The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso and the Parisian Avant-Garde
Anyone who has seen Midnight in Paris knows there was only one place to be if you were interested in avant-garde art in Paris in the early years of the 20th century: the home of Gertrude Stein. The curators of The Steins Collect worked on this exhibition crediting the Stein siblings for their pivotal roles in the turn-of-the-century revolution in art for 8 years, a rarity and luxury these days in the museum world – and it shows. This extraordinary exhibition reunites approximately 200 works including 60 by Matisse, 40 by Picasso, and 100 by various other artists including Bonnard, Cézanne and Renoir, all of which were once owned by the Stein clan: Leo, Gertrude, Michael, and his wife Sarah. We caught this exhibition which brings together iconic works of modern art with unparalleled provenance, at its first venue, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where it was packed with visitors. It has since travelled to Paris and is now on view at the Met where it is sure to be a blockbuster.
Leo Stein moved to Paris in 1902 with hopes of becoming an artist and his siblings followed suit. In 1905 Leo bought his first pictures by two relatively obscure artists: Picasso and Matisse. He purchased Matisse’s Woman with a Hat, a likeness of Mrs. Matisse, painted with bold colours bearing little relation to the woman it represented. The critics panned the painting as scandalous. And with this derision, the Steins launched themselves as leaders of the avant-garde.
The Steins Collect explores the role of this fiercely intellectual family in the birth of modern art through their visionary collecting and their role as powerful tastemakers who championed radical and little-known artists. They aggressively promoted the work they loved, creating markets for the artists they believed in, making important introductions and encouraging their friends to collect. The show is organized roughly chronologically by when works were acquired by the family, skillfully interweaving developments in modern art with the family’s narrative, starting with Leo’s early forays as a self-taught collector and relating how Leo and Gertrude’s taste developed together until they had a difference of opinion over Picasso’s breakthrough into Cubism. While Leo derided Cubism, Gertrude saw Picasso’s deconstructions and fragmentations as the visual parallel to her experiments in writing. The exhibition explores the important relationships the Steins developed as patrons to particular artists with Gertrude committing herself to Picasso and Michael and Sarah campaigning on behalf of Matisse, eventually helping him establish his art school, Académie Matisse. The curators have managed to reassemble an impressive group of works including several masterpieces such as Picasso’s 1906 portrait of Gertrude, her only gift to the Met, the infamous Woman with a Hat by Matisse and Cézanne’s The Bathers.
Since both Leo and Gertrude worked in their space, they were disturbed by the number of callers wishing to view their works; they instituted a Saturday salon and with a letter of introduction, you could marvel at their holdings at 27 rue de Fleurus. Sarah and Michael soon followed suit. The Saturday evening salons for which the Steins were renowned were not just parties – opening their homes made this radical work available to hundreds of hungry eyes who might not otherwise have had the opportunity to view it. Artists, writers, musicians and collectors came to discuss the latest artistic developments. Cézanne’s The Bathers, which was one of some 20 Cézannes the Stein siblings would amass, was revelatory to the artists who visited. By making their works accessible to a wider public, the Steins were a critical force in supporting and fostering dialogue on avant-garde painting during the first decade of the 20th century. Luckily, you can marvel at their collecting prowess at the Met.
Click here to see videos related to the exhibition including an in-depth look at Leo and Gertrude Stein’s studio and collection.