columbia University as Curator of Art Properties has been researching the art work of Florine Stettheimer (1871-1944). Columbia holds the largest collection of her art work anywhere in the world, so it has been an insightful journey to learn more about her life and art work crafted in and among NYC's artistic elite. She and her fellow "spinster" sisters Ettie and Carrie held a regular salon in their home on the Upper West Side of NYC (not too far from where I live), and Florine had a painting studio in the Beaux-Arts building overlooking Bryant Park. They befriended and hosted some of the leading artists, writers, and theater performers of the day, including Marcel Duchamp, Alfred Stieglitz, and Georgia O'Keeffe. The first international exhibition of Stettheimer's work opens later this month at the Lenbachhaus in Munich, Germany. Columbia is a major lender to this exhibition; you can read the official press release here. As a tribute, I've made September's Monthly Work of Art one of Stettheimer's most famous paintings from the Columbia collection: A Model (Nude Self-Portrait). The following is adapted from my own essay on this painting, which will be published in the catalogue for this exhibition.

"Odalisque: A Model (Nude Self-Portrait) by Florine Stettheimer"
Roberto C. Ferrari

By the time Florine Stettheimer returned to America in 1914, after spending more than fifteen years living abroad, the subject of the female nude in European art was not only a standard part of academic study, but also a means by which to experiment with Modernist practices. Stettheimer had studied at the Art Students League of New York during the 1890s, and she learned the academic practice of drawing and painting the nude female model. It is hardly surprising, then, that around 1915-16 she painted a large-scale reclining nude entitled A Model. Striking, however, is that the figure probably is a self-portrait, albeit a younger, idealized vision of herself, as she was in her mid-forties when she painted this work.(fn.1) In presenting herself as a nude, she offered the viewer a popular artistic subject, but in being painted by a woman the picture challenged its own historic origins. Stettheimer’s European contemporaries Paula Modersohn-Becker and Suzanne Valadon also painted nude self-portraits at this time. It is unknown if Stettheimer ever saw works by these women, but together they collectively introduced a modern image of how women artists could control representations of the female body.

Stettheimer’s choice of Chinese white paint makes the skin of her model modulate in tones from ivory to icy blue, and applications of palette-scraped excess over visible underpainting give texture to the curves of the model’s body. Her orange hair is short, and the playful grin on her face is held up by fragile Botticellian fingers. Her torso is frontal, showing level nipples on small breasts. She lies on an ornamental shawl with a necklace strewn nearby. Surrounded by a fringed canopy, she presents her body as if on stage. She is an odalisque, a reclining nude associated with the harem, intended for voyeuristic display.

The reclining nude has origins in Renaissance paintings like Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1538; image here), a work Stettheimer greatly admired, describing it in her 1906 diary as “as beautiful as ever” after visiting the Uffizi.(fn.2) Stettheimer’s Model, however, is not a classical goddess; she shares more compositionally with the modernism of Edouard Manet’s Olympia (image right, Musee d'Orsay). Although Manet’s painting caused a sensation in Paris at the 1865 Salon for featuring a modern-day courtesan, Stettheimer’s painting shows us not a prostitute, but a modern-day woman. Both paintings show the flattening of the perspectival plane and the thrust of the nude into the viewer’s space.(fn.3) The black servant is missing from Stettheimer’s work, but the flowers remain a focal point. For Manet, these were a symbol of sexual commerce, but for Stettheimer the bouquet serves as a distraction. Stettheimer adored flowers, painting throughout her career bouquets that she called “eyegays,” instead of nosegays, because they delighted the eye.(fn.4) Stettheimer’s model holds an ornate “eyegay” in the center of the painting, intentionally distracting the viewer from the triangle of pubic hair below it, the private place that both Titian and Manet drew attention to by placing the woman’s hand directly on it.

Stettheimer’s contemporary Henri Matisse also painted reclining females such as The Blue Nude (1907; image here), which some may consider another source of inspiration. But, in fact, Matisse’s odalisques from the 1920s (e.g. image here) have more in common with Stettheimer’s painting in their depiction of the nude in an exotic setting.(fn.5) And both Matisse and Stettheimer arguably were inspired by another famous nude: J.-A.-D. Ingres’s Grande Odalisque (1814; image here), painted a century before Stettheimer’s work. The manneristic body for which Ingres is famous can be seen in Stettheimer’s model, who seems to lack a skeletal structure. Under ultraviolet light, one can see that Stettheimer overpainted the attenuated legs, which bear a striking resemble to those of Ingres’s odalisque. Thus, inspired by Titian, Ingres, and Manet, Stettheimer shared with Matisse the aesthetic experiment of using shocking colors and elongated forms to modernize the academic nude.

Although A Model is seen today as an important work in Stettheimer’s oeuvre, her contemporaries never acknowledged this painting in articles published during her lifetime.(fn.6) The painting was not shown at her 1916 exhibition at Knoedler, and it was excluded from her posthumous exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1946. Yet the painting clearly was important to her, for it is the only picture she proudly presented in its entirety when she painted Soirée (StudioParty) a few years later. This work shows the artist, her sister Ettie, and friends such as Leo Stein and the Hindu poet Sankar (seated beneath the model’s pudenda) in her studio. Juliette Gleizes, seated on the couch and gazing at A Model, is the only one who seems to wonder if the figure is Stettheimer herself, a comment perhaps on women’s intuition. It is this reimagining of the woman’s body, painted by a woman artist, that makes Stettheimer’s odalisque a significant contribution to the early history of modern art.

1. Barbara J. Bloemink first argued this painting was a self-portrait, based largely on Stettheimer’s other self-representations with similar orange-colored hair, most notably Self-Portrait with Palette (Painter and Faun). The Life and Art of Florine Stettheimer (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), pp. 66–68. Parker Tyler dated A Model and Self-Portrait with Palette to the same period, ca. 1915–16, also drawing attention to the similar hair color and style in each figure. However, he did not suggest that they are both Stettheimer. Florine Stettheimer: A Life in Art (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Co., 1963), p. 22.
2. Florine Stettheimer, diary entry, May 30, 1906, Stettheimer Papers, YCAL MSS 20, Beinecke Library, Yale University.
3. For a more extensive comparison between Stettheimer’s and Manet’s paintings, see Bloemink, pp. 63–67.
4. Henry McBride astutely compared Stettheimer’s paintings of flowers to those of Odilon Redon for their mysticism, and to the biomorphic forms of Joan Miró for their abstraction: “The flowers in her flower pieces were . . . mere points of departure. They are, I believe, sufficiently botanical, but they are also unearthly. I never heard her speak of Redon, and she would not have thought herself related to him, yet there is a kinship between their flowers. Both imbued them with the occult, something reaching out of this world to that other; and of the two, Florine granted them more actual freedom, and the blossoms in her vases wriggled upward with a whimsicality in the stems that is not to be outmatched for waywardness in the ‘automatic’ paintings of Miro.” Florine Stettheimer (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1946), pp. 15, 18.
5. After viewing Florine Stettheimer: An Exhibition of Paintings, Watercolors & Drawings, held at Columbia University in 1973, the composer Virgil Thomson wrote to the curator: “[Stettheimer] may be a better fauve than Matisse. Certainly she was a better painter.” Virgil Thompson to Jane Sabersky, February 24, 1973, Florine Stettheimer Papers, Box 1, Folder 6, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University Libraries.
6. Tyler, in his 1963 biography, is the first author to reference the painting. It was only with renewed interest in Stettheimer in the 1980s that art historians began to discuss this picture. Controlling her sister’s image, Ettie Stettheimer may have intentionally kept this painting away from public view because of its provocative nature.

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