leanor Foa Dienstag

The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso And the Parisian Avant Garde

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Ten years in the making, The Steins Collect, a stunning exhibition, not only offers us great paintings by Matisse and Picasso (as well as Bonnard, Gris, Laurencin, Lipchitz, Manguin, Masson, Nadelmam, Picabia and others), but a fascinating family story. Gertrude (now the most well known Stein), her brothers Leo and Michael, and Michael’s wife Sarah, were collectors, collectively and individually. Leo, who emigrated to Paris first, in 1903, was, as Lady Gaga says, “born that way.” Attracted to colorful figurative work, in 1905 he began to acquire inexpensive paintings by unknown artists. The man had an extraordinary eye: he bought his first paintings by Matisse and Picasso, and developed close friendships with both men.

An exact replica in size and height of Leo’s apartment, with images of his paintings superimposed on the wall, greets us in the first gallery, which also contains an overview of contemporary art in Paris between 1900 and 1904, when Leo arrived. There is a Toulouse Lautrec and Cezanne’s breathtaking “Dish of Apples.” It is a time of immense ferment.

The second gallery exhibits Leo’s first purchases, including Matisse’s great portrait of his wife (although it was considered hideous by many contemporaries). They are breathtaking, among them works by Cezanne, Manet, Degas and Bonnard. Also featured are family photographs and a large Steiglitz portrait of Leo.

The third gallery, devoted to the purchases of Michael and Sarah Stein, is my favorite because, basically, it’s a room full of works by Matisse, many of which I’ve never seen before.

Sarah turned out to be the great long-time collector and friend of Matisse, though she and Michael lost many of their Matisses which were trapped in Germany during World War I and never returned. Matisse had urged them to send his work to Germany, and felt so bad about what happened that he ultimately did portraits of Michael and Sarah as a gift. After the war, in the 1920s, Michael and Sarah turned from collecting modern painting to embracing modern architecture. They commissioned a villa from Le Corbusier, and we see its sweeping modern lines in a snippet of a film taken by one of their relatives.

For a decade, Gertrude and Leo made their purchases together. So many people came and went to their apartment at 27, Rue de Fleurus that they, along with Michael and Sarah, decided to only open their homes on Saturday evenings. By doing so, “the Steins Saturday night Salons did more to support avant-garde painting than other collectors or institutions during the first decade of the 20th century.”

Eventually Leo and Gertrude went their separate ways. Gertrude preferred Picasso to Matisse, and believed Matisse’s Self Portrait (1598) “too intimate to be shown publically.” When it came time for brother and sister to divide their collection, they only fought over one painting, Cezanne’s “Five Apples,” which eventually went to Leo. Gertrude kept the Picassos and Leo took the Renoirs. He subsequently sold them to another American collector, Dr. Albert C. Barnes, who created his own well-known collection.

The last room, devoted to Gertrude and Alice’s years at 27, Rue de Fleurus during the 1920s and 30s, is in a sense, a room full of Gertrudes. She loved to pose and she pursued fame – as a writer and collector – with skill and determination. Ultimately, she was the only Stein whose collection remained intact through two World Wars, and who most people remember.

But, in fact, as this splendid Exhibition illustrates, the entire extraordinary Stein family lived, breathed and collected art. And through their passion, educated a generation of American writers, painters and intellectuals, who eventually brought word of what was taking place in Paris, to American shores.

The Exhibition, a “labor of love,” was organized by Rebecca Rabinow, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Met; Janet Bishop, Curator or Painting and Sculpture at San Francisco MOMA, and Cecile Debray, Curator of historical collections at the Musee National d’Art Moderne, Centre Pompidou, Paris. (The Exhibition was on view in San Francisco and Paris prior to its opening at the Met).

Though it has arrived without the publicity and promotion of a blockbuster, it is in fact just that. A fantastic collection of great art married to incredible imagination and scholarship.

Rembrandt and Degas: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, a small Exhibition on view in the Robert Lehman Wing of the Met, on the main floor, also just opened. It features a series of early portraits by the two artists, and highlights Rembrandt’s influence on the young French Impressionist. A highly-focused, scholarly show, it demonstrates how Degas studied prints by Rembrandt, copied them into his sketch books and developed one of them into an etching. Degas’s self-portraits, made in his twenties, are shown side-by-side with those Rembrandt made at the same age and stage of his career.

The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso and the Parisian Avant Garde
February 28 – June 3, 2012

Rembrandt and Degas: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
February 23 – May 20, 2012

Photos by Eleanor Foa Dienstag


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