An art historian offers a biography of the overlooked fin-de-siècle visual artist and avant-garde society woman Florine Stettheimer, whose paintings, stage and room designs, and poetry place her among the most important stylists of the early 20th century.
Bloemink’s thorough, engaging book is the first comprehensive biography and full reading of Stettheimer’s paintings, and gives the artist the attention she has long deserved ... Bloemink also illuminates Stettheimer’s little-known but important work in interior, furniture, costume, and set design, and intersperses her own analysis with selections from the artist’s blunt, fanciful, and at times caustic diaries and poetry, giving us a sense of the artist’s own complicated voice ... Bloemink takes on Stettheimer’s complexities and contradictions with aplomb. As she traces Stettheimer’s unique creative and personal evolution, the author also offers a cultural study of the people and places that made up the artist’s world ... not only an essential history of Stettheimer’s life and work, but of the early modernist world around her.
One particular gift of Bloemink’s biography is that it presents the vers-libre poetry that Stettheimer wrote alongside her paintings, and shows that her verse, though produced without the immense technical care that she poured into her visual art, is in its way just as remarkable ... Bloemink also does the necessary work of putting pictorial circumstance into social context: she discovers, for instance, that an ice-skating picture long thought to depict Rockefeller Center actually shows a forgotten rink in Central Park, near Columbus Circle, and she explains what this urban space looked like and meant to New Yorkers at that time. Bloemink can’t resist some panicky pieties, to be sure ... To represent her as a model contemporary is to miss exactly what was courageous in her life and work.
Bloemink brings her account to life using a wealth of archival material from Stettheimer’s world ... Bloemink’s detailed account of the artist’s creation of the costumes and stage set [on the opera Four Saints in Three Acts]...and her exacting, or obsessive, supervision of the production, gives perhaps the clearest view of Stettheimer’s vision and temperament. The behind-the-scenes blow-by-blow of the Gesamtkunstwerk’s evolution is also a window onto the class- and culture-bound, hit-or-miss radicalism of the period’s white avant-garde, in which a combination of wildly racist notions and forward-thinking experiments produced almost inexplicable endeavors, with very mixed results ... That said, through a sensitive chronology of Stettheimer’s life and enthralling, illuminating formal and symbolic decryptions of her paintings, Bloemink recasts Stettheimer’s perceived peculiarities as a fully formed, if cagey, kind of politics, and her work’s content as more explicitly progressive than I—and maybe other Stettheimer fans—had previously understood. The discussion of three paintings dealing with racism does not unearth new information, but their triangulation generates nuance ... Reading Bloemink’s expert interpretations, paintings familiar to me—like the 1915 nude self-portrait that adorns the book’s jacket, or Stettheimer’s winking updates to the fête-galante genre—take on fresh, or more pointed, significance.