California Literary Review

The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


March 27th, 2012 at 11:46 am

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The Steins in the courtyard of 27 rue de Fleurus

The Steins in the courtyard of 27 rue de Fleurus, ca. 1905.
From left: Leo Stein, Allan Stein, Gertrude Stein, Theresa Ehrman, Sarah Stein, Michael Stein.
Theresa Ehrman papers and photographs, BANC MSS 2010/603, The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley. Transfer; Judah L. Magnes Museum; 2010

There is a huge, over-lifesize photograph of Gertrude Stein and her family at the entrance to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition, The Steins Collect. From the left, it shows Leo Stein wearing what appears to be a Stetson hat, a bemused Gertrude with her hand resting on the shoulder of her nephew, Allan, a family friend named Theresa Ehrman in the center, with Gertrude’s sister-in-law, Sarah Stein, and her elder brother, Michael Stein on the right.

The photo was taken in Paris in 1905. It shows what appears to be a happy American family at the turn of the 20th century. They are posed, seemingly, during a brief interval of a visit to the City of Light. The Steins, however, were no ordinary American family. Their vacation trips to Europe turned into sojourns that lasted for most of the remainder of their lives.

The Steins spent much of their time and a considerable amount of their wealth purchasing avant-garde art by visionary painters like Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. But as one commentator, Henry McBride of the New York Sun, later said of Gertrude, the Steins “collected geniuses rather than masterpieces.”

Leo Stein (1872-1947) played the key role of initiating the family quest for modern art. A brilliant student at the University of California, Berkeley, followed by a short-lived enrollment at the Harvard Law School, he was unable to settle on a course of study that satisfied him. Then, in 1895-1896, globe-traveling jaunts to Japan, Egypt and Europe introduced him to the study of art.

Everywhere that Leo Stein went, Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) followed. When Leo went to Harvard, Gertrude studied at Radcliffe. When Leo reached Europe on the final stage of his multi-nation journey, he sent for Gertrude to join him for a summer tour of the Rhine. Leo and Gertrude were extremely close, in age and temperament. They were soul-mates, as well as siblings, until different views of art and life strangled their once intimate bond.

Leo continued to search for a way to nurture his love of art and his desire to be painter. In 1900, during a stay at the art community in Fiesole, Italy, he struck up a friendship with Bernard Berenson, who would go on to become one of the world’s greatest authorities on Renaissance art. Berenson encouraged Leo to collect the work of Paul Cézanne. Another friend, the cellist Pablo Casals, asked a pointed question that forced Leo’s hand. When Leo remarked that he might have been an artist had he been born thirty years earlier, Casals asked him why he could not do so now.

Leo responded by renting a small studio and two bedroom apartment in Paris, located at 27, rue de Fleurus, near the museum of art at the Luxembourg Gardens. The address is important. When Gertrude joined him in 1903, they pooled their modest financial resources and began to buy contemporary art, including works by Cézanne. Many works by the now popular Impressionists were beyond their means, so they chose judiciously. Cézanne’s Bathers, purchased from Ambrose Vollard’s gallery is a prime example of the small, high quality works of art that Leo and Gertrude selected as the foundation of their collection.

Paul Cézanne, Bathers

Paul Cézanne, Bathers, ca. 1892
Oil on canvas, 8 11/16 x 13 in. (22 x 33 cm)
Musée d’Orsay, Paris on deposit at the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon

Leo and Gertrude hung their newly acquired treasures on the walls of their apartment, using the paintings as a magnet to draw like-minded enthusiasts into discussions of the new art. Together they turned 27, rue de Fleurus into the epicenter of Modernism, with Saturday night salons that were a must for anyone interested in the cultural revolution now underway in Paris.

Another of the early works which Leo and Gertrude purchased was Woman with a Hat, by Henri Matisse. Leo initially reacted to Woman with a Hat, calling it “the nastiest smear of paint I had ever seen.”

Henri Matisse, Woman with a Hat

Henri Matisse (French, 1869–1954), Woman with a Hat, 1905
Oil on canvas
31 3/4 x 23 1/2 in. (80.7 x 59.7 cm)
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Bequest of Elise S. Haas
© 2012 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Why then did the Steins spend 500 francs for this controversial work? First of all, Leo was a great admirer of a crucifixion scene by the Renaissance master, Andrea Mantagna, which he characterized as a painting “with the color running through it.” Leo looked with favor on bold works of art at this stage of his life.

“I wanted an adventure,” Leo said of his decision to embrace the avant-garde world that was emerging with amazing force in Paris. And of course that is what his sister Gertrude was looking for too.

The second motivating factor in the purchase of Woman with a Hat was the arrival in France of Michael Stein, the eldest brother of Leo and Gertrude. Michael Stein (1865-1938) had managed the finances of the family after the death of their father, ensuring that all the Stein siblings received equal shares of the modest estate. Michael had an impressive career with the San Francisco transit authority. His visit to France, in the company of his art-loving wife, Sarah, (1870-1953) and their son, Allan, was expected to be only a short vacation. Michael and Sarah, however, experienced the same creative awakening as Leo and Gertrude. They would not leave France, except for a brief return to San Francisco following the 1906 earthquake, until 1935.

The Steins pooled their resources and bought Woman with a Hat. Soon they were purchasing many of the works of Matisse, with Michael and Sarah especially favoring his work.

Leo also led the way in adding Pablo Picasso to the Steins’ collection of geniuses. In 1905, having seen a Picasso painting in a store window, Leo bought two of his works. By the standards of the day, this was a rash move, investing funds from the family’s limited bank account on relatively unknown artists.

Explaining the daring additions of paintings by Matisse and Picasso to the Stein collection, Leo wrote a friend in the United States, “All our recent accessions are unfortunately by people you never heard of so there’s no use trying to describe them, except that one of those out of the salon [the Matisse] made everybody laugh except a few who got mad about it and two other pictures are by a young Spaniard named Picasso whom I consider a genius of very great magnitude.”

Gertrude initially was aghast at a Blue Period nude that Leo purchased, but was quickly won-over after meeting Picasso. Again, Leo and Gertrude used their limited funds to tremendous advantage, purchasing a number of signature works by Picasso. These included Boy Leading a Horse, probably the greatest work of Picasso’s early, pre-Demoiselles d’Avignon career.

Pablo Picasso, Boy Leading a Horse

Pablo Picasso, Boy Leading a Horse, 1905-6
Oil on canvas
86 7/8 x 51 5/8 in. (220.6 x 131.2 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York, The William S. Paley Collection, 1964
© 2012 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Once acquainted, Gertrude Stein and Pablo Picasso got along famously. Gertrude encouraged other leaders in the Modernist movement, like Alfred Stieglitz, to promote Picasso (and Matisse), which he did in his art journal, Camera Work. Picasso, responded by painting Gertrude’s portrait during 1905-06, a landmark image that secured their respective legends.

Pablo Picasso: Gertrude Stein

Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881–1973), Gertrude Stein, 1905–06
Oil on canvas
39 3/8 x 32 in. (100 x 81.3 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Gertrude Stein, 1946 (47.106)
© 2012 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

“For me, it is I, and it is the only reproduction of me which is always I, for me,” Gertrude wrote about her portrait by Picasso in 1938. If ever the word “icon” can be applied to a work of modern art, this is surely an appropriate use of the term.

Gertrude’s growing self-appreciation was stroked by the attention Picasso paid to her. Her portrait involved endless sittings and three major revisions of the face, which went from a profile view to the head-tilted frontality of the final state. Picasso famously changed the focus as well, basing the depiction of Gertrude on his current enthusiasm for “primitive” African masks. It was a radical departure for both painter and subject, a daring deconstruction of hallowed traditions of Western art dating back to the Renaissance. Gertrude showed her approval by aiming for the same effect with her experimental style of writing. In 1946, at her death, she bequeathed her portrait to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, making it the first Picasso in the collection of the museum.

In 1916, Matisse painted matching portraits of Michael and Sarah Stein. This was the only instance in his career that Matisse painted pendant portraits. But the circumstances were hardly to the liking of either painter or patrons. Michael and Sarah were his most enthusiastic early patrons. Their apartment at 58, rue Madam, not far from Leo and Gertrude, was said to be the best place for viewing Matisse’s works except for his studio.

Henri Matisse, Sarah Stein

Henri Matisse, Sarah Stein, 1916
Oil on canvas
28 1.2 x 22 ¼ in. (72.4 x 56.5 cm)
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Sarah and Michael Stein Memorial Collection, gift of Elise S. Haas
© 2012 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

In July 1914, at Matisse’s urging, Michael and Sarah sent nineteen of his works to an art exhibition in Berlin. When World War I broke out in August, the paintings were marooned in Germany. Even though the United States was still neutral, Michael and Sarah were unable to negotiate the return of the paintings, the cream of their collection. They opted to sell the paintings to collectors from Norway and Denmark. It was a devastating set-back. The matching portraits were Matisse’s way of expressing his regret at the turn of events.

By the outbreak of World War I, the close bonds between Leo and Gertrude had snapped. In 1913, their relationship strained by the presence of Alice B. Toklas at 27, rue de Fleurus, Leo departed. The collection he shared with Gertrude was divided, the Renoirs and Cézannes going to Leo, the Picassos remaining with Gertrude.

The Metropolitan Museum documents the sibling split in a generally sensitive manner. A wall text does quote Leo’s disparaging comment that he refused “to accept the later phases of Picasso with whose tendency Gertrude has so closely allied herself. . . . Both [Picasso] & Gertrude are using their intellects, which they ain’t got, to do what would need the finest critical tact, which they ain’t got neither, and they are in my belief turning out the most go’almighty rubbish that is to be found.”

The abrasiveness of Leo’s comment conceals hurt and yearnings that are beyond the scope of even a great exhibition like The Steins Collect. Fortunately, an excellent joint biography of Leo and Gertrude, Sister Brother by Brenda Wineapple, treats their parting of the ways with insight and compassion.

In the concluding galleries of the exhibit, Leo disappears from view. He married in 1921 and lived a quiet, retiring life painting and writing about art. These were the years during which Gertrude came into her own as a cultural guru. She continued to patronize Picasso, Francis Picabia and other artists. Along with her literary works, she wrote the libretto for Virgil Thompson’s opera, Four Saints in Three Acts. The Metropolitan Museum exhibit concludes with newsreel footage of this revolutionary musical production which was predicted “would finish opera just as Picasso had finished oil painting.”

But the most striking part of the exhibition’s final galleries may well be the display of architectural plans, photos and home movies of the home built by Michael and Sarah Stein during the 1920’s. They commissioned Le Corbusier to design a modernist residence in the manner of his Pavilion de l’Esprit Nouveau.

The radical, slab-sided house was subsidized by the Stein’s friend, Gabrielle Colaço-Osorio, who had a separate apartment. It was built at Garches, west of Paris. Like most edifices constructed as an architectural manifesto, Villa Stein-de Monzie was extremely expensive to build. But it gave the Steins, especially Michael, the opportunity to make a final statement of their extraordinary family’s devotion to art, culture and creativity.

Daniel and Michael Stein throwing snowballs

Daniel and Michael Stein throwing snowballs in the backyard of the Villa Stein-de Monzie, Vaucresson, France, 1933.
Estate of Daniel M. Stein.

“After having been in the vanguard of the modern movement in painting in the early years of the century,” Michael Stein declared, “we are now doing the same for modern architecture.”

It was a fitting valedictory for the Steins, a family that had made the collecting of modern art into a fine art in itself.


The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde February 23–June 3, 2012, The Metropolitan Museum of Art 1000 Fifth Avenue (at 82nd Street), New York, NY 10028

  • mabonnetoile

    Dear ,

    It is a wonderfull exhibition .

    And what a pleasure to see the portrait of Gertrude Stein by Riba-Rovira .Beside Tchelitchew and Balthus .

    And also the Preface Gertrude Stein wrote for his first exhibition in the Galerie Roquepine in Paris on 1945 .
    Where we can read Gertrude Stein writing Riba-Rovira “will go farther than Cezanne…will succeed in where Picasso failed…I am fascinated ” by Riba-Rovira Gertrude Stein tells us .

    And you are you also fascinated indeed as Gertrude Stein ?

    But Gertrude Stein spoke also in this same document about Matisse and Juan Gris .And we learn Riba-Rovira went each week in Gertrude Stein’s saloon rue Christine .
    With Edward Burns and Carl Van Vechten we can know Riba-Rovira did others portraits of Gertrude Stein .

    But we do not know where they are ;and you do you know perhaps ?

    With this wonderful portrait we do not forget it is the last time Gertrude Stein sat for an artist who is Riba-Rovira .

    This exhibition presents us a world success with this last painting portrait before she died .

    Both ,it is one of the last text where she gives her last art vision .As a light over that exhibition now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York .

    Coming from San Francisco “Seeing five stories” to Washington and now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York for our pleasure .

    And the must is to see for the first time in the same place portraits by Picasso, Picabia, Tall-Coat, Riba-Rovira, Valloton .

    You have the translate of Gertrude Stein’s Riba-Rovira Preface on english Gertrude Stein’s page on Wikipedia and in the catalog of this exhibition you can see in first place the mention of this portrait .And also other pictures Gertrude Stein bought him .

    And you have another place where you can see now Riba-Rovira’s works it is an exhibition in Valencia in Spain “Homenage a Gertrude Stein” by Riba-Rovira in Galleria Muro ,if you like art …


  • cesera cesera

    With the current controversy about Gertrude Stein and after the Edward Burns’s answer it is interesting to Know one of the last Gertrude Stein’s vew before dying when she speaks about art it is also politic .

    Stein’s preface to the exhibition by Francisco Riba Rovira at Roquepine Gallery in May 1945:
    « It is inevitable that when we really need someone we find him. The person you need attracts you like a magnet. I returned to Paris, after these long years spent in the countryside and I needed a young painter, a young painter who would awaken me. Paris was magnificent, but where was the young painter? I looked everywhere: at my contemporaries and their followers. I walked a lot, I looked everywhere, in all the galleries, but the young painter was not there. Yes, I walk a lot, a lot at the edge of the Seine where we fish, where we paint, where we walk dogs (I am of those who walk their dogs). Not a single young painter!
    One day, on the corner of a street, in one of these small streets in my district, I saw a man painting. I looked at him; at him and at his painting, as I always look at everybody who creates something I have an indefatigable curiosity to look and I was moved. Yes, a young painter!
    We began to speak, because we speak easily, as easily as in country roads, in the small streets of the district. His story was the sad story of the young people of our time. A young Spaniard who studied in fine arts in Barcelona: civil war; exile; a concentration camp; escape. Gestapo, another prison, another escape… Eight lost years! If they were lost, who knows? And now a little misery, but all the same the painting. Why did I find that it was him the young painter, why? I visited his drawings, his painting: we speak.
    I explained that for me, all modern painting is based on what Cézanne nearly made, instead of basing itself on what he almost managed to make. When he could not make a thing, he hijacked it and left it. He insisted on showing his incapacity: he spread his lack of success: showing what he could not do, became an obsession for him. People influenced by him were also obsessed by the things which they could not reach and they began the system of camouflage. It was natural to do so, even inevitable: that soon became an art, in peace and in war, and Matisse concealed and insisted at the same time on that Cézanne could not realize, and Picassoconcealed, played and tormented all these things.
    The only one who wanted to insist on this problem, was Juan Gris. He persisted by deepening the things which Cézanne wanted to do, but it was too hard a task for him: it killed him.And now here we are, I find a young painter who does not follow the tendency to play with what Cézanne could not do, but who attacks any right the things which he tried to make, to create the objects which have to exist, for, and in themselves, and not in relation.
    This young painter has his weaknesses and his strengths. His force will push him in this road. I am fascinated and that is why he is the young painter who I needed. He is Francisco Riba Rovira. »
    Gertrude Stein

    Perhaps you have something to tell about when Gertrude Stein tells us on Cezanne, Riba-Rovira, Matisse, Picasso, Juan Gris…

    Because why did she help Riba-Rovira ?

    Was she only fascinated by his art ?

    Was it a politic mistification and manipulation to make on his back a new vitginity for her…
    Because as she tells ,he was persecuted by the nazi .Certainly arrested after “sabotages” in coke working in St Etienne ,if he would not escape from Vannes in a transit camp where the ss wera from Holland he would be send to Mathausen as a red and republican spanish .
    But in all that when we saw in the Met the portrait of Gertrude Stein he did we can read in his way of painting a kind touch of something hieratic ,very straight ,as you must to be after beeing down .
    All his life fighting the faschism as with Picasso when they did the book to support coke miners in the Asturies who were on stricke in in the sixties …

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