MHC Seminar 1, Professor Casey Henry

Prompt for September 25

Discuss an aspect of the Stettheimer exhibit through a perspective learned from John Berger (this can be a more abstract perspective—what Berger made you think about as you were in the exhibit, perhaps focusing on a single piece, or the layout/arrangement of the exhibit).


  1. kristin

    Walking through the exhibit, I thought that many of the artwork that Florine Stettheimer painted focused on moments of her life whether she was a part of it or it was what she viewed or felt. They were vibrant with attention to detail and was very dynamic in that you can see the people depicted in the paintings, or the painting themselves, showed activity and life. After watching episode 3 pf John Berger’s Way of Seeing things, I learned that oil paintings mainly showed the artist or subjects’ wealth and possessions. Through that I thought more of Stettheimer’s paintings that depicted scenes in her life and ultimately showed her wealth and status. Take for example the painting “Family Portrait,” which was the first painting you see when you enter the exhibit. It shows Florine with her 2 other sisters and their mother in their home in Manhattan with a fancy carpet and drapes shown at the sides, a chandelier and the scene of the empire state building in the background. The mother and sisters all wearing beautiful dresses and gowns, Florine wearing a suit and heels. In terms of wealth and possessions, this painting showed they are quite wealthy being able to live in Manhattan with a view of the empire state building which was recently built at the time. The gown of her mothers shows layers of fabric and the the shawl has a lot of attention to details and design that I would imagine someone who is wealthy can buy. Another indicator was the room they are all in which was big and spacious and while seeing the Empire State building could mean they had a view of it in their home, it may just be there to depict living in Manhattan. Still she had access to a lot of culture centers and they lived without a father for a while so they are quite wealthy. However, with the emphasis of the 3 enlarged flowers in the middle of the painting, it makes one think if wealth and possession really are the purpose of the painting. Even then, I am still captured by the scene of the moment. Maybe as John Berger said that I have gotten confused with the traditional purpose of paintings but he has talked about paintings that do depict capturing a scene of the moment and I do see the life of Florine and the subjects of her paintings and the vibrancy of colors in these works make it all the more alive.

  2. lfremaux

    While viewing Stettheimer’s exhibit at the Jewish Museum, I continued to compare her work to the characteristic of some of the paintings John Berger discussed in “Ways of Seeing Episode 3.” John Berger discusses texture and having the painting be something one could put their hands on in regards to realism and simulated texture. Stettheimer brings texture to a new level by going beyond stimulated texture and using mixed media in her work. In one painting she uses gold foil to place a gold statue of liberty on the painting rather than using paint. Berger also discusses that many older works show wealth and usually the only places that are not painted in detail with wealth are the face and hands. However, in Stettheimer’s work she has a great use of vibrant color contrasted by the emptiness of color and a lack of development, which is very unlike the early works talked about with Berger. Berger also discusses how the person who bought the painting also bought the wealth depicted. One may argue if Stettheimer’s work represents a change in the times since it lacks material wealth. However, perhaps Stettheimer’s work represents a spiritual wealth that cannot be measured by the material items depicted and highly valued in older works of art this can be seen through the subjects of her paintings which were often figurative.

  3. aspasiatsampas

    Florine Stettheimer was an American artist who grew up in the Jazz Age of New York City as a very affluent and upper-class citizen. The most notable aspect of John Berger’s analysis on oil paintings was the idea of upper-class, aristocratic society being portrayed. This is very prevalent in Stettheimer’s work as most scenes depict an aspect of her own, wealthy, life.
    Most of her paintings are very abstract looking in the sense that the people and places depicted do not look real. She has a very flamboyant flare which makes it all the more interesting when she depicts these scenes of social hierarchy. For example, one of the pieces, titled “Spring Sale at Bendel’s,” depicts the lust of consumerism in this high-class department store. With marvelous scarlet steps and drapes with gold trim framing the painting, this piece depicts the well-dressed upper class of the time as well as making a statement on the society.
    Another aspect of celebrating wealth and power in art Berger described was portraits of important people, specifically in families. Stettheimer had portraits of her sisters and mother. This, according to Berger, represents the continuity of power and worthiness in a family. One notable painting was Stettheimer’s portrait of her sister. The painting itself is huge with a very grand gold frame. Her sister is depicted in all white, giving the illusion of virginal delicacy. This could be Stettheimer’s way of portraying her sister as eligible for marriage. Also, frame and size of the painting illustrates the power and influence of the Stettheimer family.

  4. tzipporachwat

    In his video, “Ways of Seeing Episode 3”, John Berger asserts that oil paintings are a form of art used to show off material wealth of the artist, subject, or owner. Florine Stettheimer was born to a wealthy family in Rochester, New York. She then studied art in both New York and Europe. A lot of Stettheimer’s art can be used as proof for Berger’s argument. Generally speaking, a lot of Stettheimer’s portrait subjects were friends and influencers like Marcel Duchamp. Additionally, Stettheimer’s wealth can be seen in the decadent frames she made for some of the paintings in the exhibit at the Jewish Museum. Berger’s argument can also be clearly seen in 3 works that were displayed early in the exhibit: “Portrait of My Teacher, Fräulein Sophie von Prieser”, “Portrait of My Mother”, and “Portrait of My Aunt, Caroline Walter Neustadter” (I had a picture to include but I wasn’t sure how to add it to a comment so check out this handy link of “Portrait of My Mother” All three of these portraits are similar in that they portray colorful backgrounds full of fancy and elaborate furniture and decor with women standing tall in more simple, but elegant, black dresses. These paintings corroborated Berger’s claim that oil paintings were”records of confidence of those whom ownership brought confidence” since the women are standing tall and proud in front of their wealth. However, they do not back up Berger’s claim that the rich people in oil paintings were portrayed surrounded by seas of fancy clothing. The exact opposite was true in the Stettheimer portraits since the woman were wearing pretty simple dresses, but this could have just been the style of her time. Lastly, Berger said that oil painting portraits were used to show how certain people were objects of respect and envy. Since Stettheimer was part of a wealthy family, it may have been that her family and teacher were widely respected and envied, or it may have been how Stettheimer perceived them.

  5. sayrailyas

    Florine Stettheimer was the daughter of one of the most affluent Jewish aristocrats in New York City. She displayed her artistic talents in various forms: drawings, sculptures, and costumes. However, her most prominent pieces of art were in the form of oil paintings. In John Berger’s “Ways of Seeing,” Berger relays that oil paintings depict materialistic items denoting wealth and power.
    Stettheimer used oil paintings to illustrate the myriad of luxuries she was exposed to.
    From materialistic items like her summer homes to more abstract concepts, like freedom of will. The latter idea was conveyed in the piece entitled “Picnic at Bedford Hill.” During a time where people were subject to the horrors of World War I, the painting illustrates the essential freedom the aristocrats had given the blissful nature of what was otherwise a dark time in history.
    Stettheimer also created portraits of her family’s members. Berger describes portraits as a record of an individual’s life, a celebration of their power and worthiness. Stettheimer displays the older women of her family, her mother, grandmother, etc, in black, cascading, garments, accompanied by jewelry made out of either gold or pearl. This contrasts with the portrait of her sister, which was incidentally right next to the portraits of her mother, grandmother, and teacher in the museum. She uses a similar style of displaying the wealth of family by painting dresses with an overflow of material, although, she dresses her sister in white, rather than black, possibly symbolizing purity.

  6. xiaoqingc

    According to Berger, “every portrait is a record which says, ‘I once existed and looked like this’”. Here, Berger’s perspective on portraits by artists had caused me to wonder the purpose of painting them. For a long, I have thought of portraits, especially self-portraits, as a similar form of a modern day “selfie” and “profile picture”. It can be meant to capture how we look like and who we are. Keeping Berger’s perspective in mind, I examined Florine Stettheimer’s Family Portrait II. This was definitely different from what I have seen before of a family portrait. Usually, the members of a family are standing or sitting together, facing the audience and painted in the center. However, in Stettheimer’s family portrait, the center of focus is three distinct flowers: a red poppy as a symbol of remembrance, a white lily as a symbol of virtue, and a pink rose as a symbol of love, gratitude, and appreciation. The Stettheimers are each facing in different directions. I also note that this family has no father figure, who left the family before the children were grown. This portrait shows the four family members that “existed” and stayed with each other. In addition, I note that the Statue of Liberty in the blue background, indicating New York City. This family portrait is definitely unique because it is unlike traditional family portraits.

  7. leahgenkin

    In “Ways of Seeing Episode 3” Berger states that the objects depicted in the oil paintings “is not unlike buying them.” They are painted in such a way that one feels they can grasp the object. It was interesting for me to see how Stettheimer advanced this idea with some of her oil paintings relating to costume design, referring specifically, to “Costume design (Georgette) for artist’s ballet Orphée of the Quat-z-arts” (Link to image:
    The background and person are oil based. However, the costume and accessories are in three dimension. The costume of the person is a gold material, embroidered, and with fur trimmings. Furthermore, the hair, the flowers in her hands, and shoes of the actress are all in three dimension. This is not the first time I saw an artist use such a technique in their art. However, after watching this episode I noticed this style more and I think it stems from the idea of the oil paintings making the objects seem tangible. So though everything else about the painting is quite simple, what stood out to me is her use of actual materials and how it also made the object seem “graspable”.

  8. Henry Menestrier

    After watching John Berger’s analysis of the oil painting and the connotations it carries with it. It dealt mostly with oil paintings of the 15th-17th centuries, so I walked into the Stettheimer expecting it to be just that: elaborate 16th century paintings of powerful aristocrats. Instead, I was greeted paintings that were more in line with Picasso and Dalí than any painter Berger mentioned in his analysis. Stettheimer’s paintings were all incredibly colorful and abstract, characteristics completely absent from traditional oil paintings; they were things that, at first glance, didn’t seem to represent wealth and power at all. It took me a while to realize that I was approaching Stettheimer’s work from the wrong angle.

    I soon learned that she lived during the first half of the 20th century and came from a very wealthy family. This meant that I was analyzing her work through the lens of another time period. During the time of traditional oil paintings, wealth was determined largely by property: he who owned the most land was often the richest. We can see this in the paintings Berger analyzes: the aristocrats posing next to their valuables, their fields, their animals, etc… However, by the 20th century, the main way to determine wealth was simply how much money you had, due in large part to the Industrial Revolution. The elite needed to find a new way to assert their wealth to the masses. Knowledge of art and literature became the new benchmark, as they were subjects that few lower class men would bother learning since it had very few practical applications. The vibrant colors and abstract shapes of Stettheimer’s work is a celebration of the mind and therefore, in the context of the 20th century, a celebration of wealth.

    It is also worth mentioning that the mere fact that these paintings exist is another demonstration of wealth. Along with knowledge of arts and literature, wealthy families would also learn those skills; painting, playing instruments, writing, etc… because, once again, they were skills with very few practical applications and therefore something the lower classes wouldn’t try to learn. The fact that Stettheimer had access to painting tools, all of the exotic colors we see in her paintings, and could still support herself tells the observer of the painters wealth just as much as the subject of the painting itself.

  9. aidansub

    I find that the Stettheimer exhibit showed that Florine at least tried to make something of herself as a wealthy Jewish American aristocrat. Being a wealthy woman makes it very easy to be an unproductive socialite because it comes with no consequences — yet Berger made it clear that Florine was a motivated individual who was committed to her art and what it contributed to the modernist movement. Through her costume designs, iconic paintings, and writings, she very much used her affluence in order to fuel productivity and create the identity of an artist akin to her contemporaries, such as Marcel Duchamp and Henry McBride. A modern comparison might be to Kylie Jenner, who could very much have remained a socialite but at least made an attempt to put her product (or in Stettheimer’s case, art) out there.

    It was also evident that Florine was intent on presenting herself as an artist and affirming herself in the artistic community of modern era New York City. All of her self portraits depict her, in some way, in what she perceives as her work — whether it’s donned in a full smock or holding a paint-smeared palette, she is intent on making sure her viewer doesn’t misinterpret her as a woman with all the wealth and resources in the world at her disposal. The stigma of being rich is one commonly present in artistic communities, creating a strong dichotomy between the starving artist and the affluent artist, but she made sure to convey that she too had a contribution to the community as good as any other.

  10. Ana LuoCai

    The one thing I remembered very vividly from John Berger was the experience one has with art. Me looking at art through a screen is distinctly different from actually looking at art in person. When I went to the exhibit, I really felt the experience between myself and Stettheimer’s artworks. In particular, her drawings that were on what resembled wrinkled parchment paper. I felt a strong personal quality to these drawings, and felt like instead of a wealthy socialite from the early twentieth certain, I was looking at the doodles and drawings of an ordinary individual. Typically, I find that when I’m looking at renowned works that there is a distance between me and the artwork, and not a physical distance. It feels like I’m merely looking at art behind the heavily protected glass and frames. But with Stettheimer’s drawings, I was experiencing every sketch of her pencil, every scribble, and every wrinkle on the paper. Most traditional paintings to the human eye seem to lack any imperfections and flaws, but in the exhibit I was up close and personal with all of Stettheimer’s work and could in a way live through her while she was in her art studio.

  11. Sarah Taj

    ’But there is also another sense in which seeing comes before words. It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we
    explain that world with words, but words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it. The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled.’ These very words from John Berger depict what the Stettheimer museum embodied. Florine Stettheimer was known to have grown up in a family of three girls and two boys, with a notably absent father for most of their lives. As a young girl, Florine studied art in relatively conventional programs. She was exposed to European classics while on a lengthy trips to Europe with her mother and sisters , and the apex of the trip was the visit to the Ballet Russes. The ballet had a fundamental effect on her interpretation and approach to art and theater which she related to modern life, and a stage design mentality that dominates most of her paintings.
    One of her paintings, Family Portrait ll, 1933, exposes a life Florine would have lived. Its decorated with the thrills of the wealthy life and depicts what can be seen as her mother, sister and herself. It goes as far as to include a hand maid that appears ready to serve at their leisure. The background laces the painting with an image of heaven on earth. With crystal chandeliers and white towering buildings, it exposes the underlying, yet evident glamour the rich seem to live. The characters in the painting also exhibit a calm, relaxed aura; they do not appear weary from the daily stresses the working class may have to face, but rather at ease knowing that day will never come.

  12. K Campbell

    I originally perceived Stettheimer’s work as the art of a boring rich person painting pictures of their boring rich life, a Gatsby-esque lifestyle of parties and luxury. But, like Gatsby, there may be a view of negativity, despite the wealth, being presented. A painting that struck me was a portrait of a woman lounging on a rug. It brought to mind a stereotypical image of someone lounging on a bear-skin rug in front of a fireplace, or, given that this painting also depicts a Christmas tree, the image of presents sitting in front of the tree on Christmas morning. The odd part is that these two images are combined – the tree is on fire. We could also consider the idea of the the woman as a present, and think about the objectification of women by wealthy men. I find it more interesting to look at art from wealthy people as possible criticisms of the circles they are part of.

  13. preetiprez

    Upon first glance, I was captivated by Florine’s use of vibrant colors. Especially the color red which symbolizes a bold decision as well as her choice of a romantic and lively mood. Her paintings with many people to me represented the “celebration of social or divine order” that John Berger mentioned in his video, of their wealthy and luxurious lifestyles. The upper-class is portrayed as relaxed, lounging, and carefree, but not in par with the rest of society. However, her self-portraits seemed as if they were a way of communicating to the audience, her raw self and how she finds her real persona through painting. I found this spoke out most loudly in the painting with her sitting on a white bench with a pallet besides a tree while there is another naked woman sitting on the other side. The expression on Florine’s face seems pleased and calm while the other woman seems as if she’s taking a deep breath in and living in the moment. This made me think that both woman represented Florine and her two different personas. While talking about specific oil paintings, Berger asks “who do you think she was meant to represent? Different painters see her differently.” This then reminded me of the various self-portraits of Florine and how these questions can be applied to the stark contrast of the nude self-painting and the one titled “self-portrait with paradise birds.” The latter, portrays her with a more “starving artist” look and removes the aristocratic pedestal away from her name. The colors also are more cooler shades and thus creates a quieter response, not meant to shock, but to just tell the audience about who she is. Contrastingly, her naked painting with her daring smile and a bright and red color scheme is meant to provoke a bold and louder response as if she is making a statement. All in all, it seemed as if her portraits represented different aspects of herself as a wealthy aristocrat and a striving artist. 

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