I saw Florine Stettheimer’s Cathedrals series when I was at the Met last month, and I’ve been eager to learn more about it ever since. Stettheimer (1871-1944) was a New York state-born modernist artist and theatrical set designer; you can certainly see evidence of both her theatrical experience and her modernist leanings in these paintings. There are four works in the Cathedrals series – The Cathedrals of Broadway (1929), The Cathedrals of Art (1942), The Cathedrals of Wall Street (1939), and The Cathedrals of Fifth Avenue (1931). Each painting concerns a different cultural center of New York City, presenting the sights, events, institutions, and characters in massive, stage-like displays. The Metropolitan’s collection database calls the works “extraordinary composite visions of New York’s economic, social, and cultural institutions”. Of this work in particular, the museum notes the “magical atmosphere of neon-lit theatres” and “little hint of the harsh conditions that confronted many New Yorkers in the 1930s”. However, it’s difficult not to read some degree of satire and social critique into the bright, chaotic compositions and slight tone of surrealism. After all, Stettheimer would be neither the first nor the last artist to draw attention to Wall Street and Fifth Avenue’s foibles.
Stettheimer was a such a more interesting and complicated woman than people tend to give her credit for. Her art was much more sophisticated than we tend to realize, too. I didn’t really understand how much that is true until I read Barbara Bloemink’s groundbreaking monograph on Stettheimer when it was released in 2022. The book is an absolute brick- over 400 pages – and it suggests such a new perspective on the artist that I had to completely revise an article I had written about her after reading it. Bloemink’s book is available through Amazon and is a great read if you’re interested in Stettheimer’s art, modernism in America, or overlooked female artists.
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