Cathedrals of Art by Florine Stettheimer

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Cathedrals of Art is my favorite painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Considering this monumental institution, that’s quite a weighty claim. But it’s still true for me after hundreds of visits. One reason seems obvious – it reaches an iconic level of meta. The first time I saw Florine Steittheimer’s masterpiece it reminded me of a Little Golden Book from my childhood.

A Self Referential Canvas

The cover had a girl reading a book that had that same girl reading a book on the cover. Each little girl had herself on the book she was reading all the way until she became a tiny, indecipherable, dot. As a child, this book taught me about the idea of self-consciousness. Not in the negative way of feeling insecure or neurotic. Rather, it spoke to me about conscientious self awareness. This same self referential knowledge dwells in Cathedrals of Art.

The painting even speaks of itself because Florine Stettheimer wrote the title right on the canvas. She graced the floor in bold gold letters to spell it out for us. But it’s easy to miss because these letters encircle an absurd mini-scene. In the bottom center, a naked baby in a gilt crown practices tummy time in the blinding spotlights of enthusiastic observers. One writes and the other takes a picture.

Both shine impossibly bright streams of light upon the baby’s chubby, pink, figure. These are art critics, salivating over the young and worshipping them like royalty. That explains the crown. There’s also a nepotism reference. A queen mother kneels next to the baby as if to remind us that not just any old baby gets this kind of attention.

Stettheimer was near the end of her life when she painted this. In fact, Cathedrals of Art remains unfinished because she died. It was her final masterpiece and the last in her Cathedrals series. These portrayed the sacred spaces of her world. The other three show her Cathedrals of Broadway, Fifth Avenue, and Wall Street. She was an artist, feminist, and poet. But more than anything else, Florine Stettheimer was a New Yorker.

Avant Garde Icon

We know this because Stettheimer was an avant garde icon even in the early 190os. She broke through a number of societal and cultural limits. For instance, before 1920 Florine painted Asbury Park South. It was one of the earliest works by a white American artist to portray black figures with features that were as non characticatured as those of caucasian subjects.

Florine also created a Salon in New York City where all LGBT friends and acquaintances were not only welcome, they felt free to be fully themselves. This was at a time when it was illegal and taboo to do so most everywhere else. This was an artist who stayed true to her beliefs no matter what others might think. That aspect of Stettheimer also shines through in Cathedrals of Art. She was an insider in the art world. Still this painting shows how much the political aspects of that arena relegated her to outsider status.

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Cathedrals of Art by Florine Stettheimer

An Outsider Gives us a Peek Inside

Florine Stettheimer was both insider and outsider in the art world. That’s the dichotomy and tension we see in Cathedrals of Art. She put herself in the painting at our bottom-right, inside a glorious and gilded tent of pure, innocent, white. Her figure holds an improbably huge bouquet. The flowers in her grasp are too large to be real. When I first saw this painting, I thought this could represent Florine’s hold on her art career. But I later learned that Florine disliked symbolism in art. She also often painted herself holding flowers. It was like her trademark.

Still, the painter placed herself off to the side and within a limited and fanciful frame. She’s inside this world where the Museum of Modern Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Whitney come together into one wondrous cathedral. It’s a fantasy. But Florine Stettheimer includes so many realistic components that the scene feels more real than concocted. Her security guard looks bored and blasé. My favorite detail is the adoring vampiric creature near the middle. It holds a hand close to where a heart would be as if catching feelings.

Monster in the Middle

She shows us the monster at the absolute center of the art world. This demon basks in the light falling from a chandelier. It’s all about itself. Surrounded by art institutions, purveyors, critics, creators, and lovers; the heart of the art world cares only for the bottom line, money – like blood to a vampire. Cathedrals of Art flaunts feminine beauty in every other facet. This vampire at the middle stands out as the only exception. Stettheimer includes several adorable (though seemingly spoiled) children, ardent fans, and sublime colors. So, it’s hard to miss the dark hearted beast at the center, in love with itself.

That’s the glory of Florine Stettheimer. She includes it all and keeps it gorgeous and gripping. This is the art world on another level. Much like the girl holding the book, it’s self reflective and introspective much like the artist herself.

Cathedrals of Art – FAQs

What was the artist Florine Stettheimer known for?

Painter, poet, feminist, and salonnière, Stettheimer has left several legacies, both tangible and intangible. She was integral to the avant garde art community of the early 1900s. Inclusive, creative, and connected, Florine’s paintings live in some of the world’s top museums. Her contributions to LGBT and Black culture are also notable.

Florine had two artistic sisters, Carrie and Ettie who helped cement her legacy after death. In fact, I highly recommend a visit to the Museum of the City of New York to see their dollhouse. This masterpiece in miniature graces the second floor of the museum filled with objects that represent variations of the city. It’s an unforgettable and extraordinary house. There are even tiny paintings and sculptures by the world’s top artists. You have to see it to believe it.

Where can I see Cathedrals of Art in person?

Living at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is part of what makes Cathedrals of Art so meta. It’s a painting about the art world as a sacred space that calls out the Met right on the canvas. The wonder of this masterpiece isn’t only the divine colors and fascinating details. At about five feet by four feet, the painting also places viewers in a world all its own. Stettheimer transports us with each of her New York City Cathedrals. But this one is by far my favorite. Although Florine died before she could finish it, this painting provides a poignant ending to the story of her life.

Enjoyed this analysis of Cathedrals of Art?

Check out more essays about Women painters.


Check out Cathedrals of Art at the Met online.

Don’t miss the Stettheimer Dollhouse at MCNY.

Tessler, Nira (2015). Flowers and Towers: Politics of Identity in the Art of the American “New Woman”. Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Bloemink, Barbara J (2022). Florine Stettheimer: A Biography[1] Munich, Germany: HIRMER. 

McBride, Henry (1930). “Florine Stettheimer”. In Barr, Alfred H. (ed.). Three American Romantic Painters. New York: The Museum of Modern Art.

Frederickson, Kristen; Webb, Sarah E. (2003). Singular Women, Writing the Artist. University of California Press.

Brickner, Isaac M; Wile, Isaac Abram (1912). The Jews of Rochester: an historical summary of their progress and status as citizens of Rochester from early days to the year nineteen hundred and twelve. Rochester, N.Y.: Historical Review Society.

Sawelson-Gorse, Naomi (2001). Women in Dada: essays on sex, gender, and identity. Cambridge, Mass.; London: MIT.