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.
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.”
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.
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.
“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.
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.
“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