The Self-Portraits of Florence Baldisseri


A collection of self-portraits in various media created daily by the artist.

D’une série de quatre nécrologies publiées dans le journal Washington Post. Les noms des défunts sont des anagrammes parfaites.

Stacy Steckler
Private Collection
Florence Baldisseri
Various, ranging from 4" x 6" to 18" x 24"
Various works on assorted types of paper. Media include pen and ink, lemon juice, beet juice, pencil
Pen and Ink
Sketch on paper
Black pen and ink
Pencil drawing
Black felt marker
Pencil drawing
Blue ballpoint pen drawing
Black felt on lined paper
Pencil drawing
Pencil on lined paper
Pencil on lined paper
Two faces in pencil
Painted in tea
Painted in sepia ink
Blue ink
Small face
Notebook cover
Notebook sketch
Notebook sketch
Notebook ink sketch
Notebook sketch

Nature of fake Document: Daily self-portraits done by the artist for 8 years, from age 16 to her death at age 24. Portraits are in brush and ink, charcoal, chalk, pencil, ballpoint, and pen and ink on paper. A variety of substances were used for ink: as well as India ink, the artist used beet juice, grape juice, and lemon juice (lemon juice was then heated by artist to reveal image). There are 2,920 individual drawings/paintings in the entire collection. 152 of these are mounted and framed from a previous exhibition. 600 portraits are collected on the pages of 10 sketchbooks. The remaining portraits are loose/unframed, and on a variety of paper types.

Baldisseri used a variety of papers for her portraits – there is apparently no formula for her decisions around this. Sometimes she used manila paper (these are the ones that are framed and mounted). Sometimes she used artist-grade watercolour paper. She also simply used whatever she could find (graph paper, foolscap, freezer paper). One portrait is painted on the back of an airmail envelope (this envelope is stamped and addressed to a Mr. Henrick Gruner in Amsterdam, with a postmark from Chicago: Dec 11 1980. There is no letter inside).

The portraits are not large, and do not vary much, even when the paper size changes. Even when they are on larger sheets of paper (18” x 24”), the faces are quite small (an average of 4”x6”), and dwarfed by the amount of surrounding white space.

The sketchbooks hold one portrait on each page, with the date inscribed in pencil or ink either at the bottom or top of the page (month/day – occasionally, year). Not all of the sketchbook drawings are dated.

Baldisseri’s beet and grape juice portraits are included in the loose papers, filed in manila envelopes (10 to 15 per envelope), with a sheet of tracing paper between each one. Baldisseri used 90lb cold-pressed watercolour paper for these portraits, and because it is such a lightweight paper, the paper tends to pucker around the brushstrokes. This gives the effect of a “halo” around her head in some pieces. The lemon juice portraits are crude and undetailed – sometimes they do not even look like recognizable faces (possibly because they were painted with invisible ink). The artist heated these pages with an iron to “brown” the ink and make them visible.  The envelopes have a subtle, sweet scent.

The drawings are uniformly basic and simple: there’s no sense that Baldisseri is an artist with any training (or talent!) especially in the earliest drawings. Her features are disproportionate (often the eyes are too large for the face, for instance) and her depiction of her hair (which starts shoulder-length in the earliest portraits, becomes cropped in 1979, and is eventually long again by the late portraits) is often heavy-handed and overdone. But there is something compelling about them, anyway – they are beautiful despite their flaws. Her expression is rarely a happy one. Usually she is not smiling.

When I visited the collection, the effect of seeing hundreds and hundreds of the portraits at once was striking. I flipped through the pages of the sketchbooks, the framed faces of Florence staring at me, and looked at each painting under its tissue paper protector. I began to feel like I could talk to Florence Baldisseri. Like she was listening. Then I began to feel like she was trying to say something to me.

Biographical Details about the fake Author: Little is known about Florence Baldisseri. This is what we do know: agoraphobic, shy, and plagued by anxiety and depression, Baldisseri left her home in Indianapolis at age 15 and moved to Amsterdam, where she lived alone until her tragic death at age 24. She had few friends; her parents wired money to her every week so she could cover her rent and expenses. She only shopped after dark, at night markets, to avoid being seen, dressed in layers of sweaters and pulling a wire two-wheeled shopping cart behind her. She had no training in art or design, and made up her own formulas for ink when she couldn’t afford art supplies (beet juice, for instance). She committed suicide on New Year’s Day, 1982. She jumped out of her apartment window. What triggered this act is unknown.

Details about its historical context or reception. Any critical commentary/reviews the work has received: There was an exhibition of Baldisseri’s portraits in 1981, at Gallery Lefebvre in Paris. The gallery is small, and there weren’t any reviews published, but three portraits were sold to private collectors for the equivalent of $750 USD each.

Biographical details of the “real” author behind the fake; the circumstances that might have led the author of the fake to produce the object or document; the circumstances surrounding publication: Stacy Steckler was born in Muncie, Indiana. She attended Muncie Central High School and met a high school teacher there (name unknown) who assigned a self-portrait project to everyone in his 11th grade art class. The assignment: to draw a self-portrait once a day for the entire semester.

Stacy, for some reason, never stopped.

She never left Muncie: after graduating high school, she went to college, and eventually she became a real estate agent. She continued to paint and draw self-portraits every day during this time.

Frank Mancini, the chef/owner of a successful restaurant in Indianapolis, met Stacy Steckler in 1980 when he was looking for a new location for his self-named restaurant, Mancini’s. Mancini was also an art collector – when he saw some of Steckler’s work in her apartment, he asked her about it. Steckler told Mancini that the work was not her own, but that it belonged to an artist named Florence Baldisseri, who was born in Indiana but now lived in the Netherlands. Mancini convinced Steckler to show Baldisseri’s work to his friend and gallery owner, Jean-Paul Lefebvre, visiting from France at the time (Lefebvre was a partner in Mancini’s new restaurant). Steckler agreed, but insisted that she must be the contact for Baldisseri – the artist, she said, was agoraphobic and would never agree to talk to anyone else.

Lefebvre loved the portraits, showed them the following year in a solo show for Baldisseri, and a number of the paintings were sold to interested buyers. When the buyers (and Lefebvre) came back to Steckler to ask about new work, they learned that Baldisseri had tragically taken her own life on New Year’s day, 1982.

This was the day that Stacy Steckler stopped making the portraits herself. She continues to work as a real estate agent in Muncie, Indiana. The truth about Florence Baldisseri came out in 1985, when one of the buyers attempted to research the history behind the artist, and the trail eventually reached Steckler by phone. Steckler admitted to the hoax and is quoted as saying, “France felt so far away at the time – I guess I never truly believed Frank when he said his friend was putting a show together.”

When a journalist asked her why she painted her face every day for 8 years, she simply says, “It was a habit, that’s all. I was a bit obsessive about it, I suppose.”