The life and art of Florine Stettheimer

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A thorough biography of Florine Stettheimer by Barbara Bloemink, paired especially well with the 2014 Munich exhibition book with its richly rendered reproductions of her work. Her best work was done in the last two decades of her life, from age 50-70, the universe seems to be glowering down at me to make my life stretch at least that long.

Born into a wealthy German Jewish family in Rochester NY in 1871, her father abandoned the family after her younger sister was born, and the five children and mother headed to Stuttgart Germany for the early years of upbringing. They bopped around to various cities, Berlin, Paris, New York, but for most of her first forty years, Stettheimer lived abroad. WWI changed all of that, and she returned with her mother and sisters to live in New York for the remainder of her life, mostly in NYC but with rented summer homes.

With her return, she accepted her first and only solo exhibition which surprisingly didn’t sell any paintings; at this show, she contrived to make the gallery space look very much like her home in order to show her work in context. From that point on, she refused to sell her paintings and would only send a few pieces in for exhibitions. With her wealthy family, she could paint and exhibit what she wanted, exploding the myth of the starving artist.

She and her sisters set up quite the salon, encouraging conversation among their celebrated friends. They took French lessons from Marcel Duchamp even though they spoke French fluently, just to support him with a weekly stipend.

After her mother died in 1935, she finally moved out on her own, alienating her from younger sister Ettie (although Carrie didn’t care or understood?). Imagine living with your mother and sisters for the first 64 years of your life and then only having 9 remaining years to yourself. Florine died in 1944, and sister Carrie died unexpectedly six weeks later. That left Florine’s estate in the hands of Ettie, who then ravaged her journals with scissors, excising any bits that were “personal.” The biography does what it can with the tattered remains, but you can feel her seethe at the destruction wrought by a possibly jealous younger sister (Ettie published two books but was not as well-known as Florine).