Florine Stettheimer’s Portrayal of Gender Fluidity

Florine Stettheimer, Beauty Contest: To the Memory of P.T. Barnum, 1924. Oil on canvas, 50 x 60½ in. (127 x 152.4 cm). Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut. Gift of Ettie Stettheimer, 1947

Florine Stettheimer, the visionary painter, costume designer, and poet, was an individualist whose portraits defied conventional gender representations. This Pride Month, Florine Stettheimer: Painting Poetry at the Jewish Museum offers a timely reconsideration of the important Jewish-American artist through over 50 paintings and drawings, a selection of costume and theater designs, photographs and ephemera, and poetry.

Florine Stettheimer, Portrait of Louis Bouché, 1923. Oil on canvas. 28 x 18 in. (71.1 x 45.7 cm). Heckscher Museum of Art, Huntington, New York. Gift of the Baker / Pisano Collection

In an era when Dada reigned, Stettheimer used her unique blend of impressionism, post-impressionism, and symbolism to capture her illustrious inner circle of friends and family as she saw them. Stettheimer painted androgynous portraits of the likes of fellow artists Marcel Duchamp, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Elie Nadelman, foregrounding revolutionary ideas about gender and introducing the concept of gender fluidity to her portraiture. Art critic Roberta Smith describes the exhibition in her New York Times review as:

“convey[ing] the strength of Stettheimer’s work, at a moment when … a lot of art is moving forward by reconsidering the past; and when gender, which Stettheimer modulated endlessly, is increasingly seen as fluid.”

In her Portrait of Louis Bouché (1923) for example, Stettheimer deliberately chooses not to represent her contemporary and fellow American artist as a traditionally masculine figure. Although Bouché was a man — and the clothing indicates as much — Stettheimer’s depiction of the figure is of a slender frame and long, delicate limbs. By melding attributes often associated with distinct genders, Stettheimer creates in her work a new form of gender harmony. It seems that Stettheimer is not necessarily making a statement about the physical qualities of her subject, but rather revealing her view of gender as a fluid concept.

Florine Stettheimer, Portrait of Myself, 1923. Oil on canvas laid on board, 40⅜ x 26⅜ in. (102.6 x 67 cm). Art Properties, Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, Columbia University in the City of New York, New York. Gift of the Estate of Ettie Stettheimer, 1967

Stettheimer’s androgynous approach to representation was not only reserved for others. She turned the same transformative eye upon herself — for instance, with Portrait of Myself (1923), one of many self-portraits featured in the exhibition. In keeping with her portrayal of Bouché, Stettheimer paints her own form as long-limbed and graceful, yet without distinguishing female curves. The artist again deliberately casts aside conventional representations of femininity and masculinity, and instead equalizes the forms of her figures so that they become genderless.

In her works that capture large social gatherings, Stettheimer flaunts her androgynous approach to figuration that disrupts the gender binary. In paintings such as Asbury Park South (1920) and Beauty Contest: to the Memory of P.T. Barnum (1924), both men and women stroll, pose, dance, and frolic, their dainty hands and feet interchangeable. Peter Schjeldahl notes in his New Yorker review:

Stettheimer peopled her pictures with willowy figures — women in slinky gowns and men in close-fitting suits. They have individualized faces but might almost be clones beneath the cloth — they’re not so much gender-bending as gender averaged.
Florine Stettheimer, Asbury Park South, 1920. Oil on canvas, 50 × 60 in. (127 × 152.4 cm). Collection of halley k harrisburg and Michael Rosenfeld, New York

Stettheimer’s refusal to depict gender in a traditional way was prescient: the artist here seemed prophetic, predicting a future when LGBTQ+, transgender, and queer persons might become visible and influential communities, and a time when distinctions between genders would become less concrete. In this exhibition, we now gaze at her work with the perspective of our era, understanding the advanced platform for a social and artistic discourse that Stettheimer provided a century ago.

Florine Stettheimer: Painting Poetry on view at the Jewish Museum in New York through September 24, 2017.

— Kathryn Estavillo, Marketing Intern