Florine Stettheimer (1871-1944) was one of two best-known women artists in America in the 1930’s; the other was Georgia O’Keeffe. Stettheimer was born in Rochester, New York, but her family spent time in Europe where she was able to visit all the great museums and study art. Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Cubism, and Fauvism were her artistic influences, along with the ballets performed by the Diaghilev company in Paris. Returning to New York in 1914, she became involved with the New York art scene, the Harlem Renaissance, Dada, and the Jazz Age. Stettheimer lived with her mother and sisters in an up-scale apartment overlooking Bryant Park between 5th and 6th Avenues and 40th and 42nd Streets. The Stettheimers hosted salons (social and intellectual gatherings) and entertained writers, artists, musicians, intellectuals, and emigres. Among Stettheimer’s closest friends were Georgia O’Keeffe, Alfred Stieglitz, and Marcel Duchamp.
From 1929 until 1944, Stettheimer painted four paintings titled “The Cathedrals of New York.” She used the term cathedral in the non-ecclesiastical sense to include important centers of commerce and the arts.
Her artistic training in Europe and New York had been in the classical European tradition. However, responding to the excitement of the City, she decided to invent her own style to depict modern 20th Century New York.
“The Cathedrals of Broadway” (1929) (60’’ x’50’’) (Metropolitan Museum) was composed as a theater set design. Stettheimer had designed several stage sets. The cathedral represented here is the new Paramount Theater that opened in November 1926. A gold and black arch decorated with the Paramount gold stars and winged figures support a white star. At the top of the arch is a black clock in an elaborate gold case with the word PARAMOUNT written in flowing script. The clock is topped with a crystal ball. Red curtains with gold fringe hang from the arch. The pillars supporting the arch contain classical marble sculptures in niches. A red-draped door is set at the left, and a painting and EXIT sign are at the right.
On stage, elaborate pink drapes set off a Classical Roman domed temple. Dancers dressed in pink perform in a circular formation around the temple, reminding the viewer of a Busby Berkeley chorus line. Other figures dressed in gold perform on the stage. A gold Wurlitzer pipe organ is at the left of the stage.
A newsreel of Mayor Jimmy Walker ready to throw out the first pitch in a baseball game plays on the movie screen over the stage. The Paramount presented both live shows and new talking pictures. During the Depression movies provided inexpensive entertainment for everyone.
In the sky at the upper left, the names of two other Broadway cathedrals, the Rialto (1916) and the Mark Strand (1914), sparkle with neon lights. A green and white sign contains the words House of Talkies. The large red banner floats in the wind and declares Broadway 1929. What appears to be fringe at the bottom is the banner are the words Florence Stettheimer.
A large golden chandelier hangs from a frescoed ceiling at the upper right. The chandelier inside the theater was famous. Depicted below are signs for the Roxy (1927) with three flags and the Capital (1919) theaters. Centered at the bottom of the painting is the red-carpeted theater entrance. Six uniformed ushers stand at the ready to show patrons to their seats. Written on the red-carpet is the word Silence; the new talkies had arrived.
An African-American usher wearing a white uniform holds the theater door open for a well-dressed gentleman and his two lavishly dressed companions. Just behind them a red rope has been set up to keep the ordinary people back while the rich arrive. Although she was a member of the upper-class, Stettheimer was socially conscious, and she often pointed out in her paintings the reality of the times. Her paintings often contained in her witty but concerned way commentary on the social injustices of society.
A Caucasian valet in a yellow uniform ushers the wealthy couple to the ticket office. A family stands at the ticket window. Stettheimer’s cathedrals were popularly called movie palaces. They were elegant, opulent, and an entertaining, experience for everyone.
“The Cathedrals of Fifth Avenue” (1931) (60’’ x50’’) (Metropolitan Museum) depicts an elaborate wedding at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The Gothic pointed arch of the Cathedral is at the center of the composition. The wedding couple pose for a photo on a red carpet. Lavish weddings were a popular topic in the society section of the New York newspapers, with specific details expected by the readers. The bride, hardly visible enclosed in a frothy white gown, carries a bouquet of long-stemmed white lilies. The groom stands tall and proper in his tux. Two flower girls swing a garland. A mounted policeman halts the traffic on Fifth Avenue. The photographer in a tan jacket and tall leather boots is Arnold Genthe, a well-known photographer at the time. A young woman in a gold dress, sways delightfully, vying with the bride for attention.
Inside the Cathedral, the families of the bride and groom stand to either side under a large red canopy. A priest in gray and gold vestments raises his hand to bless the couple, while a Bishop, with cross, mitre, and crosier, offers his blessing as well. Wedding bells ring out from the top of the Cathedral.
Floating in the sky are the names of the cathedrals of Fifth Avenue, the shops where the couple have purchased the necessities for their wedding. At the left, Tiffany’s stands out. Above Tiffany’s is Hudnut’s, where the bride purchased face creams. Just below, fancy white letters in the shape of furniture spell out Altman’s, a furniture store. Stettheimer has depicted on the street below the ticker-tape parade, held on May 7, 1929, to celebrate Charles Lindbergh’s successful flight over the Atlantic Ocean.
In the sky at the right floats a red rose, its green leaves spelling out Thorley, a store where fine Staffordshire bone China could be purchased. The round white box is from Maillard, where chocolates could be found. Circling the box, in yellow letters, is the name of the famous restaurant Delmonico’s. An orange banner displays champagne in a cooler. A white heart-shaped balloon with lacey edges carries the name Sherry, a store where sugar candy could be found. A green awning bears the name Bendel’s, a department store for women. Under the blue awning labeled Tappe, wedding dresses are on display. The gilded figure of Nike, the winged goddess of victory, leads the horse of the equestrian statue of William Tecumseh Sherman, placed in the Grand Army Plaza in New York City (1903).
The bride and groom and the bridesmaids in pink pose under the red canopy. Two choir boys dressed in red and white cause a bit of mischief. The choir boy at the left may be adjusting the bride’s gown, but with Stettheimer’s usual wit, more likely he is trying to peak under her dress. The choir boy at the right is about to swing his censer at a dog trying to climb the steps, the owner attempting to control it.
Like Alfred Hitchcock, Stettheimer includes herself in her work. With her mother and sister, she arrives in a limousine for the wedding. The license plate contains the date 1931 along with her name.
Stettheimer loved America and she loved New York.
(To be continued next week)
Beverly Hall Smith was a professor of art history for 40 years. Since retiring with her husband Kurt to Chestertown in 2014, she has taught art history classes at WC-ALL. She is also an artist whose work is sometimes in exhibitions at Chestertown RiverArts and she paints sets for the Garfield Center for the Arts.