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THE STEINS: PATRONS OF THE PARISIAN AVANT-GARDE

 

 

By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 16 DECEMBER 2011 — This important, brilliantly conceived exhibition of almost 200 paintings on view at the Grand Palais (through 22 January 2012) is less about the known masterpieces of the Impressionist painters and more a visual account of the extraordinary adventure of the Stein family, Leo and his sister Gertrude, the avant-garde writer, their elder brother Michael, and his wife Sarah, art-lovers who moved to Paris from San Francisco in the early part of the 20th century. They were the first people to buy the works of Matisse and Picasso, unknown at the time, the works of the ‘big four’, Manet, Renoir, Degas and Cézanne, as Leo Stein called them, rapidly becoming too expensive. Leo Stein’s purchase of Matisse’s La femme au Chapeau, a ‘Fauvist’ painting which had caused such a scandal at the 1905 Salon d’Automne for the modest sum of 500 francs, followed by the acquisition 6 months later by the artist’s equally ‘scandalous’ Le Bonheur de vivre, formed the beginnings of an amazing collection which at one moment included 180 works of Picasso and Matisse alone.


Paul Cézanne: Les Baigneurs (The Bathers), 1898–1900
The Baltimore Museum of Art: The Cone Collection
Photo: Mitro Hood

Leo Stein was a young American fascinated by European art who moved to Paris in 1902 and set up house there with his sister the following year. He befriended the artists, giving them moral and intellectual support as well as a certain financial aid, and built up a collection based on his idea that the ‘big four’ were the pillars of modern art. In the house he rented, 27 rue de Fleurus near the Luxembourg Gardens, he and Gertrude accumulated so many works that they hosted a salon there at nine every Saturday evening which attracted local people and curious passers-by as well as the bohemian Parisian art world. And although many of these visitors scoffed at the paintings once they had left, the rue de Fleurus, which housed the most beautiful collection of Cézannes in Paris, was actually referred to by the New York Times as, "the most famous cultural center in the world".  It was one of the rare places that Picasso agreed to display his art, and it was, moreover, here that he and Matisse first met.  The opening section of the exhibition presents the early paintings Leo collected, leading on to further sections shedding light on Gertrude Stein’s particular friendship with Picasso.



Leo, Gertrude, and Michael Stein

While Leo did not particularly appreciate nor understand his sister’s writing, nor her involvement with cubism, he was even less enthusiastic about Gertrude’s increasing closeness to Picasso which had developed with the completion of her portrait in 1906. It was also around this time that she began to write her monumental book, The Making of Americans, strongly influenced by her conversations with Picasso as well as by Cézanne’s painting, Portrait of a Woman. In turn, she was the figure behind the Spanish-born painter during his experimental work on Les Demoiselles d’Avignon

Eventually in 1913, when the arrival of Gertrude’s lifelong companion, Alice B. Toklas, proved too much for him, brother and sister went their separate ways, Leo leaving for Italy, with sixteen works by Renoir under his arm, but not before their elder brother and his wife had opened up their house at 58, Rue Madame, too. Visitors arrived at six o’clock in the evening here, to admire the walls covered in paintings from floor to ceiling. Matisse and Picasso were the two champions of the collection which attracted such eminent personalities as Ernest Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald as well as Picabia, Man Ray, and Braque.


Pablo Picasso: Gertrude Stein, 1906
 Collection The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
 bequest of Gertrude Stein, 1946

Michael and Sarah Stein had arrived in the French capital a few years after their siblings and had put together an outstanding collection before the First World War Between them at this time the four Steins possessed over 600 works, but many were sold whilst several of their finest acquisitions were lost after a loan to an exhibition in Berlin in 1914 when war blocked the return of 19 of their major works. Michael and Sarah never recovered their paintings which were sold to Scandinavian collectors at the end of the war.

Sarah, who had developed a close friendship with Matisse which lasted well over thirty years, helped him to open an academy where she herself joined in his classes, and indeed, several of her paintings decorated her house alongside those of Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin, Cézanne, and Renoir as well as the countless works by Picasso and Matisse, the latter being present in person most Saturday evenings.


Henri Matisse: Self portrait (1906)
Oil on canvas; 55 x 46 cm.
Staten Museum fur Kunst
Johannes Rump Collection, Copenhagen

The Steins, senior, also possessed a house designed for them by Corbusier at Garches, in the Paris suburbs, where they lived for several years until, being of Jewish origin, they returned to the United States with the rise of fascism in 1935. But once back in America, it was thanks to them that interest grew around the works of Matisse, unheard of on the other side of the Atlantic.

However, notwithstanding the light thrown on the Stein’s, the exhibition is a joy in itself, hosting as it does many fabulous paintings, not least Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein, necessitating some 90 sessions of poses, completed when the painter was just 24 years old. While the likeness to her remained only superficial, the importance lay in the fact her face resembled that of an African mask; it marked Picasso’s rupture with realism and his first steps towards cubism.  Pages of the artist’s preliminary outlines for the Demoiselles d’Avignon, hang next to the magnificent Nu à la serviette, a work dating back to 1907, on loan from a private collection. In the section devoted to Michael and Sarah’s collection of Matisse there is a superb series of 13 or 14 sketches of nudes, flowers and landscapes completed between 1905 and 1906 displayed next to two masterpieces, Le Luxe I and Le Madras rouge.


Picasso: Nu à la serviette, 1907
Oil on canvas
Private Collection

© Succession Picasso 2011

Between them, the Steins acquired some of the most radical paintings of the time, and this splendid exhibition, put together by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art the instigator of the project, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the Réunion des musées nationaux-Grand Palais provides a magnificent tribute to this most out-of-the ordinary family.

After the Paris showing, 'The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde' returns to the United States where the exhibition will be on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York from 28 February to 3 June 2012.

Matisse, Cézanne, Picasso... L’aventure des Stein
Until 22 January 2012

Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais
Entrée Square Jean Perrin
75008 Paris
Tel: (33) 1 44 13 17 17

Headline image: Henri Matisse: Femme au chapeau (Woman with a Hat), 1905
Oil on canvas; Collection SFMOMA, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Bequest of Elise S. Haas
© Succession H. Matisse/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Based in Paris, Patricia Boccadoro is a senior editor and member of the editorial board of Culturekiosque. She last wrote on the French chef Alain Ducasse.

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