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When an art critic is the art

McBride’s portrait at Smith College

Florine Stettheimer’s painting of Henry McBride shows her use of drastic contrasts in scale. Florine Stettheimer’s painting of Henry McBride shows her use of drastic contrasts in scale.
By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / April 26, 2011

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NORTHAMPTON — Robert Hughes once compared being an art critic to “being the piano player in a whorehouse; you don’t have any control over the action going on upstairs.’’ While there are plenty of other, even less flattering descriptions of art critics going around — most of them coined (and fair enough) by artists — I think Hughes’s has always been my favorite.

My favorite visual description of an art critic is rather more generous, but it captures some of the deep-set oddity of the role. It’s this portrait by Florine Stettheimer, a painter and society hostess, who lived in Europe for much of her youth. It depicts Stettheimer’s friend, the art critic Henry McBride, and it hangs in the Smith College Museum of Art.

Art critics are frequently as perplexed by new art as the rest of the public. When McBride first saw work by Henri Matisse, for instance, he didn’t know whether to take it as a “a joke or as a serious attempt at something beautiful.’’ But he came around, and eventually befriended Matisse and wrote an appreciative book about him.

It’s worth keeping this in mind, because when Stettheimer first showed her work, in 1916, nothing sold and the reviews were pretty discouraging.

She never showed her work publicly again.

She nevertheless was one of the most interesting figures in American modernism. During her time in Europe she encountered the likes of Gustav Klimt, Ferdinand Hodler, and Franz von Stuck, and she was an ardent fan of the Ballets Russes.

Upon returning to America, she established herself at the center of a circle that included Marcel Duchamp, Marsden Hartley, Man Ray, and Alfred Stieglitz. It was to these intimates that she showed the work she continued to make in private.

Her pictures were eccentric and frankly decorative, marked by boldly conceived designs, looping lines that convey a folksy decadence, and all kinds of fidgety, humorous details. Her colors were high-keyed, leaning toward the red and yellow end of the spectrum, and she liked to play with drastic contrasts in scale, inserting miniature details into flattened, often monumentalized compositions.

Here McBride (who was, by the way, a terrific critic) is shown seated on an odd, triple-decker rocking chair against a tile floor that has been converted, whimsically, to tennis courts. Through a window, we see a backdrop of leaning palms, skyscrapers, a rainbow, and the sun.

McBride’s outline creates an impression of effete connoisseurship, and his black coat, white pants, and sockless shoes suggest the rarefied world of the fashion-conscious dandy.

He’s holding a scorecard and pencil (he was a big sports fan, apparently, but Stettheimer may also be alluding to his role as a judge of art) and all around him are witty allusions to literature, art, and McBride’s various other interests.

Stettheimer’s salon — a modern version of the great 18th-century salons run by French women such as the Marquise de Rambouillet and Madame de Staël — encouraged an atmosphere of intimacy and wit that its members obviously cherished. I can’t imagine McBride being anything other than pleased with the result of this particular exchange.

When Stettheimer’s sister, Ettie, gave this picture to Smith College, she wrote: “I also asked Henry McB. whether he thought he would be happy among your hundreds of young ladies and he thought he would, so I am very glad to present him to you.’’

Indeed, who could not be pleased with such a fate?

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.

HENRY MCBRIDE, ART CRITIC Florine Stettheimer

At: Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton

413-585-2760, www.smith.edu/artmuseum