An Extravagant Crowd: Florine Stettheimer and Friends in Jazz Age New York
Among the many talents of artist Florine Stettheimer (1871–1944) was her gift for cultivating an elite artists circle of American culture. At the height of the Jazz Age, during the 1920s and 30s, she drew the brightest stars into the warm glow of her friendship and documented some of these gatherings in her vivid and charming paintings. Filled with historical references and biographical clues about her subjects and herself, the rich life Florine led both in and out of the studio was reflected in the wide range of people in her artwork.
Stettheimer held salons — where art, photography, music, theater, and literature converged — at her Manhattan home in the ornate Alwyn Court residence, at 182 W. 58th St., or her studio near the New York Public Library on Bryant Park. Her gift for friendship was bestowed on some of the greatest artists of her age. In turn, these friends were often a source of inspiration for her paintings and poetry. Stettheimer’s muses surrounded her, beginning with her own family — sisters Ettie and Carrie, also both artists — and their beloved mother, Rosetta.
Beginning in 1916 Florine initiated what she called a “birthday party,” at her studio or residence, to introduce the latest creations to her circle of artists and friends. Stettheimer’s painting Studio Party is a portrait of such a gathering. Among the habitués who came were the elite of the art world, and guests were both subjects and viewers. She described the gatherings in her poetry:
Have at last a raison d’etre
Seen in color and design
It amuses me
To recreate them
To paint them.
Here are a few of the people who formed Stettheimer’s inner circle and were her artistic subjects:
Marcel Duchamp appears in several paintings by Stettheimer. A star of the Dada art movement, the two artists shared a range of interests and were extremely close. Duchamp was friends with Florine’s sisters Carrie and Ettie as well (he contributed to the decoration of Carrie’s Doll House which is now at the Museum of the City of New York). A French-American painter, sculptor, and writer, he was a multi-hyphenated talent who sought for art to be as intellectually provocative as it was aesthetically pleasing.
The photographer and gallerist was the leading cultural impresario of his day. His decisions about what to display in his gallery, An American Place, often set the standard for what would become iconic in modern art. Alfred Stieglitz was not only a close friend of Stettheimer, he offered his gallery as a venue for her work in the 1930s. Stettheimer refused him. Despite this rebuff, she was included in a 1934 retrospective of modern art at the Museum of Modern Art. Her success as a painter only came once she was well into middle-age.
The painter Georgia O’Keeffe (who is currently the subject of her own retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum and was married to Alfred Stieglitz) does not appear in any of Stettheimer’s paintings, but the two women were contemporaries and friends. More importantly, perhaps, they played off each other in an artistic dialogue that pushed both women creatively. Stettheimer’s Family Portrait II is a response to O’Keeffe’s Manhattan, both exploring the imagery of modernity in a changing New York.
In this whimsical portrait of a group outing and picnic, the viewer is invited into the sense of collaboration and play that enlivened these gatherings. Steichen, an iconic photographer and curator known for his luminous black and white photography, is seen taking a portrait of Marcel Duchamp in the painting’s bottom left corner. Stettheimer’s mother, Rosetta, can be seen in the bottom right.
Carl Van Vechten
Stettheimer’s friendship with writer, photographer, and socialite Carl Van Vechten was one of her closest bonds. They became friends in 1915. Van Vechten was a central social figure in high-level artistic circles and a proponent of the Harlem Renaissance. His photographs were often keenly observed portraits of friends. He once wrote of Stettheimer:
The lady has got into her painting a very modern quality, the quality that ambitious American musicians will have to get into their compositions before anyone will listen to them. At the risk of being misunderstood, I must call this quality jazz.
For a Jazz Age icon who portrayed her friends so lovingly, there could be no greater compliment.