Critical Issues in American Art: A Book of Readings

By Mary Ann Calo | Go to book overview

20
Florine Stettheimer

Rococo Subversive

LINDA NOCHLIN

The eccentric and ultra-feminine Florine Stettheimer seems an unlikely candidate for inclusion in the lexicon of socially minded artists in America. As Linda Nochlin explains, it is customary to regard the camp sensibility that so defines Stettheimer's lifestyle and art as irreconcilable with a social intent. Social art is explicit and public; an art of exaggerated artifice and wit is aesthetic and private. However, when Stettheimer's work is reconsidered in light of contemporary understandings of political relevance, shaped in part by constituencies for which camp and affectation can often be understood as agents of subversion, Nochlin suggests it is possible to regard her self- referential vision and love of artifice as compatible with shrewd social insight.

Nochlin examines Stettheimer's paintings and her poetry for evidence of this reconciliation of the personal and political, of camp stylization and social awareness, understanding it as yet another paradox in the life of this singular American painter. She identifies various themes in Stettheimer's paintings, such as patriotism and black culture, which underscore the artist's engagement with political and social realities. Finally, through detailed analysis of the artist's celebrated Cathedrals series, in which Stettheimer pays homage to her beloved cosmopolitan universe, Nochlin demonstrates that these imaginative paeans to the city of New York enact a skillful merging of the artist's critical instincts and personal sense of history with a richly detailed tableau of her private, privileged world.

It is admittedly difficult to reconcile the style and subject matter of Florine Stettheimer with conventional notions of a socially conscious art. 1 The Stettheimer style is gossamer light, highly artificed and complex; the iconography, refined, recondite, and personal in its references. In one of her best known works, Family Portrait No. 2 [1] of 1933, we see the artist in her preferred setting: New York, West Side, feminine, floral, familial. The family group includes her sister Ettie, whom she had portrayed in an equally memorable individual portrait ten years earlier, sitting to the artist's right. Ettie was a philosopher who had earned a doctorate in Germany with a thesis on William James, but later turned to fiction. She wrote two highly wrought novels, Philosophy and Love Days, publishing under the pseudonym "Henrie Waste,"2 novels which would certainly by today's standards be considered feminist in their insistence that woman's self-realization is incompatible with romantic love, and, in the case

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