21 May 2012

Meet the Steins

Left to right: Leo Stein, Allan Stein, Gertrude Stein, Theresa Ehrman, Sarah Stein, and Michael Stein. Photo: Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

The other day I visited 27 rue de Fleurus in Paris. I didn't really. But it felt like I did when I went to the Met to see “The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso and the Parisian Avant-Garde.” Chronicling the art collecting of the Stein siblings—Leo, Gertrude, Michael and his wife Sarah—the exhibit explores how their patronage of avant-garde painters, particularly Picasso and Matisse, and their famed Saturday salons introduced scores of people to these artists for the first time and had a major impact on modern art.

Although associated with Paris, the Steins were Americans from Oakland, California. They were well-off but not rich; their income was derived from real estate and streetcar investments their father had made. After dropping out of Harvard, Leo moved to Paris in 1903. Gertrude followed that fall while Michael along with his wife, Sarah, and their son, Allan, arrived the following year.

"Woman With a Hat" Henri Matisse (1905)

In 1904 when Michael informed his brother and sister that they each had received $1,600 from the family business, Leo and Gertrude decided to pool their money and buy art, purchasing small works by Cézanne, Gauguin, and Renoir. Unable to afford the masters, Leo decided to focus on new artists. The following year he purchased two works by a little known Spanish painter named Pablo Picasso. A few months later, he paid $100 ($100!) for “Woman with a Hat” by another unknown artist named Henri Matisse (Leo referred to the painting as “the nastiest smear of paint”).

Michael and Sarah, who began collecting as well, were introduced to Matisse, and they became good friends and staunch supporters of the artist with Sarah even taking lessons from him. Soon the walls of Michael and Sarah’s flat at 58 rue Madame were filled with the artist’s work, probably the greatest collection of Matisse at the time.

As the siblings continued to buy, news of their collecting spread and the Steins found themselves inundated with requests to view the paintings. So Leo and Gertrude, who shared a flat and atelier at 27 rue de Fleurus, and Michael and Sarah, began to host Saturday salons, opening their homes to anyone with a reference. For many of the visitors who flocked to these gatherings, it was the only place where they could view these bold new works of art. Some visitors came just to criticize while others were inspired by what they saw. 

"The Bay of Nice" Henri Matisse (1916)

In 1913 Leo moved to his own flat, dividing the collection between him and Gertrude (Leo took the Renoirs, Gertrude the Picassos). Along with her companion, Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude would continue to live at rue de Fleurus for the next 25 years. There she held court, giving her opinion on various topics. By the 1920s, with Gertrude focused on her writing, more writers began calling, including Ernest Hemingway (Gertrude acted as mentor to the young writer and is often credited with coining the phrase “the Lost Generation”). Yet her collection was still a draw for her visitors, and Gertrude continued to add to it, including works by Picasso until the artist who she had been an early champion of became too expensive for her.

Two hundred paintings, drawings, and other items once owned by the Stein siblings are on display in the exhibit, which is divided into sections highlighting each sibling’s contribution. The rue de Fleurus atelier is even replicated. In a space the same size as the atelier (460 square feet), various photographs that were taken over the years to document the collection are projected onto the walls, allowing one to see how the space changed as paintings were added and taken away. This was one of my favourite parts of the exhibit; I stood there for quite a while, imagining what it must have been like to be in that room and wishing once again that I could have a Midnight in Paris moment.

"Gertrude Stein" Pablo Picasso (1905-1906)

I must confess I have never been a big Gertrude Stein fan. Much of her writing is over hyped and her larger-than-life ego hard to take at times. Yet there are some things I do like—her libretto for the opera Four Saints in Three Acts (which is included at the end of the exhibit), the story that she was hurt that Matisse never asked her to sit for him (I like to believe this was one case where her ego wasn’t involved), her later mentoring of young writers, and her Saturday salons, which allowed such brilliant minds to come together. And I do like Picasso's portrait of her. With signs of the cubism that was to come, there is a melding of the traditional with the new in the painting that is so fitting of Gertrude.

While I was most familiar with Gertrude, I found myself drawn to the sections on Michael and Sarah because I knew so little about them. Michael is often overshadowed by Gertrude and Leo; he was known as the sensible Stein (he made sure the family’s business interests were taken care of as well as his siblings). Yet Michael and Sarah’s impact on modern art is just as important as Leo and Gertrude’s. As early as 1906, on a trip to San Francisco to check out damages to their properties from the Great Earthquake, the couple brought some works of Matisse back with them, the first time he was seen outside of Europe (people were reportedly shocked). And when the couple returned to California for good in 1935, their collection became the basis for Matisse's first solo show on the West Coast, influencing a new generation of artists.

By the end of the 1930s Gertrude and Alice had left 27 rue de Fleurus (the lease hadn't been renewed by the landlord), Leo was living in Italy, Sarah was in California, and Michael was dead. Much of their collections had been broken up or sold. This exhibit brings it all back together.

“The Steins Collect” is at the Met through June 3, 2012. For more information, visit their website here.

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