Riffling through stacks of letters in Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, second-year MA student Sarah Leary skims through the slanting cursive writings for mentions of the early twentieth-century painter Florine Stettheimer and her creative colleagues and friends. Leary seeks to recover the interdisciplinary conversations that brought together artistic professionals and shaped the form of American modernism.
Struck by the business-like qualities of Stettheimer’s Studio Party (circa 1917-1919, pictured below) when she saw it as an undergraduate student, Leary revived this interest for her upcoming Master’s thesis. The painting shows avant-garde creatives, from sculptors to poets, playwrights, and painters musing over the Stettheimer’s recent works along the walls of her studio. Leary therefore directs her research to the Stettheimer’s private salon parties of the early twentieth century and their impact on her art. This confronts the fiction of the “lone creative genius,” (gendered male by default) and adds to the recent wave of feminist scholarship that revises history by reviving the circle of people and multitude of factors that allowed so many male artists to reach “genius” status.
Studio Party allows for a particularly complex discussion of these self-fashioned artistic statuses as the artist includes a large nude self-portrait on the back wall of the studio scene. During summer research supported by both a College of Arts and Sciences Graduate Research Award and a Carol Ravenal Art History Graduate Travel Award, Leary found understudied sketches for the self-portrait in Columbia University’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library. In each of her trips—one to Yale and one to Columbia—Leary flexed her archival skills and searched the large number of documents preserved within these institutions following donations from Stettheimer’s family. These sketches and other written material confirmed Leary’s assertion that the artist looked to Manet and Goya, among others, for her artistic style—complicating their “genius” by making herself both artist and model in the Olympia-esque self-portrait.
Leary also considers the venue of Studio Party as self-reflective of the artist’s practice. Stettheimer was independently wealthy and did not sell a single artwork within her lifetime. Her documented nude self-portrait was only shown in these private salon parties and never in public. Therefore, Stettheimer’s identity falls into an uncomfortable slippage with the “hobbyist female artist” trope. By foregrounding these studio parties, Leary turns this trope on its head, seeing Stettheimer as an artist able to work unmarred by the pressures of the market—a privilege viewed as positive in the cases of male artists like Picasso and Braque.
Leary is writing her Master’s thesis under Dr. Nika Elder and expects to graduate this spring.