The Queer Utopias of Florine Stettheimer

With her brighter-than-life color palette, deliciously unrealistic sense of proportion, and tendency to apply paint like cake frosting, it can be hard to believe that Florine Stettheimer depicted her real friends and everyday life in her paintings. But for Stettheimer (1871–1944), there wasn’t much of a difference between art and life. Generationally wealthy and unmarried, Stettheimer enjoyed more freedom from the constraints of capitalism and patriarchy than the average woman her age. Her unconventional lifestyle led to close friendships with a number of artists, dancers, and art critics, many of whom were LGBTQ+, and while Stettheimer’s own sexuality is largely unknown to us today, her artistic and social life has been widely interpreted as embracing a kind of queer, Modernist utopia.

Stettheimer treated her studio in the Beaux-Arts Building in Manhattan, overlooking Bryant Park, like a three-dimensional extension of her painted worlds, filling it with her artworks and furniture she designed and often painted herself. Her bed, for example, was covered in a massive lace canopy, like the one she painted over her sleeping self-portrait in the c. 1920 painting “Music.These parallel details allow one to imagine the Ballets Russes dancers in “Music” — like Vaclav Nijinsky, at center, radiant and feminine in a pink circle of light — as both fantastical figures and real people at home in Stettheimer’s studio.

Together with her sisters, Carrie and Ettie, Florine hosted a flourishing salon in Midtown Manhattan between 1915 and 1930. The Stettheimers’ parties rivaled the influential salons of pioneering modern art collectors Walter and Louise Arensberg, and often attracted an overlapping circle of artistic guests, including Marcel Duchamp, Alfred Stieglitz, Charles Demuth, Avery Hopwood, and Marsden Hartley. But unlike those gatherings, the Stettheimers’ salon was hosted by a trio of unmarried, middle-aged women who contrasted with the dynamic of the married Arensbergs, and contemporary accounts note that their LGBTQ+ guests felt more at ease and able to express their identities and desires more freely. Indeed, the Stettheimers’ was one of the only avant-garde salons in New York where sexuality and queerness were openly acknowledged and discussed.

Stettheimer painted not only how it looked, but how it felt, to be part of a queer and financially privileged social group. In paintings like “Sunday Afternoon in the Country” (1917) and “La Fête à Duchamp”(1917), partygoers flit through summer scenery in thin, androgynous bodies dressed in bright, diaphanous clothes. In the former, Florine renders herself in a white suit with red stilettos and Duchamp in the foreground with Rrose-colored accents on his clothes (this chromatic nod to Duchamp’s female alter ego, Rrose Sélavy, becomes an entirely pink suit in “La Fête”). The dancer Adolph Bolm appears in head-to-ankle green. Stettheimer’s daring application of color — fuschia, grass green, lemon yellow, vivid and unmixed, straight from the tube — conveys a euphoric, playful mood, where friendship and subversive sensuality trump traditional pictorial (and gendered) hierarchies.

florine pool
Florine Stettheimer, “Natatorium Undine” (1927), oil on canvas, 55 1/2 x 64 15/16 (image courtesy the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College)

Another painting, “Natatorium Undine” (1927), further flips expected gender roles in its depiction of a group of women exercising around a flexing man. This literal Adonis is placed on a pedestal, passive and contained, while the women exercise and swim and act freely. For “Natatorium Undine” is a women’s pool, for women in barely-there swimwear, diving into phthalo-green water, flocking together, floating on a turtle (inscribed “Daddy”), swans, and waves. And at the very center of the painting, a nude woman, lily-white, arches her back on a vulvic sea shell, her golden head in the place of a clitoris.

“Love Flight of a Pink Candy Heart” (1930) extends the queer utopia of Stettheimer’s oeuvre in its subversion of romantic love tropes. In the lower center of the composition, she paints herself as a child, shooting Cupid’s arrow after a lace-trimmed Valentine’s heart that floats through a yellow meadow of young, beautiful figures. While some of them are possible portraits of Stettheimer’s former love interests, there are also references to members of the LGBTQ+ community, including a portrait of Demuth, dressed in white, and fictional characters that represent her close friend, the photographer Carl van Vechten. Duchamp makes a cameo as the harlequin at lower left, dancing with Stettheimer herself. These figures blend reality and fiction, quite literally, in an unbound elision of sexual, romantic, and platonic love. The painting is earnest and nostalgic yet self-aware: “It seems to me that Florine is laughing a little at herself,” her sister Ettie observed when she donated the painting to the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Regardless of Stettheimer’s own sexuality — her diaries were thoroughly edited by Ettie after her death — her paintings and lifestyle convey a sense of queer belonging, albeit tempered by class and race: Stettheimer had no working-class friends, and virtually all of her friends were White. But the freedom, playful sensuality, and gender euphoria on display in her work resonate with present conceptions of queer community. Rather than viewing Stettheimer as Modernist anathema — an ultra-femme exception to the patriarchal rule — one can see her canvases as engaged in that canonical Modernist pursuit of utopia, a shedding of the old, filled with optimism, and joy, for the future.

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