The Stettheimer Dollhouse: A Life and Salon in Miniature

Winner of the BAAS Postgraduate Essay Prize

This year, Chelsea Olsen (University of Sussex) won the BAAS Postgraduate Essay Prize. For more details about the Prize, please visit here.


For twenty years, the Stettheimer salon (1915-1935) reigned as one of the central cultural hubs of 20th-century New York. Led by sisters Florine, Ettie, and Carrie, the salon cultivated an influential network of modernist artists, writers, and musicians, which would inspire and facilitate most of the sisters’ creative endeavours, including Carrie’s dollhouse replica of the salon: the Stettheimer dollhouse. An amalgamation of both Stettheimer salon locations, the dollhouse functions as a microcosm of the Stettheimer salon. Notable salon guests contributed a number of miniature paintings and sculptures to the dollhouse, whilst also providing Carrie with encouragement to persevere with the project. Even after Carrie’s death in 1944, the salon network continued to support the dollhouse, helping to facilitate its exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York. However, the dollhouse served as more than simply a testament to the Stettheimer salon’s networking function; it also acted as a vital form of self-expression and self-realization for the otherwise unheard from Carrie. Using existing theorizations of the miniature, this essay will thus posit the Stettheimer dollhouse as not only an intensified version of the salon and its status as a support network for its guests and hosts, but also as an object by which Carrie could assert control over her own life and establish a personal legacy.

From its inception in 1915, the Stettheimer salon served as a safe space for artists, writers, photographers, and art aficionados of varied sexualities and gender identities. Located first at 102 West 76th Street and then at 182 West 58th Street from 1926 onwards, the salon welcomed a myriad selection of guests, including writer and photographer Carl Van Vechten, celebrity photographer Adolph de Meyer and his wife Olga—all of whom were closeted homosexuals, famed Dadaist Marcel Duchamp, art collector Leo Stein, composer Virgil Thomson, and many more. However, one could not just show up to the Stettheimer salon, as admittance was by invite-only. The sisters wanted their unconventional guests to feel as comfortable as possible whilst in the salon space, and thus, any unknown entities were viewed as a potential risk to their guests’ safety.  While the salon space itself was richly ornate, with damask-covered furnishings, gilded chairs and tables, chandeliers, and decorative cherubs, the accompanying salon meal—designed by Carrie—was equally elaborate, featuring courses as inventive as feather soup and halibut and lobster in mayonnaise aspic. The salon served as a testament to the sisters’ admiration for the feminized, decorative arts and their belief that the domestic sphere—and all of its associated tasks—could serve as sites for creative expression.

The Stettheimer Dollhouse: Art Gallery. Photo © flickr user Casey and Sonja; used under Creative Commons Licence CC BY-SA 2.0.

It was in the Stettheimer dollhouse that all of the salon’s features—its embrace of gender fluidity and the decorative arts, its support network—come into sharp relief. Scaled one inch to a foot, the dollhouse was designed to be 29 inches high, 56 inches wide, and 37 inches deep. It consisted of two stories and sixteen rooms, including the all-important salon. Throughout its 25+ years of construction, Carrie “commissioned replicas of period furniture for the house, ordered special fabrics and tiny chandeliers, and thoroughly involved herself in its appointments.”[i] However, the dollhouse remained unfinished at the time of Carrie’s death, due to what Ettie deemed “many handicaps. For one thing, Carrie ran our ménage which was in later years a complicated and difficult one owing to our Mother’s prolonged invalidism.”[ii] It was ironically Carrie’s entrenchment in the domestic space that both inspired and impeded the dollhouse’s creation.

The dollhouse works in tandem with the salon to achieve a complete revisioning of domesticity, transforming the private space of the home into a realm for creative expression and feminist subversion. The dollhouse is—as Andy Warhol once noted—a work of art in its own right.[iii] While miniature artworks by salon guests, including Marcel Duchamp, Gaston Lachaise, Albert Sterner, and Albert Gleizes, bedeck the walls and hallways, the dollhouse’s décor provides its own visual pleasures. The foyer serves as an opulent—and subtly subversive—opening to the house’s interior. Its teal, cream and gold palette and numerous alabaster pillars, give the space a palatial feel, but it is the room’s wallpapered back wall that stands as its most striking feature. As John Noble notes in his study of the dollhouse, the foyer “is dominated by the architectural fantasy of the wallpaper which represents a formal French garden in a vue d’optique that creates an illusion of depth as well as the paradox of the outdoors brought inside.”[iv] The wallpaper thus collapses the distinction between the feminized domestic sphere and the masculinized public sphere, revealing both to be merely superficial constructs. The dollhouse’s remaining rooms demonstrate an equally playful attitude toward surface. From the linen room with its black lace-trimmed cupboard doors, to the rose bedroom with its embroidered chiffon canopy and ruched blue and pink taffeta-bordered windows, the dollhouse presents itself as a highly decorative space. Needlepoint chairs and rugs furnish the salon, while the library features silver leafed walls, red lacquered furniture and a minutely detailed Mahjongg tile set—all painstakingly completed by Carrie. With its emphasis on ornamentation and its mixture of materials, the dollhouse ultimately stages a feminist reclamation of the decorative arts, which intensifies the salon’s own efforts to transform domesticity and decoration into sites for artistic expression.

As the dollhouse mirrors the salon’s reverence for the decorative, it also acts as a microcosm of the salon’s support network. While Carrie and her sisters encouraged their guests in their artistic endeavours and their disruption of gender norms, their guests reciprocated with support of their own. In a series of letters dating from 1918 to 1921, we see how Marcel Duchamp became personally invested in the dollhouse’s creation. In a 12 November 1918 letter, Duchamp inquires about Carrie’s progress on the dollhouse, even drawing comparisons between her work and his own forthcoming experimentation with the miniature form, Boîte-en-valise.[v] Three years later, he expresses his desire to see the dollhouse completed upon his return to New York, encouraging Carrie to persevere with the project in spite of the many setbacks she faced.[vi] Carl Van Vechten was similarly supportive of the project, albeit after Carrie’s passing in 1944.[vii] Recognizing how important the dollhouse was to Carrie’s self-realization, Duchamp, Van Vechten and other salon guests assisted her in its construction—much in the same way that Carrie helped them on their own journeys of self-discovery and artistic expression.

The Stettheimer Dollhouse: detail of Art Gallery. Photo © flickr user Mark B Schlemmer; used under Creative Commons Licence CC BY-SA 2.0.

In a clear visual testament to the “imaginative reciprocity of the salon circle,” the dollhouse features over twenty miniature artworks by salon guests—most of which adorn the house’s ballroom.[viii] Among these works are nude sculptures and sketches by Gaston Lachaise and Alexander Archipenko, The Bathers by Marguerite Zorach, Nude Descending a Staircase by Marcel Duchamp, an untitled portrait by Albert Gleizes; and Grief by Alexander Archipenko’s student and wife, Gela. Interestingly, many of these artworks play with traditional notions of the female nude. Rather than embrace the classical nude’s geometrical structure and well-defined borders, which Lynda Nead understands as vital to the containment of female sexuality, the dollhouse’s nudes are misshapen and ill defined and thus embody the gender ambiguity characteristic of the Stettheimer salon.[ix] They defy the male gaze—an act through which a male viewer tries to control and objectify a female subject for his own pleasure—and in doing so, further the salon’s own attempts to invert society’s sexual hierarchy. They similarly interrogate traditions regulating who can and cannot paint nudes. As Marita Sturken and Lisa Cartwright note in Practices of Looking, only male artists were traditionally allowed to paint female nudes, as women were not believed capable of producing ‘great’ art.[x] Yet, the dollhouse problematizes this sexist assumption, featuring nudes by male and female artists alike. The dollhouse’s library is similarly egalitarian, with miniature literary works by guests Carl Van Vechten and Theodore Dreiser sitting alongside their host Ettie Stettheimer’s own roman à clef Love Days; it constitutes a metonymic rendering of the salon space and the people within it.

However, the dollhouse was also an important tool for Carrie’s self-realization: as both an artist and an individual. It provided her with an escape from her hermetic existence and “the bother” of her domestic duties, which she apparently detested.[xi] In her introductory foreword to John Noble’s study of the dollhouse, Ettie proclaims “that although my sister was an extremely successful and competent housekeeper, as our friends will confirm, she had no liking whatever for this job, and this, I imagine, no one suspected.”[xii] Rendered passive by her circumstances, Carrie lived merely in accordance with others’ needs, desires and expectations. The dollhouse was a way for her to reclaim ownership over her life—to create a space that she could call her own. As Bachelard notes in The Poetics of Space, the miniature presents a unique opportunity for the artist to condense and, in turn, possess her surrounding world.[xiii] In recreating her domestic surroundings in miniature, then, Carrie was able to represent her life, and even transform it. To use Susan Stewart’s terms, the dollhouse provided Carrie with “an absolute manipulation and control of the boundaries of time and space,” by which she could free herself from the domestic life she resented and fashion herself a more aesthetically pleasing and independent existence.[xiv] It even led her to rent her own studio at the Dorset Hotel from which she could work on the dollhouse “in single strictness”; the dollhouse thus facilitated both a physical and metaphorical removal from domesticity and mundane responsibility.[xv] To suggest that the dollhouse was simply an escape from the oppressiveness of the domestic space, however, would be to undermine its creative repurposing of domesticity. For Carrie, the dollhouse constituted what Beverly Gordon terms a saturated world—a means by which “domestic amusements,” such as paper dollhouses, scrapbooking and party giving, could be reimagined as sources of fulfilment, sustenance, and most importantly, creative expression.[xvi]

Aside from her salon menus, the dollhouse was Carrie’s sole means of expressing herself. It was a central part not only of her life, but also of her self; she treated it like a diary—a receptacle for her deepest thoughts, feelings, and desires. According to Bachelard, the house is “one of the greatest powers of integration for the thoughts, memories and dreams of mankind.”[xvii] To see an individual’s home—their most intimate space—is to know them and their values.[xviii] While the dollhouse is by no means a “nonfiction[al]” text, as Quinn Darlington rightly asserts, it does provide insight into who Carrie was: a skilful artist with refined taste and feminist values, who transformed her domestic circumstances from a site of oppression into a source of artistic inspiration.[xix] According to Ettie, Carrie wanted “to create an object of intrinsic worth and at the same time contribute largely to some cause she was interested in promoting fascinated her. I believe it was her hope to exhibit the house for such a purpose, and in the end to present it to a museum.”[xx] Now, as part of a permanent exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York, the dollhouse has fulfilled its purpose: to expand not only our understanding of what constitutes art, but also the limits of Carrie’s legacy.

References

[i] Barbara Zucker, “Florine Stettheimer: A Private Vision,” Women’s Studies 6.1 (1978): 90.

[ii] Ettie Stettheimer, “Introductory Foreword,” in John Noble, ed., A Fabulous Dollhouse of the Twenties: The Famous Stettheimer Dollhouse At the Museum of the City of New York (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1976), 11.

[iii] Jean Nathan, “Doll House Party,” New York Times 16 July 1995: A36.

[iv] John Noble, A Fabulous Dollhouse of the Twenties: The Famous Stettheimer Dollhouse At the Museum of the City of New York (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1976), 14.

[v] Marcel Duchamp, Letter to the Stettheimer sisters, 12 Nov. 1918, Box 1, Folder 19, YCAL MSS 20 Florine and Ettie Stettheimer Papers, YCAL, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, New Haven, CT, 25 Feb. 2016.

[vi] Marcel Duchamp, Letter to Ettie Stettheimer, 6 July 1921, Box 1, Folder 19, YCAL MSS 20 Florine and Ettie Stettheimer Papers, YCAL, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, New Haven, CT, 25 Feb. 2016.

[vii] Carl Van Vechten, Letter to Ettie Stettheimer, 29 Aug. 1944, Box 5, Folder 102, YCAL MSS 20 Florine and Ettie Stettheimer Papers, YCAL, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, New Haven, CT, 12 Mar. 2016.

[viii] Emily D. Bilski and Emily Braun, “Florine Stettheimer: The Jewish Rococo,” in Bilski and Braun, eds., The Power of Conversation: Jewish Women and Their Salons (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2005), 133.

[ix] Lynda Nead, The Female Nude: Art, Obscenity, and Sexuality (London and New York: Routledge, 1992), 6, 22.

[x] Marita Sturken and Lisa Cartwright, Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 79-80.

[xi] Ettie Stettheimer, Diary (1918), Box 7, Folder 129, YCAL MSS 20 Florine and Ettie Stettheimer Papers, YCAL, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, New Haven, CT, 19 Mar. 2016.

[xii] “Introductory Foreword,” 11.

[xiii] Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space: The Classic Look at How We Experience Intimate Places, trans. Maria Jolas (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994), 150.

[xiv] Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1993), 63.

[xv] “Introductory Foreword,” 12.

[xvi] Beverly Gordon, The Saturated World: Aesthetic Meaning, Intimate Objects, Women’s Lives, 1890-1940 (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 2006), 1, 3.

[xvii] The Poetics of Space, 6-7.

[xviii] Ibid., 9, 152.

[xix] Quinn Darlington, “Modernism’s Miniatures: Space and Gender in the Stettheimer Dollhouse and Duchamp’s Boîte-en-Valise,” Diss. University of Notre Dame (2012): 33.

[xx] “Introductory Foreword,” 11.

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About Chelsea Olsen

Chelsea Olsen is a third-year PhD student at the University of Sussex. Her research focuses on the complex intersections between literary and artistic modernism, gender, and salon culture.
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