posted 2012-05-13 00:26:46

A Familial Collection

The Stein family’s art collection is displayed at the MET

Julian Cosma

Staff Writer

Matisse paintings in the Stein art collection. Left: Woman with a Hat. Right: Boy with a Butterfly Net. mages courtesy of Metmuseum.og.
Any undergrad who has taken a course in Modernism is probably aware of the name Gertrude Stein, at least peripherally. In the literary realm, her writing is more known than read and it usually takes a backseat to the works of Joyce, Hemingway, Woolf, and Eliot. However remembering Stein solely on the basis of her writing is akin to writing a biography of Warhol that only mentions his paintings.

At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, an exhibit titled “The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant Garde” displays the wealthy and tasteful art collection of the Stein family. The exhibit is a space where we can see not only the acumen Gertrude, but also the discernment and undeveloped genius of Leo Stein and the general sharpness of Sarah and Michael. They were a family of incessant labor.

It is the central fact of this exhibit that some of the most inimitable Modernist paintings in history hung on the walls of Gertrude Stein and her partner Alice B. Toklas’ Parisian home and salon at 27 rue de Fleurus. Walking through the dozen or so rooms devoted to their collection and biography, it is almost as if one is transferred into an alternate universe of collecting. We learn that Leo, while perusing a furniture shop in 1905, purchased a drawing by a young man. It turned out the man’s name was Pablo, who by that point had started to sign his name Picasso. Beginners luck, maybe. However, if this is counted as a fluke, one will be hard up in accounting for their acquisition of Henri Matisse’s Woman with a Hat (1905), Cézanne’s Bathers (1906) or Picasso’s Boy Leading a Horse, (1905–06) to name only the most glaringly eminent.

Artists usually stopped into the rue de Fleurus to socialize, argue, one-up, shoot down and generally see what was going on beyond the walls of their own studio. In this respect, the salon or the Court of Stein was an irreplaceable centerpiece in the creation and development of the Modernist tradition in Paris. Cézanne’s Bathers depicts nude male and female bathers in and around a tree-covered lake. The piece carries a feeling that the forms of Modernism are walking out of that modern edenic oasis, naked and open. One can see the connections between Matisse’s Boy with Butterfly Net (1907) and Picasso’s Boy Leading a Horse, or the radical disjunction and geometry of Picasso’s Still Life (1922) amongst Gauguin and Renoir.

In assembling art for their own pleasure, the Steins managed to hold a collection of works with the utmost importance. They opened up a space where art and artists could mix and meld--a salon of stratospheric quality that surely remained unsurpassed in the 20th century. What truly mattered for the Steins was the art and its possibility, or the condition of its creation. To anyone who may have the luck viewing this exhibit, just know you are viewing a work of love.

“The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant Garde” will be on display until the 3rd of June.