Moviegoers were captivated last year with Woody Allen’s movie, “Midnight in Paris”. Millions of viewers fantasized going back in time to Paris in the 1920s to drop in on Gertrude Stein‘s salon and meet American writers and fellow expatriates, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
That is not my fantasy. Mine would be to find myself in the Paris apartment at 27 Rue de Fleurus on a Saturday evening in 1906. On such a night, starting at 8 p.m., Leo and Gertrude Stein would convene their regular Saturday salon. Leo would hold me spellbound as he spoke about the groundbreaking, avant-garde art he and his family were collecting. I could gaze at now-priceless masterpieces hanging on every inch of wall space. Had I arrived on a good night, I might even share words and a drink with fellow guests, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. I’d be present close to modern art’s creation.
I came close to having that vision last October when I entered the galleries of Paris’ Grand Palais museum and came face to face with many of the iconic paintings that now reside in museums around the world. As I entered the opening galleries, I gasped in astonishment. I had no idea that the Stein family was responsible for acquiring such works, nurturing the careers of now-heralded artists. Like great explorers, the Steins were the earliest champions of modern art.
Unlike much wealthier collectors of that period, such as the Potter Palmers of Chicago or the H.O. Havemeyers of New York, the Steins were neither particularly wealthy nor had they come to Paris with the intention of collecting paintings. They were well-educated, had some art training (Leo was an artist who had studied with art historian and connoisseur, Bernard Berenson) and exhibited discerning taste for the new.
The exhibit, “The Steins Collect”, now at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through June 3, is the culmination of a decade-long commitment by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the French Union of National Museums–Grand Palais and the Met. It is truly the proverbial once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, made possible due to a one-time exception by the heirs of Elise A. Haas, allowing Matisse’s “Woman with a Hat” to travel. Viewers owe a debt of gratitude to the three museums and the lead curators (Janet Bishop at SFMOMA, Cecile Debray at the Grand Palais and Rebecca Rabinow at The Met) for bringing the exhibit to fruition with great flair and newly unearthed scholarship. The first examination of the Stein Collection in more than 40 years, it reunites close to 200 works, now scattered to all corners of the globe.
Leo was the collection’s driving force in its early years. Deciding to become an artist, he moved to Paris at the end of 1902 from Florence where he had met and been influenced by Berenson. His sister, Gertrude, joined him in the fall of 1903. Their brother and sister-in-law, Michael and Sarah Stein, arrived in January, 1904. Leo’s early aesthetic was more classical in outlook. The artists he called “The Big Four”: Manet, Renoir, Degas and Cezanne informed his aesthetic though the first three artists were beyond his means. He purchased his first Cezanne from legendary dealer, Ambroise Vollard, in 1903.
In Paris, Leo was delighted to learn he could afford contemporary oil paintings. Leo and Gertrude were transfixed by the art on view at the second Salon d’Automne in 1904. Works by Cezanne, Odilon Redon, Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec were featured. Two weeks later, they emptied their bank accounts of close to $7,000 and bought two Cezannes, two Gauguins, two Renoirs and a Maurice Denis.
Six weeks later, they purchased Cezanne’s “Madame Cezanne with a Fan”. They acquired the centerpieces of their young collection, Matisse’s, “Woman with a Hat” in 1905 and Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude in 1906. During their lifetimes, the Steins owned 180 works by each artist.
Throughout the decade from 1904 until 1913, the Steins were modern art’s most influential tastemakers. Alfred Barr Jr., the first director of the Museum of Modern Art, has written: “For the two brief years between 1905 and 1907 he (Leo) was possibly the most discerning connoisseur and collector of 20th-Century painting in the world.” Years later, Gertrude tried to inflate her role in assembling the collection but Rebecca Rabinow, curator of the exhibition at The Met, told me in an interview, “If Leo hadn’t been around, I don’t think there would have been a collection.”
If one were to have visited the Steins’ small apartment at 27 Rue de Fleurus in 1906, one would have seen paintings, hung floor to ceiling, crammed on three walls. There were works by Cezanne (3), Renoir (2), Gauguin, Picasso (3), Matisse, Manguin, Bonnard, Daumier, Delacroix, Denis, Toulouse-Lautrec and several by Leo Stein. In the mid-1930s, Gertrude reminded her readers that the art they showed was once scorned. “It is very difficult now that everybody is accustomed to everything to give some idea of the uneasiness once felt when one first looked at all these pictures on the walls.”
The exhibit I saw six months ago at the Grand Palais opened with a room devoted to art by “The Big Four” and then devoted subsequent rooms to displaying the art collected by each of the Stein siblings and their companions in turn. Rabinow, however, has taken a different tack toward hanging the collection in New York. Her aim, she said, was to have the collection speak to its specific moment in time. “I arranged the paintings so that the art tells stories.”
In the entry room, Rabinow hung paintings Leo saw from 1900-1903 that he didn’t buy. Leo and Gertrude had a rule that they would only buy works by artists they were friends with. A showstopper of Rabinow’s design is an exact replica, down to the exact dimensions, of Leo’s small studio (460 sq. ft.) complete with an in-gallery projection of the original artworks onto the studio walls. If you can’t make it to New York, you can view a video of the projection on the Met’s website, www.metmuseum.org. But you should, by all means, hop a plane or train if you want a special thrill.
While the exhibition is a full immersion by itself, I cannot end without praise for the lavish, nearly 500-page catalog, published by Yale University Press. I cannot recommend it too highly. It is a necessary complement to the exhibit that squares the circle, so to speak. The eleven original essays (including those by the three lead curators and a highly incisive profile of Leo Stein by Gary Tinterow, a former senior curator at The Met and now director of the Houston Museum of Fine Arts) are an entertaining read and a rich trove of fascinating biographical details about each member of the Stein family, along with new research findings. The catalog contains 500 plates, many in color, a helpful chronology, pages from Sarah Stein’s Notebook of Matisse’s teachings, photos of the Stein residences illustrating how they displayed their art and, last but not least, an invaluable inventory of the Stein Collections with dimensions, current ownership and past provenance.
Every aspect of the exhibition and catalog manifests the labor of love this endeavor was for all parties concerned. I offer a bow of deep appreciation for making that moment in time come alive for me. Go treat yourself to the same experience!