This Artwork Changed My Life: Florine Stettheimer’s “A Model (Nude Self-Portrait)”

Sarah Dotson
Dec 22, 2020 1:00PM

If you polled my childhood friends, I think they would unanimously agree that I grew up with Cool Older Brothers. If you’re not familiar with that genre of sibling, let me enlighten you. Cool Older Brothers skateboard and have long hair. They drink Mountain Dew at 7 a.m. on the way to school and model Jim Morrison’s head out of clay in their art classes. It all comes across as very effortless. And though they’re now older and have shorter hair, my brothers are still very cool. Growing up, I looked to them to tell me what music was worth listening to and how to do tricks on rollerblades. Now, I admire their work ethic and kindness.

When you are the Little Sister of Cool Older Brothers, there is a tendency to think you know more than your classmates. My middle-school self is a great example of this. I sneered when people said they liked classic rock but couldn’t name all of the members of Led Zeppelin. I reveled in the fact that when everyone was just starting to wear Chuck Taylors, I already owned more than one pair—and in unexpected colors. Long before “basic” was a term used for the white women of the world who wear plaid blanket scarves and drink pumpkin spice lattes, I committed to never succumbing to the things I interpreted to be mainstream.

I think that desire to be different from everyone else developed into a kind of cynicism that I held with me for years to follow. It wasn’t until I saw Florine Stettheimer’s A Model (Nude Self-Portrait) (1915) that I let my guard down. I started indulging in the music, art, and clothes that I truly loved—not the things I thought created a more interesting or cultured person.

To no one’s surprise, as a restless suburban kid scared of being like my peers, I dreamed of New York City. Growing up, I spent every free extracurricular hour in dance classes. My vision of the life I would live in the city manifested as a sort of absurd existence that included being the redhead Rockette, starring as the girl who speaks six languages in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee on Broadway, and creating a line of high-fashion crocheted skirts. By college, I knew I didn’t want to be a performer, and I never learned to crochet anything but a large square, so I had to reevaluate my dream.

With endless possibilities ahead of me, I decided to study English and art history in college. I became obsessed with Fitzgerald and Nabokov, Kirchner and Rothko. The majority of students in my classes wore T-shirts and athletic shorts, but I traipsed around the sprawling campus in impractical shoes, statement dresses, and a pink faux fur coat. Though I never would have admitted it, walking into lecture halls I often felt insecure. At the time I would have argued I was just being myself, “myself” being someone who refused to stick to the status quo and thought those who did couldn’t think for themselves. Wearing a T-shirt to class, like listening to Justin Bieber in middle school, would have been the ultimate sign of defeat. I now see that I felt a desperate need to prove I was different, that I was meant to leave my hometown and home state of Georgia. The confidence I exuded was a mask for the anxiety I had that I couldn’t actually live up to the dreams I had for myself.

I interned at an art gallery in Manhattan the summer before my senior year of college, and I made the move back to the city the day after I graduated. I spent that summer surrounded by art. As an intern at the Met, I used my employee badge to get free access to museums all over the city, and I dutifully chased down gallery shows, blockbuster exhibitions, and public art installations. At the end of the summer, I went to the Jewish Museum to see an exhibition of work by an artist I sadly hadn’t learned about in school: Florine Stettheimer.

When I saw her reclining nude self-portrait, rendered in the manner of Titian’s iconic Venus, I gasped. Here was a perfectly coiffed redheaded woman whose gray-blue eyes were staring straight into those of the viewer. Her bare porcelain-colored skin glimmered against plush white bedding, and she held a beautiful, bursting bouquet of what looked to be pink carnations, purple pansies, and orange irises. The simultaneous power and femininity of it exuded a message that was abundantly clear: It is possible to hold many truths at once.

Stettheimer magnificently co-opts the centuries-long tradition of painting the reclining nude and subverts it in more ways than one. Here, we have a reclining nude painted by a woman, not one of the heralded men of Art History 101. Instead of softly covering her left hand on her pudendum, she offers a lively bouquet of flowers. The work is a self-portrait, not the product of a kind of painter-model voyeurism. Stettheimer looks calm and amused, neither uncomfortable nor overtly sexual. When she painted A Model (Nude Self-Portrait), it was one of the first full-length nude self-portraits to be painted by a woman.

In her self-portrait, Stettheimer shows that you can be vulnerable and in control; you can be strong and demure; you can listen to the same music as your Cool Older Brothers and also your pop-obsessed friends; and you can love your home and also want to leave it. The unrealistic and unforgiving this-or-that dichotomy that had ruled my life up until this point disintegrated. In one work, Stettheimer presents the complexity of being a woman and an artist, and in doing so, reveals the power in embracing it and baring it all.

Sarah Dotson