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The Far-Out Art of Jazz-Age Feminist Florine Stettheimer

The Cathedrals of Art by Florine Stettheimer
10"x8" ($24) | 14"x11" ($60) | 20"x16" ($240) 

Today’s new Vintage Edition is ℅ a Jazz-age intellectual and unapologetically feminist painter, poet and saloniste: Florine Stettheimer. Bright, rambunctious, and brimming with Stettheimer’s next-level use of symbolism, The Cathedrals of Art is the kind of image we could spend all day dissecting. Making it even harder to edit down our excitement, Stettheimer herself was super fascinating—an artist who refused to compromise, creating some of the most spirited, authentic, radical art of her time in the process. (Which reminds us: catch the stunning Stettheimer show at the Jewish Museum in NYC before it says sayonara in mid-September).

Stettheimer’s provocative and progressive nature sprang in part from her unconventional upbringing. Born in 1871 to a family full of highly educated, independent and accomplished women, she received early artistic training in that mighty melting-pot metropolis—New York City. From 1904-1914, she continued her study of the arts abroad in Europe. Returning to Manhattan at the onset of World War I, Florine and two of her sisters launched an intellectual salon that attracted the likes of Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe, Marcel Duchamp, and other art world heavyweights (whom Stettheimer often painted into her work).

After a disappointing solo show early in her career, Stettheimer initially refused to exhibit anywhere but her own exclusive salons. Her early insistence on keeping her work closely held gave her the freedom to craft her own artistic narrative focused on the female gaze—something her female contemporaries were rarely afforded. Her subsequent work solidified Stettheimer as a pivotal female painter. She would go on to exhibit in over 45 of the most important contemporary museum and art exhibitions of her time, including the first Whitney Biennial, early MoMA exhibitions, the Salon d'Automne in Paris, and the first exhibition of American Art ever shown in Europe.

Stettheimer's commitment to self-actualization and candor is evident in today’s edition, sparing no sass or striking detail. The Cathedrals of Art is plucked from a series of four paintings in which Stettheimer depicts the major “places of worship” (tongue very much in-cheek) in New York City—Broadway, Wall Street, Fifth Avenue, and the art world—referring to them as respective "Cathedrals”. Each is an example of her clever use of stage design techniques to underscore her satirical elements, and all four are positively packed with that masterful symbolism we mentioned earlier.

In The Cathedrals of Art, the stage is set inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Note the Museum of Modern Art and Whitney Museum of American Art waiting in the wings. Those two institutions were relatively new when Stettheimer painted this piece, and didn’t carry quite as much cultural weight as the mighty Met. They were also often competing for contemporary artists—both sought to carve out space as the premier destination for new art in New York.

It’s clear what Stettheimer thought of their squabbles—the babies in this edition represent new art, and they’re headed straight to the central court of the Met. Stettheimer saw the Met as the arbiter of the art world at the time. She certainly thought it important to convey that all three museums were in contest for attention (both inside and outside the artwork), but she also appears to suggest that any intra-museum infighting was futile. The Met takes the cake.

Several art world characters play a role in The Cathedrals of Art, another way for Stettheimer to represent the art world’s attitudes at the time. You’ll catch sight of art critic Henry McBridge, manning the entrance to the museum with “Stop” and “Go” flags (an exquisitely heavy-handed signal of his power over public opinion), and Alfred Stieglitz, bedecked in an aesthetes black cape at the bottom of the museum stairs. Male figures dominate the frame, with women relegated mostly to the sides in frilly frocks—a commentary on the inequitable role of women in the arts.

Stettheimer herself is on the bottom right, standing on a sash that says “commère” (godmother)—perhaps a nod to carving out a place for herself in art history. Consider that Stettheimer created The Cathedrals of Art in her seventies, immortalizing herself in this image in a younger iteration. In fact, Stettheimer died before she could complete the painting, the last in her Cathedrals series. The presumably unfinished original now hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the very institution she irreverently painted at the center of the art universe.

You gotta think Stettheimer would be pleased to know our prints of her image make her work accessible to a lot more walls—no art world monopoly required. 

With art for everyone,
Team 20x200