By Philippe Dagen (LE MONDE)
PARIS — Just like a 19th century English novel, a tale about the Stein family must start with some geneaology. Milly and Daniel Stein lived in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In 1865, Milly gave birth to her first son, Michael. In 1872 Leo was born, followed two years later by a daughter, Gertrude. A bit later on, the family – thanks to its wealth – was able to live for some time in Paris. After 1891, when Michael replaced his father in managing the Omnibus Railway and Cable Company in San Francisco, the family’s fortune grew so great that they didn’t have to work anymore.
These young Americans, well-bred and well-educated, were attracted to Old Europe, traveled there, and ended up renting houses in Italy and France. Appreciating the old and new alike, they drifted among the continent’s museums to antique shops.
But it was in 1903 that we can trace the story behind a much anticipated exhibition currently on display in Paris. That was the year Leo Stein bought his first work by Paul Cezanne, and when Gertrude joined him in Paris at 27 rue de Fleurus, an address that was to become famous – just like Gertrude Stein herself.
Stein is the author of several major books of American literature, such as The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (named after her companion). She also befriended artists Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. For both she was a confidante, and a passionate collector of their works.
For 10 years, from 1904 to 1914, Gertrude and her brothers Leo and Michael, together with the latter’s wife, Sarah, were the most active and prominent experts of Parisian avant-garde, fauvism and cubism. “The Stein Family” exhibition at Paris’ Grand Palais is focused on this decade.
As unbelievable as it seems, in 1910, you only needed to take a short walk in the 6th arrondissement, from rue de Fleurus to rue Madame, where Sarah and Michael lived, to be able to admire Matisse’s “Woman with a Hat,” the “Blue Nude,” and a number of landscapes of Collioure. You could also find Picasso’s wonderful “Boy Leading a Horse,” his 1906 portrait of Gertrude, a dozen studies for “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” and other remarkable cubist still-lifes. Sometimes, particularly on Saturday evenings, the painters themselves could be found there.
Receptions at rue de Fleurus quickly became a mandatory rite of initiation for whomever wanted to understand art and modern literature. While listening to Leo’s reputedly eloquent comments, or Gertrude’s more concise ones, visitors could admire Cezanne’s work – apples, bathers and the portrait of “Madame Cezanne in a red armchair,” Bonnard’s “Siesta,” erotic paintings and Vallotton’s “Le Grand Nu,” an anti-erotic painting. Two Gauguins and a Manet complete the precursors’ section. The collection deliberately follows a chronology of modern art.
The whole artistic scene swiftly became dominated by the Matisse and Picasso face-off, which was both a power struggle and an artistic boxing match. From 1906 on, the two painters played a simple and rather brutal game: the question was to know who would have the most emblematic canvas in the most emblematic place in the homes of the Stein family – not necessarily the largest canvas, but the most powerful, the one that would relegate its rival to the second position. So, Picasso painted a portrait of Gertrude and one of Leo. Matisse would soon paint Sarah and Michael, as well as make two portraits of their son, Allan. He felt at home with the Steins, and Sarah worshiped him almost mystically. But from 1907 on, at rue de Fleurus, Picasso was king.
All the way up to the strikingly modern house that Le Corbusier built for them in 1926, Sarah and Michael kept the habit of being avant-garde, scandalizing the fanatics of purism who wondered what modern furniture was doing in the white rooms of the Vaucresson villa. Building a replica of the rue de Fleurus house or the rue Christine apartment, where Alice and Gertrude moved in 1938, was out of the question for the museum. But an important part of the Stein style is lost in this presentation.
Nowadays, reuniting the paintings shown at the Stein homes over a decade means borrowing from private and public collections in North America, France and Switzerland. Their prodigious collection resisted neither the disputes nor the inexorable erosion of the family fortune, nor the soaring prices of Matisse and Picasso’s work. The Steins created a paradox: by defending and advertizing their idols, the Steins ended up no longer being able to afford them. What Gertrude was still able to buy in 1912 or 1913, either via the art dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, or by exchanging paintings, was out of her reach 10 years later.
In the interwar period, her books and speaking tours in the United States, despite providing her with a growing glory, did not allow her to reach the level of the new incredibly wealthy American collectors – people like Barnes, Guggenheim or Rockefeller. Picabia, for whom she had a late revelation in the 1930s, was already a little expensive for her. Therefore, from time to time, Gertrude would sell a masterpiece. The title cards in the exposition helpfully state when these separations took place. Only one painter escaped this fate and continue to reign until the death of Gertrude Stein in 1946 – It was, of course, Pablo Picasso.