“The Cathedrals of Wall Street” (1939) (50’’ x 60’’) (Metropolitan Museum of Art) focuses on the New York Stock Exchange. The building is painted in gold. Corinthian Greek Columns support the pediment, and a large gold curtain hangs as if on a stage, and is drawn back to reveal a gold medallion containing the portrait of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Stettheimer, a strong supporter of New Deal programs such as Social Security and unemployment insurance, gave Roosevelt this prominent position in the composition. On the pediment above, she placed labeled portraits of Bernard Baruch, John D. Rockefeller, and JP Morgan, Roosevelt’s financial advisors who helped bring the Great Depression under control. Flags extend from either side of the Roosevelt medallion, and a length of ticker-tape in blue, white, and red is placed under his portrait. A stickler for accuracy, Stettheimer sent her lawyer to get a piece of ticker-tape from the parade which took place on April 30, 1939, the inspiration for the painting.
The 1939 parade celebrated the 150th anniversary of the inauguration of George Washington on April 30, 1789. Marching in from the left, the drum and bugle corps is led by a strutting majorette. They are followed by six uniformed service men carrying flags. Stettheimer requested information from the armed services to assure that their uniforms were correct. At the right of the Stock Exchange, a Boy Scout holds a flag; another plays the trumpet. Next to them, the woman wearing a flowing white and gold gown and presenting an American flag is Grace Moore, who sang the “Star Spangled Banner” at the ceremony. Moore, an opera singer and musical theatre performer, was known as the Tennessee Nightingale. Stettheimer had her hair done by Moore’s hairdresser in order to meet Moore.
Stettheimer placed the figure of Eleanor Roosevelt, who wears the long blue dress and carries a bouquet, in the center foreground. Stettheimer tried to meet Eleanor, but without success. The man in the black suit, who stands behind Eleanor, is Mayor Fiorello La Guardia. He delivered a speech at the celebration. Also in the forefront are a Marine in his dress blues and an American Indian in gold with a red, white, and blue feathered head dress.
At the upper left, white buildings are labeled US BANK, GUARANTY BANKERS TRUST NEW YORK and MORGAN & COMPANY. At the lower left, a red platform holds members of the Salvation Army. Two Salvation Army women sing “God Bless America” while a third accompanies them on the piano. Although the Great Depression was mostly over, Stettheimer recognized that people still are in need and the Salvation Army was there to WELCOME.
At the upper right, Stettheimer depicts two columns labeled BANKER and LAW. Running vertically down the columns are the words INSURANCE and MORTGAGE. Behind the pediment, in the New York Harbor, stands the Statue of Liberty. Beside and behind the Stock Exchange the gray stone tower of Trinity Church rises. Stettheimer depicted the exact location of the Church that can be seen at the intersection of Wall Street and Broadway.
Stettheimer included the 1939 re-enactment of the 150th anniversary of George Washington’s inauguration on the steps of the New York Sub Treasury Building. The large gold statue of Washington is Stettheimer’s stand-in for the person who played Washington in the reenactment. The New York World’s Fair opened on the same day, April 30,1939, in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. President Roosevelt invited Stettheimer to be present at the cornerstone laying for the Fair. The statue of George Washington, standing 71 feet tall, was the main feature of the World’s Fair. Visible in this detail are Trinity Church, the two Boy Scouts, and Grace Moore.
A charming self-portrait depicts Stettheimer, wearing a red dress and red stilettos and holding a large bouquet with a long ribbon bearing the inscription “To George Washington from Florine Stettheimer, 1939.” Although she was nearly 70 years old, she depicted herself as a young woman.
Of the four paintings in the series The Cathedrals of New York, “The Cathedrals of Art” (1942) (50’’ x 60’’) (Metropolitan Museum of Art) was the most personal for Stettheimer whose paintings had been included in over 40 important exhibitions in New York and Paris. The Museum of Modern Art is set at the left, the Metropolitan Museum at the center, and the Whitney Museum at the right. On the column between MoMA and the Metropolitan, Stettheimer labels their collections ART IN AMERICA. On the column separating the Metropolitan and the Whitney, she aptly describes the Whitney’s collection as AMERICAN ART.
Stettheimer includes at the Museum of Modern Art a Cubist style portrait, a la Picasso, of a lady in a green hat. The man wearing the black suit and sitting on a chair designed by Corbusier, is Alfred Barr, the first director of MoMA. On the first floor of the Museum, as if they were real people, are two running figures in white togas drawn from Picasso’s painting “The Race” (1922). Next to them is the yellow lion from Henri Rousseau’s “The Sleeping Gypsy” (1897). Just below, the man with red hair and wearing a gray suit, tries to escape from the Museum and the new modern art. On MoMA’s ceiling, the artist has signed her name backwards, next to the name of Picasso.
At the right, the Whitney Museum is represented by a red American eagle. Juliana Force, director of the Museum, is depicted with red hair and wearing a green dress. She stands in front of a gold statue of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, founder of the Museum (1931). “The Cathedrals of Art” was the last in Stettheimer’s series and it remained unfinished on her death in 1944. She worked on this painting until a few weeks before her death as a result of cancer. Many of the specific details and finishes so important to this painting were not completed.
The Metropolitan Museum is placed at the center of the composition. The unfinished portrait of a woman in a black dress with a large white collar was a Queen or a 17th Century Dutch woman from the Met’s collection. The importance of the subject was emphasized by the red drapes on either side. A seated Egyptian statue and other works from the Museum’s collection are visible. At the top of the stairs, Francis Henry Taylor, the Met’s Director, holds the hand of a small baby with a gold halo, and hewogestures as if giving the child a tour of the Museum’s collection. Several other figures stand to either side of the red-carpeted stairs.
Alfred Stieglitz, the famous photographer, stands draped in a black cape at the bottom of the stairs. At the right side of the stairs, the critic Henry McBride wears a gray suit and holds two small flags with the words GO and STOP. A chauffeur, dressed in a red uniform, leans casually against the opposite pedestal.
The chauffeur watches the photographer George Platt Lynes, leaning in to photograph “Baby Art.” The flash of the camera and the spotlight held by Lynes’s assistant place the baby in a glow of light similar to that of the heavenly light in Nativity paintings. The baby represents the birth of new art. The image of the baby is repeated walking at the top of the stairs with Taylor.
Two distinct figures remain. At the lower left, a well-dressed man in a tuxedo leans against a Corinthian column. The banner at his feet contains the word COMPERE, the person who is responsible for introducing performers in a stage show. At the lower right corner, under a very elaborate white canopy with gold fringe, is Florine Stettheimer. She wears a white gown, red stilettos, and carries a bouquet. The banner beneath her feet declares she is COMMERE, a gossip. In traditional altarpieces, patron saints are placed at the left and right foreground of the scenes.
#5 “The Cathedrals of Art” (self-portrait of the artist)
Stettheimer was a notable salonniere, hostess of important writers, artists, philosophers, and intellectuals in discussions of significance. Stettheimer was also a poet. Crystal Flowers was published by her sister Ettie in 1949. Her paintings were clever and flamboyant, and always had something to say about the state of New York society. On her death in 1944, her close friend Marcel Duchamp organized a retrospective of her paintings at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. It was the first retrospective of a woman artist at MoMA. The exhibition traveled to the San Francisco Legion of Honor Museum and Arts Club of Chicago. Stettheimer told her sister to give her paintings to museums, not to sell them. The Cathedrals of New York were given to the Metropolitan.
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.
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