A dollhouse and Marcel Duchamp. Not exactly two words you expect to have a strong relationship.
But that would be incorrect, I was amazed to discover recently, when I came across the Stettheimer Dollhouse at the Museum of the City of New York. Peering through the glass that now encloses it, I saw a dollhouse taken to new, opulent heights with 16 rooms of elaborate themed decoration in a miniature two-story mansion that speaks of upper-crust 1930s New York. No detail was too small: tiny pieces of Limoges porcelain, carefully fashioned window drapes and swag, elaborate wall murals and mirrored doors as well as chandelier after chandelier. In fact, it is a replica of the Stettheimer sisters’ home created by Carrie Stettheimer. If the decor seems fantastic, it is also surprisingly mimetic; the Stettheimer home was also decorated in such a whimsical way. Stettheimer reproduced in detail period furniture, trim, and light fixtures and painted tiny wallpaper like the Noah’s Ark scene in the children’s nursery. She began it in 1916 and worked on it through the 1930s, her constant and singular artistic pursuit.
Beyond the care taken with this dollhouse, and its panache, is another surprise. Stettheimer asked some of the artists who frequented their home to create tiny copies of their paintings and sculptures for the dollhouse. The Stettheimer home was a hub of cultural activity as the sisters entertained a bohemian milieu, as evidenced by the dollhouse’s ballroom. The ballroom boasts an art collection to rival full-sized collections with works by Alexander Archipenko, George Bellows, Gaston Lachaise, and Louis Bouche. The stunner is a 2 x 3-inch rendition of Nude Descending a Staircase contributed by Marcel Duchamp. Lachaise did a miniature alabaster nude statue that appear outside the ballroom doors alongside William Zorach’s tiny bronze Mother and Child. The collection is displayed in carefully composed environment where the striped floor matches the gilded chairs and fireplace, complete with tiny logs waiting to be lit.
Florine Stettheimer is known as the artist of the family: her original paintings are now prominently hung in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s modern wing, where they stick out as separate from the larger Modernist conversation. Florine’s work also appears in the dollhouse: she contributed a miniature portrait of Carrie (it hangs in Carrie’s favorite bedroom of the dollhouse). Yet her sister Carrie’s dollhouse can be considered a unique work of art in its own right, a fantasy world perhaps all the more enticing because of its roots in reality. Carrie Stettheimer died in 1944 and, in 1945, her surviving sister Ettie gave it to the Museum of the City of New York, so that now Carrie’s life work is now on permanent view at the Museum of the City of New York.