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A dollhouse you could call home

Commissioned in 1916 by Carrie Stettheimer — a wealthy New
Yorker who ran fashionable salons with her mother, Rosetta, and her sisters
Ettie, an author, and Florine, a well-known painter — the house is a
28-inch-tall, two-storey, 12-room mansion, complete with bathrooms and an
elevator, modelled on André Brook, the Tarrytown estate where the family
summered. Stettheimer spent 19 years decorating its interior with Empire
wallpaper, Louis XV furniture and other exquisite furnishings, at one point
even renting herself a separate apartment in which to work on the project.

She also persuaded notable artists of the time, like
sculptors Alexander Archipenko and Gaston Lachaise, to contribute appropriately
sized art. Most famously, Marcel Duchamp reprised his “Nude Descending a
Staircase,” the cubist-influenced portrait of a body in motion that scandalised
New York at the 1913 Armoury Show. His 1918 rendition, an ink-and-wash version
somewhat more jagged and explosive than the original, is just over 3 1/2 inches
tall.

After her mother died in 1935, Stettheimer stopped working
on the house, and when she herself died nine years later, the pieces she’d
collected were unhung. Before donating everything to the museum, her sister
Ettie Stettheimer chose 13 of the postage-stamp-sized drawings and paintings to
hang as an exhibition in the house’s grand ballroom, as she believed her sister
would have wanted, and three sculptures to position nearby. (A few more hang
elsewhere in the house.)

The first rooms you’ll meet are the living quarters, exposed
to view by removal of the facade. They look as if their residents have only
just stepped out. There’s bacon on the stove and a cake on the icebox; last
night’s mahjong tiles, handmade by Carrie Stettheimer, still litter the library
table. At first it may be a thrill to peer into all the rooms with a God’s-eye
view, or it may feel comforting and cozy to imagine yourself inside. But as you
start to count up the details — the dumbbells and clothes wringer in the master
bathroom, the cunning little cabinets in the linen room, the Theodore Dreiser
and Carl Van Vechten titles on the library’s red lacquer bookshelf — you’ll
quickly discover they’re more than you can take in. Around the back, meanwhile,
the art exhibition is only partly visible through three French windows.

The new installation addresses these difficulties by
surrounding the house with photos of enlarged interior views, along with related
historical materials. It’s a judicious presentation, one that makes the
inviting but secretive house more accessible without stripping away its
mystery, although I’d have preferred longer wall labels to QR codes. A receipt
for Ettie Stettheimer’s 1945 donation indicates that along with the house, she
sent a doll, complete with a Saratoga trunk and trousseau; and Carrie
Stettheimer shows up, in a reproduction of a portrait by Florine Stettheimer,
as a glamorous flapper at a garden party.

The art exhibition begins on the house’s patio, where Ettie
Stettheimer installed Lachaise’s stately alabaster Venus and a bronze Mother
and Child by William Zorach. Zorach’s sensitively rendered mother gazes toward
her counterpart with an expression of concern, while the goddess, regally
flicking a cape behind her nude body, deigns to look at no one. If you were
small enough to enter this miniature Stettheimer salon, you’d have to pass
between eros and domesticity to do so.

But looking in, at least, you’ll find a portrait of two
dancers by Swedish painter Carl Sprinchorn hanging above the fireplace. She, in
a billowing pink skirt, does a jeté, while he, in a navy leotard, waits beside
her; around them hover blocks of primary colour so bright that the couple is
almost obscured. Eleven more framed drawings and paintings cluster around the
Sprinchorn: a mix of voluptuous graphite nudes by Lachaise; sinuous female
bathers, posed against blood-red skies, by Marguerite Zorach; a sailboat
confronting a great wave; a cubist pastoral scene; Duchamp’s “Nude”; and, in
Louis Bouché’s “Mama’s Boy,” a child peering between heavy green curtains.

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In retrospect, it’s curious to note that Ettie Stettheimer,
one of three brilliant free-spirited women putting the finishing touches on
another’s great artistic project, chose to hang such a large proportion of
female nudes with work by only one female painter. But it’s also a brilliant
trick, a time capsule within a time capsule that captures both the constraints
and possibilities of life as a bohemian woman in prewar New York.

Sprinchorn’s broad, squarish canvas dominates the
arrangement and the shapes of the other pieces — smaller, narrower — and their
less florid colours emphasise that fact. It’s like the dancers are the leading
characters and all the other pictures their dreams. And what exactly is in
their dreams? They’re both preoccupied with female beauty, whether as a symbol
or as a concrete reality. But among the pictures on the right side, next to the
ballerina, there’s also the doughty sailing ship, a Lachaise nude posing
exuberantly and Duchamp’s portrait of a woman as pure electric energy, all
appropriate enough for a person gracefully leaping onstage.

On the left, beside the male dancer, there’s only a sullen
little boy watching from his bedroom — and another Lachaise drawing of a figure
turning away. The male dancer is really just standing there. The ballerina is
where the action is.

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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