About this artwork
In the 1920s and 1930s, Florine Stettheimer painted imaginative portraits and representations of the life and world of celebrated members of the American avant-garde, including artists Marcel Duchamp and Elie Nadelman; novelist Carl van Vechten; and here the composer Virgil Thomson, who is perhaps best known for his opera Four Saints in Three Acts. First staged in 1934 with an all-black cast, the work featured a libretto by Gertrude Stein and striking cellophane sets and costumes by Stettheimer, which achieved instant notoriety.
Stettheimer developed her unique blend of faux-naive art and avant-garde innovations during the 1910s. With little concern for proportion or perspective, the artist depicted fantastic scenes, combining past and present, real and imagined, near and far, which she populated with slim, stylized figures who seem to float or dance through space. In this painting, an ecstatic-looking Thomson, awash in a flood of supernatural light, gazes at a mask bearing Stein’s features, which seems to represent a source of inspiration. Alluding to music’s heavenly quality, this encounter between creative forces takes place on a bank of clouds, complete with a tiny stage and actors, lettered banners, and fluttering doves.
The chained lion to the right of Thomson might refer to the power of music to soothe even savage beasts or to Saint Jerome and the Evangelist Mark, who are frequently depicted in the company of lions. Reinforcing the link between creativity and spirituality are banners that combine the names of two saints from the opera, Ignatius of Loyola and Teresa of Ávila, with those of Thomson and Stein. However, the artist’s own name—Florine St.—appears in reverse order to the others, perhaps a witty abbreviation of her signature. Stettheimer designed the scalloped frame, which appropriately sets off her fanciful vision.
- Florine Stettheimer
- Portrait of Virgil Thomson
- United States
- Oil, and possibly ink, on canvas
- Signed at lower right: FLORINE ST. Dated at lower left: 1930 Inscribed and signed in black paint across top stretcher: VIRGIL THOMSON - BY Florine Stettheimer Dated in pencil on left side stretcher: Feb. 12 1930
- 97.8 × 51.1 cm (38 1/2 × 20 1/8 in.)
- Gift of Virgil Thomson