What you see: Portrait of Marcel Duchamp and Rrose Sélavy, a 1923 painting by Florine Stettheimer. Christie’s estimates it at $1 million to $1.5 million.
Who was Florine Stettheimer? She was a wealthy American woman who was, and is, regarded as an artist’s artist. Marcel Duchamp and Georgia O’Keeffe attended her salon. She might be the first woman artist in history to paint a nude self-portrait. She wasn’t keen on self-promotion; she had one small solo show at the Knoedler gallery in 1916, which flopped, and she never did another. While Stettheimer’s sisters ignored her wish to have her art destroyed after she died, they gave most of it to museums, leaving little for collectors to acquire. Two years after her death, the Museum of Modern Art staged a Stettheimer retrospective. And if you were lucky, you caught the Florine Stettheimer show at the Jewish Museum in New York earlier in the year (this Duchamp portrait was in it). She died in 1944 at the age of 72.
Do we know how her portrait of Marcel Duchamp came to be? “We don’t know what spurred her to focus on Duchamp, but she did a series of full-length figures standing by objects that had meaning to the individual,” says Paige Kestenman, a specialist in American art at Christie’s. “Duchamp was one of her closest friends, so it makes sense that she’d include him in the group.” It’s unclear how large the portrait series was, but other subjects included fine art photographer Alfred Stieglitz and composer Virgil Thomson, who once owned the Stettheimer painting that we’re talking about.
Let’s talk about what Stettheimer has surrounded him with in the painting. Do I see a little horse head above Duchamp? “That looks like a chess piece, which Duchamp was very interested in. He was almost obsessed with the game of chess. It also represents the symbol he designed for the Société Anonyme,” she says, referring to an arts organization that Duchamp co-founded in 1920 with Katherine Dreier and Man Ray. “The grid [the horse head is housed in] resembles a chessboard.”
It looks like this is a double portrait. Who is Rrose Sélavy? “Rrose Sélavy seems to have emerged as an alter ego or component of Marcel Duchamp’s personality around 1920,” she says, noting that the artist went as far as signing some of his ready-mades with her name, and posing for Man Ray dressed as Sélavy. “In her portraits, Florine Stettheimer was constantly exploring not just the physical likeness of the art icons of her day, but a deeper sense of their identities,” she says. “This portrait is a bit tongue-in-cheek and satirical as well.”
What is Duchamp doing in this portrait? “He’s dressed in a suit, sitting in a chair, and turning a metal rod that operates a mechanical coil that lifts his persona higher and higher,” she says. “He’s literally projecting her.” Sélavy is shown sitting on a platform that bears her name.
What’s the story behind the unusual frame? “It’s the original frame, and it enhances the overall work,” Kestenman says. “It says ‘MD’ along the entire length. It mimics the ‘MD’ repeated on Duchamp’s chair in the composition, and it mimics the sense of Duchamp’s constantly promoting himself, and exploring themes of identity.”
Did Stettheimer design or build the frame? “In doing research on the frames, I saw different information on if she designed the frame and had it built to spec or if she built some of them,” she says. “She certainly designed the frame, and it’s very well-preserved.”
Did Stettheimer do other portraits of Marcel Duchamp? He appears as one of several figures in some earlier paintings by her (look for the red-headed guy). “This is the first portrait of him,” she says.
Last time I checked, Stettheimer’s work rarely appeared at auction. Is that still true? “Her work is very rare on the market. There have been only six or seven works at auction in the last several years, including this one, which sold in 1990 for $110,000,” she says. “This is the only figural work that’s been to auction. The modernist market has changed a lot since then, and it’s changed for female modernists as well.”
The estimate for this portrait is $1 million to $1.5 million. Even if it sells for well below its low estimate, it will probably set a new record for Stettheimer at auction. How did you arrive at these numbers? “Of course it’s more difficult to set an estimate when there are no direct comparables in the market recently,” she says, adding that she and her colleagues looked at the freshest auction results and considered the drawing power of Marcel Duchamp and the changes in the market over the last 27 years. “Florine Stettheimer is so rare to market, especially her portraits,” she says. “Following the retrospective at the Jewish Museum, it’s an important time to offer work by her.”
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Christie’s.
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