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For Gertrude Stein, Collecting Art Was A Family Affair

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
November 10, 2011

A reunion of art is taking place in Paris right now. Works that haven’t been there together in almost a century are reunited once again. The art was collected by writer Gertrude Stein and her brothers starting in the early 1900s. The Steins bought paintings right out of the studios of young avant-garde artists — Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and others who would become masters as the 20th century progressed.

The Steins’ tiny apartment — situated on a narrow, tree-lined street — was jammed full of paintings. Gertrude’s brother, Leo, got there first, in 1902, and Gertrude moved in the next year.

“The Rue de Fleurus apartment was smaller than most people’s dining rooms,” says Rebecca Rabinow of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where the show will open in February. “These pictures were just stacked from floor to ceiling. There was no electric light at the beginning, so people would sometimes light matches so they could see the pictures in the dark corners.”

Janet Bishop, who launched the Stein show last spring at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, says that by 1907, visitors to the apartment were seeing paintings that would make history: Picasso’s Boy Leading a Horse, Lady with a Fan, and Portrait of Gertrude Stein; Paul Cezanne’s portrait of his wife and Matisse’s Woman with a Hat.

On Saturday nights, the Steins held an open house of sorts, during which visitors could come and meet the painters. It was the only place in Paris — let alone the world — where you could see such new and radical art. Artists, collectors, dealers, groupies came to view work that was revolutionary in the early 1900s.

Woman with a Hat was the first Matisse that Leo Stein bought (though it wasn’t love at first sight; he said it was “the ugliest daubings of paint” he had ever seen.) People laughed at the painting, says Cecile Debray, who curated the Stein exhibit at Paris’ Grand Palais; “The colors are very bright,” she says. The woman’s face is green, yellow and pink; her neck and ear are bright orange. Perched on her head is an enormous and elaborate multicolored hat.

But Leo Stein kept going back to look at that Matisse, which was on display in a 1905 exhibit of new works at the Grand Palais. Eventually the picture “got” to him. He paid 500 francs for it — a pittance at the time. (The Steins weren’t rich, and what money they had they spent on art.) Today, the work is priceless and back on view at the Grand Palais.

“This is the very space where they first saw Matisse’s woman with the hat,” Rabinow says. “Every year, thousands of works [of] contemporary art would be exhibited in this very building, so to see them back here again really is exciting.”

Works by Cezanne and Picasso are also part of this reunion of art amassed by the entire Stein family — older brother Michael and his wife, Sarah, became avid collectors, too. The first painting Leo and Gertrude bought was a portrait Cezanne made of his wife in 1878.

The portrait launched their collection — and illustrates the impact the Steins had on art in Paris. “If you look at this portrait, you see that the left eye of the woman is nearly black,” Debray points out. No, Cezanne didn’t smack her — it was an artistic decision. Picasso saw that painting at the Steins’ apartment and, in a self-portrait he made shortly afterward, Picasso “painted himself with a black eye, like in the Cezanne portrait,” Debray says. A kind of homage to the elder master.

Just as the painters who met in Gertrude Stein’s apartment were inspired and influenced by one another’s pictures, Stein herself was influenced by the art on her walls. You can see the effects in her writing. “She began to deconstruct the written word in the way she felt that Picasso was beginning to deconstruct the visual motif,” Rabinow says. Cubism was in the air at 27 Rue de Fleurus.

The Steins’ passionate enthusiasm for art spread quickly as they encouraged their friends to join in the shopping. Soon, the Steins were getting priced out of the market. “By 1908, the dealers and international collectors were buying works, especially by Matisse,” Rabinow says. “So the Steins could no longer afford the works that they wanted.”

Still, Gertrude kept buying what she could. In later years, she started trading some pictures for others that she wanted. She also sold some to finance the publication of her writing — including The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, which made her famous.

But the lesser-known Steins: Gertrude’s brothers — Leo and Michael — and her sister-in-law Sarah, were as crucial as Gertrude was in gathering works of art that now fill the world’s museums.

“It was more than just a collection,” says Rabinow. “It was really the seed that began the spread of what we consider modern art throughout western Europe and America.”

The artworks were gathered from more than 100 collections on five different continents. These visual definitions of the meaning of modern art will be on display at the Grand Palais until mid-January. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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