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.
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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
Extended information about this artwork
Dorothy Dayton, “Before Designing Stage Settings She Painted Composer’s Portrait, Then Florine Stettheimer Translated the Portrait into the Settings of Virgil Thomson’s Opera,” The New York Sun (March 24, 1934): 15.
Virgil Thompson, “Portrait of Florine Stettheimer,” Americana Fantastica, 2nd series, no. 4 (Jan. 1943): 48 (ill).
Henry McBride, “Florine Stettheimer: A Reminiscence,” View 5, no. 3 (Oct. 1945): 14.
Henry McBride, Florine Stettheimer, exh. cat. (Museum of Modern Art, 1946), 43.
Parker Tyler, Florine Stettheimer: A Life in Art (Farrar, Straus & Company, 1963), 51–52, 55–58, 72–73, 83, opp. 83 (ill.), 112.
Virgil Thomson, Virgil Thomson (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1966), 136.
The Arts Club of Chicago, Sixty Years on the Arts Club Stage: A Souvenir Exhibition of Portraits, exh. cat. (Chicago: The Arts Club of Chicago, 1975), 60, cat. 110 (ill.).
David Harris, “The Original Four Saints in Three Acts,” The Drama Review, 26, no. 1 (Spring 1982), 106–07.
Barbara J. Bloemink, Friends and Family: Portraiture in the World of Florine Stettheimer, exh. cat. (Katonah, NY: Katonah Museum of Art, 1993), 16.
Renate Stendhal, ed. Gertrude Stein in Words and Pictures: A Photobiography (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1994), 153 (ill.).
Barbara J. Bloemink, The Life and Art of Florine Stettheimer (Yale University Press, 1995), 188, 190–91, 198, fig. 108.
Art Institute of Chicago, The Art Institute of Chicago: Twentieth–Century Painting and Sculpture, selected by James N. Wood and Teri J. Edelstein (Art Institute of Chicago, 1996), 62 (ill.).
Anthony Tommasini, Virgil Thomson: Composer on the Aisle (New York and London: W.W. Norton and Company, 1997), 229 (mentioned, not ill.).
Steven Watson, Prepare for Saints: Gertrude Stein, Virgil Thomson, and the Mainstreaming of American Modernism (New York: Random House, 1998), 164, 169–171 (ill.).
Judith A. Barter et al., American Modernism at the Art Institute of Chicago, From World War I to 1955, (Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago/Yale University Press, 2009), cat. 76.
Matthias Mühling, Karin Althaus, and Susanne Böller, eds., Florine Stettheimer, exh. cat. (Munich: Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus und Kunstbau, 2014), 155, fig. 98 (ill.)
Paintings at the Art Institute of Chicago: Highlights of the Collection, (Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago/Yale University Press, 2017), 112 (ill.).
Stephen Brown and Georgiana Uhlyarik, Florine Stettheimer: Painting Poetry, exh. cat. (New York, Toronto, and New Haven: The Jewish Museum, Art Gallery of Ontario, and Yale University Press, 2017), 134 (ill.).
New York, The Forum, Rockefeller Center, New York, No–Jury Exhibition Salons of America, Inc., Apr. 9–May 6, 1934, supp. cat. 3771a.
Northampton, MA, Smith College Museum of Art, A Composer’s Collection: Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture Owned by Virgil Thomson, Feb. 12–Mar. 12, 1967, cat. 21, as Virgil Thomson.
Arts Club of Chicago, Sixty Years on the Arts Club Stage: A Souvenir Exhibition of Portraits, Nov. 17, 1975–Jan. 3, 1976, cat. 110 (ill.).
The artist (died 1944), New York, to at least 1934 [The Forum, Rockefeller Center, New York, Apr. 9–May 6, 1934, supp. cat. 3771a; label attached]. Virgil Thomson, New York, by 1963 [Tyler 1963, opp. 83 (ill.)]; given to the Art Institute of Chicago, 1975.
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