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An eye for genius the collections of gertrude and leo stein



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  • 1. An Eye for Genius: The Collections of Gertrude and Leo SteinWith its acid colors and slapdash brush strokes, the painting still jolts the eye. The face, blotched in mauve and yellow, ishighlighted with thick lines of lime green; the background is a rough patchwork of pastel tints. And the hat! With its high bluebrim and round protuberances of pink, lavender and green, the hat is a phosphorescent landscape by itself, improbably perchedon the head of a haughty woman whose downturned mouth and bored eyes seem to be expressing disdain at yourastonishment.If the picture startles even after a century has passed, imagine the reaction when Henri Matisse’s Woman with a Hat was firstexhibited in 1905. One outraged critic ridiculed the room at the Grand Palais in Paris, where it reigned alongside the violentlyhued canvases of like-minded painters, as the lair of fauves, or wild animals. The insult, eventually losing its sting, stuck to thegroup, which also included André Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck. The Fauves were the most controversial artists in Paris, andof all their paintings, Woman with a Hat was the most notorious.So when the picture was later hung in the Parisian apartment of Leo and Gertrude Stein, a brother and sister from California, itmade their home a destination. “The artists wanted to keep seeing that picture, and the Steins opened it up to anyone whowanted to see it,” says Janet Bishop, curator of painting and sculpture at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, whichorganized “The Steins Collect,” an exhibition of many pieces the Steins held. The exhibition goes on view at the MetropolitanMuseum of Art in New York City from February 28 to June 3. (An unrelated exhibition, “Seeing Gertrude Stein: FiveStories,”  about her life and work, remains at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery until January 22.)When Leo Stein first saw Woman with a Hat, he thought it “the nastiest smear of paint” he had ever encountered. But for fiveweeks, he and Gertrude went to the Grand Palais repeatedly to look at it, and then succumbed, paying Matisse 500 francs, theequivalent then of about $100. The purchase helped establish them as serious collectors of avant-garde art, and it did still morefor Matisse, who had yet to find generous patrons and desperately needed the money. Over the next few years, he would cometo rely for financial and moral support on Gertrude and Leo, and even more on their brother Michael and his wife, Sarah. And itwas at the Steins’ that Matisse first came face to face with Pablo Picasso. The two would embark on one of the most fruitfulrivalries in art history.For a few years the California Steins formed, improbably enough, the most important incubator for the Parisian avant-garde.Leo led the way. The fourth of five surviving children born to a German Jewish family that had relocated from Baltimore toPittsburgh and eventually to the San Francisco Bay area, he was a precocious intellectual and, in childhood, the inseparablecompanion of his younger sister, Gertrude. When Leo enrolled at Harvard in 1892, she followed him, taking courses at theHarvard Annex, which later became Radcliffe. When he went to the World Exposition in Paris in the summer of 1900, sheaccompanied him. Leo, then 28, liked Europe so much that he stayed, residing first in Florence and then moving to Paris in 1903.Gertrude, two years younger, visited him in Paris that fall and did not look back.By then Leo had already abandoned his ideas of taking up law, history, philosophy and biology. In Florence he had befriendedthe eminent art historian Bernard Berenson and resolved to become an art historian, but he scrapped that ambition, too. AsJames R. Mellow observed in the 1974 book Charmed Circle: Gertrude Stein and Company, Leo led “a life of perennial self-analysis in the pursuit of self-esteem.” Dining in Paris with the cellist Pablo Casals in 1903, Leo decided he would be an artist. Hereturned to his hotel that night, lit a blaze in the fireplace, stripped off his clothes and sketched himself nude by the flickeringlight. Thanks to his uncle, the sculptor Ephraim Keyser, who had just rented a place of his own in Paris, Leo found 27 rue deFleurus, a two-story residence with an adjoining studio, on the Left Bank near the Luxembourg Gardens. Gertrude soon joinedhim there.The source of the Steins’ income was back in California, where their eldest sibling, Michael, had shrewdly managed the businesshe inherited upon the death of their father in 1891: San Francisco rental properties and streetcar lines. (The two middlechildren, Simon and Bertha, perhaps lacking the Stein genius, fail to figure much in the family chronicles.) Reports of life in Paristantalized Michael. In January 1904, he resigned his post as division superintendent of the Market Street Railway in SanFrancisco so that, with Sarah and their 8-year-old son, Allan, he could join his two younger siblings on the Left Bank. Michael andSarah took a year’s lease on an apartment a few blocks from Gertrude and Leo. But when the lease was up, they could not bringthemselves to return to California. Instead, they rented another apartment close by, on the third floor of a former Protestantchurch on the rue Madame. They would stay in France for 30 years.All four of the Paris-based Steins (including Sarah, a Stein by marriage) were natural collectors. Leo pioneered the path,frequenting the galleries and the conservative Paris Salon. He was dissatisfied. He felt he was more on track when he visited thefirst Autumn Salon in October 1903—it was a reaction to the Paris Salon’s traditionalism—returning many times with Gertrude.He later recounted that he “looked again and again at every single picture, just as a botanist might at the flora of an unknown
  • 2. land.” Still, he was confused by the abundance of art. Consulting Berenson for advice, he set off to investigate the paintings ofPaul Cézanne at Ambroise Vollard’s gallery.The place looked like a junk shop. Although Vollard was resistant to selling pictures to buyers he didn’t know, Leo coaxed anearly Cézanne landscape out of him. When brother Michael informed Gertrude and Leo that an unexpected windfall of $1,600,or 8,000 francs, was due to them, they knew what to do. They would buy art at Vollard’s. Established first-rate artists likeDaumier, Delacroix and Manet were so expensive that the budding collectors could only afford minor pictures by them. But theywere able to buy six small paintings: two each by Cézanne, Renoir and Gauguin. A few months later, Leo and Gertrude returnedto Vollard’s and purchased Madame Cézanne with a Fan, for 8,000 francs. In two months, they had spent some $3,200(equivalent to about $80,000 today): Never again would they lavish so much so fast on art. Vollard would often say approvinglythat the Steins were his only clients who collected paintings “not because they were rich, but despite the fact that theyweren’t.”Leo comprehended Cézanne’s importance very early, and spoke eloquently about it. “Leo Stein began to talk,” thephotographer Alfred Stieglitz later recalled. “I quickly realized I had never heard more beautiful English nor anything clearer.”Corresponding with a friend late in 1905, Leo wrote that Cézanne had “succeeded in rendering mass with a vital intensity that isunparalleled in the whole history of painting.” Whatever Cézanne’s subject matter, Leo continued, “there is always thisremorseless intensity, this endless unending gripping of the form, the unceasing effort to force it to reveal its absolute self-existing quality of mass....Every canvas is a battlefield and victory an unattainable ideal.”But Cézanne was too expensive to collect, so the Steins sought out emerging artists. In 1905, Leo stumbled upon Picasso’s work,which was being exhibited at group shows, including one staged in a furniture store. He bought a large gouache (opaquewatercolor) by the then obscure 24-year-old artist, The Acrobat Family, later attributed to his Rose Period. Next he purchased aPicasso oil, Girl with a Basket of Flowers, even though Gertrude found it repellent. When he told her at dinner he had boughtthe picture, she threw down her silverware. “Now you’ve spoiled my appetite,” she declared. Her opinion changed. Years later,she would turn down what Leo characterized as “an absurd sum” from a would-be buyer of Girl with a Basket of Flowers.At the same time, Leo and Gertrude were warming to Matisse’s harder-to-digest compositions. When the two bought Womanwith a Hat at the 1905 Autumn Salon in the Grand Palais, they became the only collectors who had acquired works by bothPicasso and Matisse. Between 1905 and 1907, said Alfred Barr Jr., the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art in NewYork City, “[Leo] was possibly the most discerning connoisseur and collector of 20th-century painting in the world.”Picasso recognized that the Steins could be useful, and he began to cultivate them. He produced flattering gouache portraits ofLeo, with an expression that was earnest and profoundly thoughtful, and of a sensitive young Allan. With his companion,Fernande Olivier, he dined at the rue de Fleurus flat. Gertrude later wrote that when she reached for a roll on the table, Picassobeat her to it, exclaiming, “This piece of bread is mine.” She burst out laughing, and Picasso, sheepishly acknowledging that thegesture betrayed his poverty, smiled back. It sealed their friendship. But Fernande said that Picasso had been so impressed byGertrude’s massive head and body he wanted to paint her even before he knew her.Like Cézanne’s Madame Cézanne with a Fan and Matisse’s Woman with a Hat, his Portrait of Gertrude Stein represented thesubject seated in a chair and looking down at the viewer. Picasso was jousting directly with his rivals. Gertrude was delighted bythe outcome, writing some years later that “for me, it is I, and it is the only reproduction of me which is always I, for me.” Whenpeople told Picasso that Gertrude didn’t resemble her portrait, he would reply, “She will.”It was probably the fall of 1906 when Picasso and Matisse met at the Steins. Gertrude said they exchanged paintings, eachchoosing the other’s weakest effort. They would see each other at the Saturday evening salons initiated by Gertrude and Leo onthe rue de Fleurus and the Michael Steins on the rue Madame. These organized viewings came about because Gertrude, whoused the studio for her writing, resented unscheduled interruptions. In Gertrude’s flat, the pictures were tiered three or fourhigh, above heavy wooden Renaissance-era furniture from Florence. The illumination was gaslight; electric lighting didn’treplace it until a year or so before the outbreak of World War I. Still, the curious flocked to the Steins. Picasso called them“virginal,” explaining: “They are not men, they are not women, they are Americans.” He took many of his artist friends there,including Braque and Derain, and the poet Apollinaire. By 1908, Sarah reported, the crowds were so pressing that it wasimpossible to hold a conversation without being overheard.In 1907 Leo and Gertrude acquired Matisse’s Blue Nude: Memory of Biskra, which depicts a reclining woman with her left armcrooked above her head, in a garden setting of bold crosshatchings. The picture, and other Matisses the Steins picked up, hit acompetitive nerve in Picasso; in his aggressive Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (an artistic breakthrough, which went unsold for someyears) and the related Nude with Drapery, he mimicked the woman’s gesture in Blue Nude, and he extended the crosshatchings,which Matisse had confined to the background, to cover the figures. The masklike face of Gertrude in Picasso’s earlier portrait
  • 3. proved to be a transition to the faces in these pictures, which derived from bold, geometric African masks. According to Matisse,Picasso became smitten with African sculpture after Matisse, on his way to the Steins, picked up a small African head in anantiques shop and, upon arriving, showed it to Picasso, who was “astonished” by it.Music was one of the last Matisses that Gertrude and Leo bought, in 1907. Beginning in 1906, however, Michael and Sarahcollected Matisse’s work primarily. Only a world-class catastrophe—the earthquake in San Francisco on April 18, 1906—slowedthem down. They returned home with three paintings and a drawing by Matisse—his first works seen in the United States.Happily, the Steins discovered little damage to their holdings and returned to Paris in mid-November to resume collecting,trading three paintings by other artists for six Matisses. Michael and Sarah were his most fervent buyers until the Moscowindustrialist Sergei Shchukin saw their collection on a visit to Paris in December 1907. Within a year, he was Matisse’s chiefpatron.Gertrude’s love of art informed her work as a writer. In a 1934 lecture, she remarked that a Cézanne painting “always was whatit looked like the very essence of an oil painting because everything was always there, really there.” She built up her ownsentences by using words in the deliberate, repetitive, blocky way in which Cézanne employed small planes of color to rendermass on a two-dimensional canvas.The 1909 publication of Three Lives, a collection of stories, marked Gertrude’s first literary success. The following year, Alice B.Toklas, who, like Gertrude, came from a middle-class Jewish family in San Francisco, moved into the rue de Fleurus apartmentand became Gertrude’s lifelong companion. Leo, possibly chafing at his sister’s literary success, later wrote that Toklas’ arrivaleased his imminent rupture with Gertrude, “as it enabled the thing to happen without any explosion.”Gertrude’s artistic choices grew bolder. As Picasso staked out increasingly adventurous territory, many of his patrons grumbledand refused to follow. Leo, for one, derided Demoiselles as a “horrible mess.” But Gertrude applauded the landscapes thatPicasso painted in Horta de Ebro, Spain, in the summer of 1909, which marked a crucial stage in his transition from Cézanne’sPost-Impressionism into the new territory of Cubism. Over the next few years, his Analytical Cubist still lifes, which fragmentedthe picture into visual shards, alienated people still more. Picasso deeply appreciated Gertrude’s purchase of some of thesedifficult paintings. The first work she bought without Leo was The Architect’s Table, a somber-colored, oval Analytical Cubistpainting of 1912 that contains, amid the images of things one might find on such a table, a few messages: one, the boldlylettered “Ma Jolie,” or “My Pretty One,” refers covertly to Picasso’s new love, Eva Gouel, for whom he would soon leaveFernande Olivier; and another, less prominent, is Gertrude’s calling card, which she had left one day at his studio. Later thatyear she bought two more Cubist still lifes.At the same time, Gertrude was losing interest in Matisse. Picasso, she said, “was the only one in painting who saw thetwentieth century with his eyes and saw its reality and consequently his struggle was terrifying.” She felt a particular kinshipwith him because she was engaged in the same struggle in literature. They were geniuses together. A split with Leo, wholoathed Gertrude’s writing, was unavoidable. It came in 1913, he wrote to a friend, because “it was of course a serious thing forher that I can’t abide her stuff and think it abominable....To this has been added my utter refusal to accept the later phases ofPicasso with whose tendency Gertrude has so closely allied herself.” But Leo, too, was disenchanted with Matisse. The livingpainter he most admired was Renoir, whom he considered unsurpassed as a colorist.When brother and sister parted ways, the prickly question was the division of spoils. Leo wrote to Gertrude that he would“insist with happy cheerfulness that you make as clean a sweep of the Picassos as I have of the Renoirs.” True to his word, whenhe departed in April 1914 for his villa on a hillside outside Florence, he left behind all his Picassos except for some cartoonlikesketches that the artist had made of him. He also relinquished almost every Matisse. He took 16 Renoirs. Indeed, beforedeparting he sold several pictures so that he could buy Renoir’s florid Cup of Chocolate, a painting from about 1912, depictingan overripe, underdressed young woman sitting at a table languidly stirring her cocoa. Suggesting how far he had strayed fromthe avant-garde, he deemed the painting “the quintessence of pictorial art.” But he remained loyal to Cézanne, who had diedless than a decade earlier. He insisted on keeping Cézanne’s small but beautiful painting of five apples, which held a “uniqueimportance to me that nothing can replace.” It broke Gertrude’s heart to give it up. Picasso painted a watercolor of a singleapple and gave it to her and Alice as a Christmas present.The outbreak of hostilities between Gertrude and Leo coincided with aggression on a global scale. World War I had painfulpersonal consequences for Sarah and Michael, who, at Matisse’s request, had lent 19 of his paintings to an exhibition at FritzGurlitt’s gallery in Berlin in July 1914. The paintings were impounded when war was declared a month later. Sarah referred tothe loss as “the tragedy of her life.” Matisse, who naturally felt terrible about the turn of events, painted portraits of Michaeland Sarah, which they treasured. (It is not clear if he sold or gave the paintings to them.) And they continued to buy Matissepaintings, although never in the volume that they could afford earlier. When Gertrude needed money to go with Alice to Spainduring the war, she sold Woman with a Hat—the painting that more or less started it all—to her brother and sister-in-law for
  • 4. $4,000. Sarah and Michael’s friendship with Matisse endured. When they moved back to California in 1935, three years beforeMichael’s death, Matisse wrote to Sarah: “True friends are so rare that it is painful to see them move away.” The Matissepaintings they took with them to America would inspire a new generation of artists, notably Richard Diebenkorn and RobertMotherwell. The Matisses that Motherwell saw as a student on a visit to Sarah’s home “went through me like an arrow,”Motherwell would say, “and from that moment, I knew exactly what I wanted to do.”With a few bumps along the way, Gertrude maintained her friendship with Picasso, and she continued to collect art until herdeath, at age 72, in 1946. However, the rise in Picasso’s prices after World War I led her to younger artists: among them, JuanGris, André Masson, Francis Picabia and Sir Francis Rose. (At her death, Stein owned nearly 100 Rose paintings.) Except for Gris,whom she adored and who died young, Gertrude never claimed that her new infatuations played in the same league as herearlier discoveries. In 1932 she proclaimed that “painting now after its great period has come back to be a minor art.”