The Cathedrals of Art
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The Cathedrals of Art is one in a series of four paintings in which Florine Stettheimer depicted the major “places of worship” in New York City: Broadway, Wall Street, Fifth Avenue, and the art world. Each one she irreverently refers to as various "Cathedrals". This series is perhaps the best example of Stettheimer’s use of stage design techniques to best express her slyly satirical thoughts.
In The Cathedrals of Art, the stage is set within the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art waiting in the wings. Their missions were more specific than the Met’s, and in Stettheimer’s time, they were often competing with each other to become the space for new art in New York. It’s easy to see what Stettheimer thought of their administrative squabbles: the babies, who signify new art, are heading up the stairs into the central court of the Met.
Many other key players appear in the painting to represent the art world and its attitudes at the time. Stettheimer herself is on the bottom right, stepping gently on a sash bearing the word “commère” (godmother). She was in her seventies while working on this painting, but her painted self appears much younger. To her left is art critic Henry McBridge, standing guard at the entrance to the museum, holding “Stop” and “Go” flags—a nervy nod to his power over public opinion. Alfred Stieglitz, bedecked in black cape, stands at the bottom of the museum stairs. Other friends of Stettheimer appear in the painting, as was her style: her subject matter was often family and friends, including members of the intellectual salon she ran with her sisters.
Unfortunately, Stettheimer died before she could complete the painting, the last in her Cathedral series. It now hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the very institution she painted with tongue firmly in cheek.
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Florine Stettheimer’s provocative and progressive nature came in part from her unusual childhood. Born in 1871 to a Jewish family full of highly educated and accomplished women, her home life was feminist from the start. At a young age, she received artistic training in New York City and stayed in Europe for some time with her mother and sisters. There, she was exposed to the Ballet Russes, a lasting influence on her work.
With the start of World War I, the Stettheimers returned to Manhattan, eventually hosting an intellectual salon. These meetings attracted many art world heavyweights, like Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe, Marcel Duchamp and more. These characters, along with her sisters, appeared often in Stettheimer’s work. After a disappointing solo show early in her career, Stettheimer initially refused to exhibit anywhere but these private salons. Her early insistence on keeping her work closely held allowed her the freedom to build her own artistic narrative that focused on the female gaze.
That bold female gaze led Stettheimer to create the first full-length nude self-portrait by a female artist. Her Self-Portrait stares coyly and confrontationally out at the viewer. At a time when dresses were only just beginning to show the ankle, a portrait like this was unthinkable. Yet think it, and create it, Stettheimer did. Works like this led critics to hail Stettheimer as one of the few important female painters in the history of art. She was included in the first Whitney Biennial, the opening exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, and the first American art exhibition in Europe (one of only two women to do so).
Just two years after her death, Stettheimer’s close friends McBride and Duchamp organized a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. It was the first of many such retrospectives, as Stettheimer’s daring innovation, humor, and feminist heart continue to inspire contemporary artists young and old.
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