The Steins Collect

September 24, 2011
Henri Matisse, Blue Nude Memory of Biskra
Henri Matisse, Blue Nude Memory of Biskra

“There are two geniuses in art today,” Gertrude Stein told Picasso, “you in painting, and I in literature.” Whatever posterity has made of Gertrude Stein’s literary efforts, her self-confidence has rarely been surpassed. For the most part, her cryptic, repetitive prose style ensured that her books found few readers. The outstanding exception was The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933), a best-seller she wrote in six weeks. By taking on the voice of her companion, Alice, Stein was able to freely discuss her own genius in a memoir that told how she discovered modern art and made the reputations of Matisse and Picasso.

There was, however, a small query over the veracity of her account. The famous American collector, Albert Barnes, declared Stein was “a damned liar!” The same verdict was issued by most of the artists mentioned in the book, and by Gertrude’s brother, Leo, whose crucial role in the Steins’ collection was almost completely omitted. It was left to the art dealer, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, to provide a more measured assessment: “Gertrude didn’t like reality.”

Gertrude Stein, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1935

Perhaps that was the secret of her friendship with Picasso, who had a similar aversion. His portrait of Gertrude Stein (1905-06), which the subject would have us believe took 80 sittings, owes its celebrity to a final flourish in which the subject’s face is replaced with the features of an Iberian mask. For Gertrude, reality was a series of masks.

Portrait of Gertrude Stein by Pablo Picasso inside Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

The full story of Gertrude, Leo, Michael and Sarah Stein, the art they collected and the friends they introduced to modern art, is told in the exhibition, The Steins Collect, a strong candidate for international blockbuster of the year.

I was in San Francisco last week to preview the Picasso show which opens in November at the Art Gallery of NSW, and was lucky enough to catch the last day of The Steins Collect at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The exhibition will travel to Paris and New York, where it will draw enormous crowds.

The number of iconic works acquired by the Steins, especially in the period between 1903 and the First World War, was staggering. As well as numerous pieces by Picasso and Matisse, there were pictures by El Greco, Delacroix, Manet, Toulouse-Lautrec, Daumier, Cézanne, Gauguin, Renoir, Manguin, Vallotton, and others, including Bonnard’s Siesta (1900), now owned by the National Gallery of Victoria. They bought only what they could afford, which meant that Degas was out of their range, but emerging artists such as Matisse and Picasso were a constant temptation.

The French shunned Matisse’s work at the time, so the patronage of the Steins proved crucial. Not only did they acquire many of his most daring pieces such as Madame Matisse (the Green Line) (1905) and Blue nude (memory of Biskra) (1907), they encouraged American friends and acquaintances to buy his work. As patrons they were generous, loyal and hospitable. As collectors they showed a unique willingness to take chances.

The Steins owed their wealth to San Francisco cable cars and real estate investments. The family fortune was made by their father, Daniel, who took his children to study in Europe where they acquired a grasp of languages and a cultivation that would shape their tastes in later life. The finances were mostly administered by Michael, the eldest son, who took charge at the age of 25, upon the death of his father. There was enough money to ensure that the children could live how and where they pleased, within limits. There was no obstacle to Leo moving to Paris to try to become an artist, as he did in 1902. Before that, he had studied politics, law and zoology, never finishing what he began.

Gertrude joined him the following year at 27 rue de Fleurus, after having studied medicine at Harvard with an equivalent lack of follow-through. But she was determined to be a writer and would apply herself to the task with an energy that seems superhuman. Words simply poured from her pen, in a style that has been called literary Cubism.

Inspired by the reports from his siblings, Michael decided to resign from the family company and move to Paris as well. In 1905, with his wife Sarah, and young son, Allan, he would establish himself at 58 rue Madame. Over the following decade the two sets of Steins would become known as visionary collectors, holding weekly salons at their respective apartments where they would receive anyone with a letter of introduction.

The Saturdays, as they were called, became a Parisian institution, drawing a huge, diverse crowd of people. Some were enthusiasts who approached the collection with quasi-religious awe, others came to mock but left as converts. The Futurists visited, as did the Bloomsbury set, Hemingway brought F. Scott Fitzgerald along. There was even “one woman from Australia who paints”. Kate O’Connor? Agnes Goodsir? Bessie Davidson?

In line with the title of Janet Hobhouse’s 1975 biography of Gertrude Stein, it was a meeting place for “everybody who was anybody.” Matisse met Picasso for the first time at one of Gertrude and Leo’s soirées. Many other artists, collectors and critics met these artists chez Stein.

This exhibition and its comprehensive catalogue, reveal how Leo was the prime mover in the Steins’ collecting activities. Before moving to Paris he had lived for a time in Florence where he became a close friend of Bernard Berenson. He came to Picasso and Matisse with the eye of an art historian accustomed to constructing theories and pedigrees from the art of the past. At the Saturdays he would lecture visitors, who found him alternately spellbinding or pedantic.

It was Leo who purchased Matisse’s Woman with a hat from the 1905 Salon d’Automne, while all of Paris was laughing at the work. He said it was “the nastiest smear of paint” he’d ever seen, but couldn’t stop thinking about it. Soon he would be introduced to Picasso, and begin acquiring works from the artist’s Blue and Rose periods.

Henri Matisse, Femme au chapeau (Woman with a Hat), 1905; oil on canvas; Collection SFMOMA

Over at rue Madame, the Mike Steins began following Leo’s lead, developing a particular fixation with Matisse, who became a close friend of the family. When Matisse started a private art school in 1908, Sarah Stein was not just a pupil but one of his chief motivators. The notes that she took from Matisse’s comments to students provide a unique record of the artist’s thoughts. Her notebook is included in the show and reproduced in facsimile in the catalogue.

The Stein salons came to an end during the First World War, and with the entry of Alice B. Toklas into Gertrude’s life. Leo had always been sceptical of his sister’s writing, later describing her as a phoney intellectual, but Alice was her adoring disciple from the moment they met. Leo would move out of the apartment in 1913, and the collection would be divided. He kept all the Renoirs, for which he had a passionate attachment, while she kept most of the Picassos. The only sticking point was a small Cézanne oil of a group of apples that Leo absolutely insisted on retaining. “You’ll have to look upon the loss of the apples as an act of God” he wrote.

Part of the problem was Gertrude’s growing fascination with Cubism, a development Leo despised. A more personal irritation was was that Gertrude wrote like a machine, while Leo suffered from writers’ block. It was not until he left rue de Fleurus that he began to put his thoughts about art on paper. After the split the brother and sister who had been almost inseparable, would have nothing to do with each other. Leo said that Gertrude and Alice would cross the street if they saw him coming.

Leo returned to the United States, while Gertrude and Alice maintained their Parisian lifestyle. In 1928, Michael and Sarah would move to an ultra-modern villa designed by Le Corbusier, in partnership with their friend, Gabrielle Colaco-Osorio. Quite abruptly, in 1935, they sold up and returned to San Francisco, where their Matisses would inspire a generation of local artists.

The Steins’ success as promoters of the avant-garde meant they helped price themselves out of the market. When Gertrude could no longer afford Picasso, she turned firstly to Juan Gris, then to lesser artists such as Picabia, Tchelitchew, and even Francis Rose, a British painter and aristocrat, who would later become a close friend of Margaret Olley.

This last room is the only part of the show where the Stein taste falters, and falters badly. It suggests that Leo, and perhaps Sarah, were the ones with the real eye for art. It is scarcely surprising that Gertrude, the star attraction and flamboyant self-promoter, was mostly interested in artists who were interested in her.

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, September 24, 2011

The Steins Collect
Grand Palais, Paris, 3 October – 16 January 2012
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 21 February – 3 June 2012