18 July 2015

Searching For A.H. Fish, Finding Florine Stettheimer


“Occasionally
A human being
Saw my light
Rushed in
Got singed
Got scared
Rushed out
Called fire
Or it happened
That he tried
To subdue it
Or it happened
He tried to extinguish it
Never did a friend
Enjoy it
The way it was
So I learned
To turn it low
Turn it out
When I meet a stranger -
Out of courtesy
I turn on a soft
Pink light
Which is found modest
Even charming
It is a protection
Against wear
And tears
And when I am rid of
The Always-to-be-Stranger
I turn on my light
And become myself.” 
 - untitled poem by Florine Stettheimer, from Crystal Flowers, BookThug, Toronto: 2010 (reprint of edition of 1949).


It was the untitled poem  that did it.   Untitled, I think, because what other words could do justice to a hurtful dilemma that women know only too well.   That strange feeling you get when it seems that someone has gotten inside your head and knows how you are.

I started out in search of one artist,  A.H. Fish, and was waylaid by another, Florine Stettheimer.  Stettheimer (1871-1944) was a painter and anything but a starving artist.  The daughter of a banker from Rochester, New York, Stettheimer studied art and traveled throughout western Europe before settling on Manhattan as her permanent home.  Money was hers by birthright but Stettheimer was a very private person;  unlike A.H. Fish whose career was highly visible until it wasn't, hidden, you could say, in plain sight.
Florine Stettheimer's art mixes style and substance in unsettling ways that would start to make sense in the heady decade of the 1960s.   Something lurks in her flowers and flourishes of femininity, camouflaging a  rebellious mind.  Stettheimer knew that her work, like that of other women artists, was always accepted “on approval”, a status that could be revoked at any time. Art historian Linda Nochlin likens Stettheimer's position to that of Balzac, a writer who supported the return of the French monarchy in the 19th century while being its most pointed critic. I also see something in Stettheimer’s style that surfaces  in the work of the New Yorker artist Mary Petty (1899-1976).


In “Notes on Camp” from 1964 Susan Sontag asserted the concept was “wholly aesthetic,” having no political or social dimensions.  During the intervening decades  things have changed ed as women, gays, and minorities have insisted that their concerns and methods are both personal and political at once.  Stettheimer, a New Deal liberal, would have understood. She was an opponent of patriarchal infallibility; wealth made her outspokenness easier to voice. At first glance, Stettheimer's style doesn't look like what we were taught to expect from serious social commentary,  It does reflect her influences, the years she spent in France, reading everything ansd seeing everything, making friendships with modernists heading toward abstraction like Marcel Duchamp and  Albert Gleizes. It may seem a bit of a stretch but I see a connection between Stettheimer's paintings (especially the Cathedral series) and the more recent  series  Porrnament Is Crime by Joyce Kozloff. 

Even family life, a woman's socially prescribed place, was not safe from Stettheimer's gimlet eye.  Heat is a family portrait that seems to depict a descent into Hades, its colors ranging from cool greens at the top to blood red at the bottom.  Mother in the person of Rosetta Stettheimer presides over her increasingly enervated brood, culminating in Florine (at lower right) who looks positively feverish.  The cake (at bottom) wishes "Mother" a happy birthday (dated July 22, 1918).
Clearly, Stettheimer had need of a sense of humor.  Here is a second excerpt from her poems in Crystal Flowers, taken from a group she called "Comestibles." And this was written decades before Erica Jong published Fruits & Vegetables in 1971.


“You stirred me
You made me giddy
Then you poured oil on my stirred self
I’m mayonnaise."





















Information about A. H. Fish, including why she chose to obscure her identity is difficult to verify.    Born in Bristol, England in 1890 (?), Anne Harriet Fish began publishing in Vogue and Vanity Fair during World War I, perhaps seizing her chance while her male competitors were away fighting.  Her gamines, featured in Conde Nast’s Vogue and Vanity Fair between circa 1914 to 1927 are as much exemplars of their era as Held's flappers. She married Walter Sefton, an Irishman, in New York City in 1918.   She  died in 1964.
John Held, Jr. Miguel Covarrubias, A.H. Fish:  all illustrators whose work became the face of magazine art in the 1920s, all represented in anthologies of graphic art.  Held was the producer of collegiate humor for Life magazine, in its first incarnation.  Covarrubias  the Mexican-born transplant whose caricatures for Vanity Fair and the New Yorker introduced elements of modernism to the magazine world, and A.H. Fish whose adorable gamines were etched  with a wistfulness born of the gap between a girl's aspirations and a woman's life, somehing that Stettheimer's wealth could not completely insulate her from.  Fish introduced a different perspective, one that roughed up the dominant male version of events.  Her lovers are oblivious to the envy they inspire in others, pets are openly skeptical of human emotions but, tellingly, husbands are never so much fun as boyfriends.   The little white dog of 1921 could have told her that those sweet words coming over the phone line would be replaced by indifference when it came time to pay the bills.


















John Held, Jr. Miguel Covarrubias, A.H. Fish:  all illustrators whose work became the face of magazine art in the 1920s, all represented in anthologies of graphic art.  Held was the producer of collegiate humor for Life magazine, in its first incarnation.  Covarrubias  the Mexican-born transplant whose caricatures for Vanity Fair and the New Yorker introduced elements of modernism to the magazine world, and A.H. Fish whose adorable gamines were etched  with a wistfulness born of the gap between a girl's aspirations and a woman's life, somehing that Stettheimer's wealth could not completely insulate her from.  Fish introduced a different perspective, one that roughed up the dominant male version of events.  Her lovers are oblivious to the envy they inspire in others, pets are openly skeptical of human emotions but, tellingly, husbands are never so much fun as boyfriends.   The little white dog in Eve  could have told her that those sweet words coming over the phone line would be replaced by indifference when it came time to pay the bills.

Anne Harriet Fish (Sefton), born in Bristol, England, became an illustrator, author, and designer of porcelain figures.   Conde Nast (1873-1942) was a pioneer of modern magazine publishing whose name lives on in his signature publications:  Vogue, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and House & Garden.   Nast launched  Vanity Fair in 1914 and, with Frank Crowninshield as editor, the magazine  attracted not only the best writers and illustrators but also that important magazine metric, then as now,  most advertising dollars, even  in its first year.  Between 1914 and 1927, Fish was the cover artist for more than thirty issues of Vanity Fair.  She was the only artist to outpace Miguel Covarrubias, whose caricatures of the rich and famous became as well known as photographs of their subjects.  So why has Fish gone missing from art history?



For more about A.H, Fish
The earliest work that I could uncover (at archive.org) is Behind the Beyond: And Other Contributions to Human Knowledge by Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock (1913),  illustrated by A. H. Fish.  High Society: A Book Of Satirical Drawings (1920) was drawn from her work for Conde Nast. An edition of Edward Fitzgerald's translation of The Rubiyat Of Omar Khayam, with illustrations by Fish, was published by John Lane, London in 1922. Fish later produced her own books,  hard-boiled but humorous epistles from High Society: A Pictorial Guide To Life In Our Upper Circles (1920) to  Awful Week-ends - And Guests (1938), becoming so well known that she was identified on their covers simply as "Fish."

For further reading: 
“Florine Stettheimer: Rococo Subversive” by Linda Nochlin ( Art In America 1980) reprinted in Women Artists: The Linda Nochlin Reader, Thames & Hudson, New York: 2015.

Images:
1. Florine Stettheimer  Portrait of Myself, 1923, Columbia University.
2. Florine Stettheimer - Heat, c.1919, Brooklyn Museum.
3. A.H. Fish - Social Scene, no data giver, Conde nast Archives, NYC.
4. A.H. Fish - Eve, no date given, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
5. A.H. Fish - Dancing Couple # 2, March 1921, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

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