Florine Stet­theimer: A Biography

By – September 6, 2022

Bar­bara Bloemink’s sweep­ing new biog­ra­phy of Florine Stet­theimer pro­vides rich details about her life and art, accent­ed by over 130 col­or images of her work. Cura­tor of Stettheimer’s 1995 ret­ro­spec­tive at the Whit­ney Muse­um, Bloemink pairs a lin­ear nar­ra­tive of Stettheimer’s life with com­pelling inter­pre­ta­tions of her art.

Born into the her­met­ic, finan­cial­ly com­fort­able world of New York’s promi­nent Ger­man-Jew­ish” fam­i­lies on August 29, 1871, Florine came of age in Europe with her moth­er and two sis­ters after their father aban­doned the fam­i­ly. Hav­ing lived for a time in Stuttgart, Ger­many and Paris, France, Florine returned to New York to study at the Art Stu­dents League. She and her fam­i­ly would con­tin­ue to trav­el between New York and Europe before set­tling firm­ly in New York on the precipice of the First World War.

Stet­theimer emerges in the biog­ra­phy as a fem­i­nist, both in her life and her work. A rich archive of mate­r­i­al aids Bloemink in recon­struct­ing Stettheimer’s days. Using some of the artist’s new­ly dis­cov­ered poems, Bloemink ani­mates Stet­theimer as a vibrant, engaged, crit­i­cal, and iron­ic thinker — rather con­trary, in fact, to some lat­er assess­ments of her as a shrink­ing flower. In detail­ing Stettheimer’s Nude Self-Por­trait” and oth­er beau­ti­ful repro­duc­tions of her work, Bloemink describes Stet­theimer as an inde­pen­dent, ful­ly con­scious, self-con­fi­dent mod­ern woman” who, in her poems as in her art, chal­lenges and even inverts the male gaze.

Stet­theimer died in New York on May 11, 1944, after a life­time of col­lab­o­rat­ing with oth­er artists, poets, and cul­tur­al cre­ators. Bloemink’s new biog­ra­phy is a won­der­ful con­tri­bu­tion to her legacy.

Julie R. Ensz­er is the author of four poet­ry col­lec­tions, includ­ing Avowed, and the edi­tor of Out­Write: The Speech­es that Shaped LGBTQ Lit­er­ary Cul­ture, Fire-Rimmed Eden: Select­ed Poems by Lynn Loni­di­erThe Com­plete Works of Pat Park­er, and Sis­ter Love: The Let­ters of Audre Lorde and Pat Park­er 1974 – 1989. Ensz­er edits and pub­lish­es Sin­is­ter Wis­dom, a mul­ti­cul­tur­al les­bian lit­er­ary and art jour­nal. You can read more of her work at www​.JulieREn​sz​er​.com.

Discussion Questions

How to account for the com­plex­i­ties that make up Florine Stettheimer’s life and art? This com­pre­hen­sive, insight­ful, and beau­ti­ful­ly pro­duced biog­ra­phy not only illu­mi­nates Stet­theimer as an indi­vid­ual with­in the con­text of her time and milieu but also puts to rest much of the well-worn mis­in­for­ma­tion about her. And all with­out san­i­tiz­ing Stettheimer’s idiosyncrasies.

Born the fourth of five chil­dren to Joseph and Roset­ta (nee Wal­ter) Stet­theimer, Florine Stettheimer’s life took an ear­ly sharp turn when her father walked out. Roset­ta moved the young fam­i­ly to New York City. There, Stet­theimer lived a priv­i­leged life among New York’s Our Crowd” while notably spend­ing much of her youth in Ger­many where she was exposed to the Old Mas­ters and the con­cept of Gesamtkunst­werk — total art­work — that would influ­ence her greatly. 

So much is revealed and dis­pelled by Bloemink’s schol­ar­ship. From Stettheimer’s enroll­ment at the Art Stu­dents League in 1891 — she was no prim­i­tive” painter — to her domes­tic life — she lived most of her life with her moth­er and sis­ters Ettie and Car­rie but was hard­ly a retir­ing spin­ster — to her many friend­ships, includ­ing Mar­cel Duchamp, Carl Van Vecht­en, and Hen­ry McBride to her numer­ous muse­um exhi­bi­tions — she was the first woman award­ed a ret­ro­spec­tive at MoMA — to her ground­break­ing art. The book beau­ti­ful­ly weaves in Stettheimer’s poet­ry and includes large col­or plates of her paint­ings and designs. 

Florine Stet­theimer: A Biog­ra­phy is a wel­come and thor­ough look at an artist whom the cura­tor Jane Saber­sky apt­ly described as a unique fig­ure in Amer­i­can paint­ing” who was very much her own per­son and suc­ceed­ed in fash­ion­ing an art that is not only con­tem­po­rary in idiom but dis­tinct­ly per­son­al” and root­ed in her direct experience.”