Fine Art
12:01 am
Thu November 10, 2011

For Gertrude Stein, Collecting Art Was A Family Affair

Originally published on Wed May 23, 2012 11:20 am

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 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

In Paris right now, a reunion of artworks that haven't been together, there, in nearly a century. The art was collected, starting in the early 1900s, by writer Gertrude Stein and her brothers. The Steins bought paintings right out of the studios of young avant-garde artists; Picasso, Matisse, and others who would become masters as the 20th century progressed.

NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg just saw the Stein collection in Paris.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: In "Midnight in Paris," Woody Allen's hero visits the Paris apartment of Gertrude Stein.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MIDNIGHT IN PARIS")

KATHY BATES: (as Gertrude Stein) Oh, Pender. I was just telling Matisse we're going to buy one of his new paintings for our personal collection. I think 500 francs is fair. (French language spoken)

STAMBERG: You can see the real apartment building where she lived; nice neighborhood, narrow street lined with trees and traffic. Gertrude's brother Leo got there first, in 1902. She moved in the next year. A two-bedroom railroad apartment, jammed with the paintings they were buying.

Rebecca Rabinow, of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the show will go there in February, says Chez Stein was crowded.

DR. REBECCA RABINOW: The Rue de Fleurus apartment was smaller than most peoples dining rooms, and all of this art was in that one room. These pictures were just stacked from floor to ceiling, and there was no electric light at the beginning. So people would sometimes light matches so they could see the pictures in the dark corners.

STAMBERG: What a revelation. Janet Bishop, who launched the Stein show last spring at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, says by 1907 visitors saw paintings that would make history.

DR. JANET BISHOP: Picasso's "Boy Leading A Horse," you'd see Picasso's "Portrait of Gertrude Stein," you'd see Matisse's "Woman with a Hat," you'd see Picasso's "Lady with a Fan," you would see Cézanne's portrait of his wife. It was really an extraordinary group of pictures. And all of these artists, seen a very latest production.

STAMBERG: And if you came on the right Saturday night, when they had an open house, essentially, you might have met the painters too, right? Just kind of hanging out.

BISHOP: That exactly right.

STAMBERG: It was the only place in the world, let alone Paris, where you could see such new radical, really, art. Artists, collectors, dealers, groupies came to see stuff that, in the early 1900s was revolutionary. "Woman with a Hat" was the first Matisse Leo Stein bought. It was not love at first sight.

RABINOW: And Leo said it was the ugliest daubings of paint he had ever seen.

CECILE DEBRAY: People laughed before this painting.

STAMBERG: Cecile Debray curated the Stein exhibit at Paris's Grand Palais.

DEBRAY: The colors are bright.

STAMBERG: They're wild colors.

DEBRAY: Yes.

STAMBERG: Look to here. Her face is green and her neck bright orange.

Leo Stein kept going back to look at the Matisse, it was 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 then. But the Steins were not rich. Their money went for art, not fancy clothing. Today, the work is priceless and back on view in Paris.

Again, the MET'S Rebecca Rabinow.

RABINOW: This is the very space where they first saw Matisse's "Woman with a Hat." 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.

STAMBERG: Also part of this reunion of art amassed by the Stein family - older brother Michael and his wife Sarah became avid collectors, too - works by Cezanne, Picasso. And thereby hangs a tale of art history and the impact on art that the Steins had in Paris. The first picture Leo and his sister Gertrude bought - the work that launched their collection - is a portrait Cezanne made in 1878 of his wife.

DEBRAY: When you look at this portrait you see that the left eye of the woman is nearly black.

STAMBERG: No, Cezanne didn't smack her. It was an artistic decision. Picasso saw that painting at the Stein's apartment. And curator Cecile Debray points to a self-portrait Picasso made shortly afterwards.

DEBRAY: He painted himself with a black eye, like in the Cezanne portrait.

(SOUNDBITE OF A RECORDING)

GERTRUDE STEIN: (Reading) An early portrait by Henri Matisse. Matisse. One was quite certain that for a long part of his being one being living, he had been trying to be certain that he was wrong in doing what he what he was doing...

STAMBERG: Gertrude Stein's voice, reading from her writing, crackles in one of the Grand Palais galleries. Its experimental writing - rose is a rose is a rose is a rose and, pigeons in the grass, alas. It would have a major impact on Ernest Hemingway in Paris in the '20s.

Curator Rebecca Rabinow says just as the painters who met at Gertrude's apartment were inspired and influenced by one another's pictures, the art on her walls influenced Gertrude's writing.

RABINOW: She began to deconstruct the written word in the way she felt that Picasso was beginning to deconstruct the visual motif.

STAMBERG: So, cubism in the air at 27 Rue de Fleurus.

The passionate artistic enthusiasm of the Steins, and the way they encouraged friends to join in the shopping, began to price them out of the market. Rebecca Rabinow says that happened rather quickly.

RABINOW: By 1908, the dealers and international collectors were buying works, especially by Matisse, and so the Steins could no longer afford the works that they wanted.

STAMBERG: Still, Gertrude kept buying what she could. In later years, she started trading some pictures for others that she wanted, and then sold some to finance the publication of her writing. Some of the writing, "The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas," made her famous - which pleased her greatly. But her lesser-known 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.

RABINOW: It was more than just a collection. It was really, really the seed that began the spread of what we consider modern art throughout Western Europe and America. And so it's so, so very important.

STAMBERG: At the Grand Palais in Paris until mid-January, artworks from five continents and more than a hundred collections, visual definitions of the meaning of modern art.

I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: You can see some of the signed paintings and a photo of the family on our Web site, NPR.org.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.