An Eye for Genius: The Collections of Gertrude and Leo Stein

Would you have bought a Picasso painting in 1905, before the artist was known? These siblings did.

Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso courted the Steins by doing portraits of them. Pictured are Gertrude, left, and Leo, center, by Picasso and sister-in-law Sarah by Matisse. (The Metropolitian Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of Gertrude Stein, 1946, Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)
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At the same time, Gertrude was losing interest in Matisse. Picasso, she said, “was the only one in painting who saw the twentieth century with his eyes and saw its reality and consequently his struggle was terrifying.” She felt a particular kinship with him because she was engaged in the same struggle in literature. They were geniuses together. A split with Leo, who loathed Gertrude’s writing, was unavoidable. It came in 1913, he wrote to a friend, because “it was of course a serious thing for her that I can’t abide her stuff and think it abominable....To this has been added my utter refusal to accept the later phases of Picasso with whose tendency Gertrude has so closely allied herself.” But Leo, too, was disenchanted with Matisse. The living painter he most admired was Renoir, whom he considered unsurpassed as a colorist.

When brother and sister parted ways, the prickly question was the division of spoils. Leo wrote to Gertrude that he would “insist with happy cheerfulness that you make as clean a sweep of the Picassos as I have of the Renoirs.” True to his word, when he departed in April 1914 for his villa on a hillside outside Florence, he left behind all his Picassos except for some cartoonlike sketches that the artist had made of him. He also relinquished almost every Matisse. He took 16 Renoirs. Indeed, before departing he sold several pictures so that he could buy Renoir’s florid Cup of Chocolate, a painting from about 1912, depicting an overripe, underdressed young woman sitting at a table languidly stirring her cocoa. Suggesting how far he had strayed from the avant-garde, he deemed the painting “the quintessence of pictorial art.” But he remained loyal to Cézanne, who had died less than a decade earlier. He insisted on keeping Cézanne’s small but beautiful painting of five apples, which held a “unique importance to me that nothing can replace.” It broke Gertrude’s heart to give it up. Picasso painted a watercolor of a single apple and gave it to her and Alice as a Christmas present.

The outbreak of hostilities between Gertrude and Leo coincided with aggression on a global scale. World War I had painful personal consequences for Sarah and Michael, who, at Matisse’s request, had lent 19 of his paintings to an exhibition at Fritz Gurlitt’s gallery in Berlin in July 1914. The paintings were impounded when war was declared a month later. Sarah referred to the loss as “the tragedy of her life.” Matisse, who naturally felt terrible about the turn of events, painted portraits of Michael and Sarah, which they treasured. (It is not clear if he sold or gave the paintings to them.) And they continued to buy Matisse paintings, although never in the volume that they could afford earlier. When Gertrude needed money to go with Alice to Spain during the war, she sold Woman with a Hat—the painting that more or less started it all—to her brother and sister-in-law for $4,000. Sarah and Michael’s friendship with Matisse endured. When they moved back to California in 1935, three years before Michael’s death, Matisse wrote to Sarah: “True friends are so rare that it is painful to see them move away.” The Matisse paintings they took with them to America would inspire a new generation of artists, notably Richard Dieben­korn and Robert Motherwell. The Matisses that Motherwell saw as a student on a visit to Sarah’s home “went through me like an arrow,” Motherwell would say, “and from that moment, I knew exactly what I wanted to do.”

With a few bumps along the way, Gertrude maintained her friendship with Picasso, and she continued to collect art until her death, at age 72, in 1946. However, the rise in Picasso’s prices after World War I led her to younger artists: among them, Juan Gris, André Masson, Francis Picabia and Sir Francis Rose. (At her death, Stein owned nearly 100 Rose paintings.) Except for Gris, whom she adored and who died young, Gertrude never claimed that her new infatuations played in the same league as her earlier discoveries. In 1932 she proclaimed that “painting now after its great period has come back to be a minor art.”

She sacrificed major works to pay living expenses. As Jewish Americans in World War II, she and Alice retreated to the relative obscurity of a French farmhouse. They took only two paintings with them: Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude and Cézanne’s portrait of his wife. Once the Cézanne disappeared, Gertrude said in response to a visitor’s query about it, “We are eating the Cézanne.” Similarly, after Gertrude’s death, Alice sold some of the pictures that had been hidden away in Paris during the war; she needed the money to subsidize the publication of some of Gertrude’s more opaque writings. In Alice’s last years, she became embroiled in an ugly dispute with Roubina Stein, the widow of Allan, Gertrude’s nephew and the co-beneficiary of her estate. Returning one summer to Paris from a sojourn in Italy, Alice found that Roubina had stripped the apartment of its art. “The pictures are gone permanently,” Alice reported to a friend. “My dim sight could not see them now. Happily a vivid memory does.”

Leo never lost the collecting bug. But to hold on to his villa in Settignano, where he lived with his wife, Nina, and to afford their winters in Paris, he, too, had to sell most of the paintings he owned, including all the Renoirs. But in the 1920s and ’30s, he began buying again. The object of his renewed interest was even stranger than Gertrude’s: a forgettable Czech artist, Othon Coubine, who painted in a backward-looking Impressionist style.

Only once, not long after the end of World War I, Gertrude thought she glimpsed Leo in Paris, as she and Alice drove by in their Ford. He took off his hat and she bowed in response, but she didn’t stop. In the more than 30 years between his acrimonious departure and her death, brother and sister never spoke again.

Arthur Lubow wrote about China’s terra cotta soldiers in the July 2009 issue. He is working on a biography of Diane Arbus.


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