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)
Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 1)

But Cézanne was too expensive to collect, so the Steins sought out emerging artists. In 1905, Leo stumbled upon Picasso’s work, which was being exhibited at group shows, including one staged in a furniture store. He bought a large gouache (opaque watercolor) by the then obscure 24-year-old artist, The Acrobat Family, later attributed to his Rose Period. Next he purchased a Picasso oil, Girl with a Basket of Flowers, even though Gertrude found it repellent. When he told her at dinner he had bought the picture, she threw down her silverware. “Now you’ve spoiled my appetite,” she declared. Her opinion changed. Years later, she would turn down what Leo characterized as “an absurd sum” from a would-be buyer of Girl with a Basket of Flowers.

At the same time, Leo and Gertrude were warming to Matisse’s harder-to-digest compositions. When the two bought Woman with a Hat at the 1905 Autumn Salon in the Grand Palais, they became the only collectors who had acquired works by both Picasso and Matisse. Between 1905 and 1907, said Alfred Barr Jr., the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, “[Leo] was possibly the most discerning connoisseur and collector of 20th-century painting in the world.”

Picasso recognized that the Steins could be useful, and he began to cultivate them. He produced flattering gouache portraits of Leo, with an expression that was earnest and profoundly thoughtful, and of a sensitive young Allan. With his companion, Fernande Olivier, he dined at the rue de Fleurus flat. Gertrude later wrote that when she reached for a roll on the table, Picasso beat her to it, exclaiming, “This piece of bread is mine.” She burst out laughing, and Picasso, sheepishly acknowledging that the gesture betrayed his poverty, smiled back. It sealed their friendship. But Fernande said that Picasso had been so impressed by Gertrude’s massive head and body he wanted to paint her even before he knew her.

Like Cézanne’s Madame Cézanne with a Fan and Matisse’s Woman with a Hat, his Portrait of Gertrude Stein represented the subject seated in a chair and looking down at the viewer. Picasso was jousting directly with his rivals. Gertrude was delighted by the outcome, writing some years later that “for me, it is I, and it is the only reproduction of me which is always I, for me.” When people told Picasso that Gertrude didn’t resemble her portrait, he would reply, “She will.”

It was probably the fall of 1906 when Picasso and Matisse met at the Steins. Gertrude said they exchanged paintings, each choosing the other’s weakest effort. They would see each other at the Saturday evening salons initiated by Gertrude and Leo on the rue de Fleurus and the Michael Steins on the rue Madame. These organized viewings came about because Gertrude, who used the studio for her writing, resented unscheduled interruptions. In Gertrude’s flat, the pictures were tiered three or four high, above heavy wooden Renaissance-era furniture from Florence. The illumination was gaslight; electric lighting didn’t replace it until a year or so before the outbreak of World War I. Still, the curious flocked to the Steins. Picasso called them “virginal,” explaining: “They are not men, they are not women, they are Americans.” He took many of his artist friends there, including Braque and Derain, and the poet Apollinaire. By 1908, Sarah reported, the crowds were so pressing that it was impossible to hold a conversation without being overheard.

In 1907 Leo and Gertrude acquired Matisse’s Blue Nude: Memory of Biskra, which depicts a reclining woman with her left arm crooked above her head, in a garden setting of bold crosshatchings. The picture, and other Matisses the Steins picked up, hit a competitive nerve in Picasso; in his aggressive Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (an artistic breakthrough, which went unsold for some years) and the related Nude with Drapery, he mimicked the woman’s gesture in Blue Nude, and he extended the crosshatchings, which Matisse had confined to the background, to cover the figures. The masklike face of Gertrude in Picasso’s earlier portrait proved to be a transition to the faces in these pictures, which derived from bold, geometric African masks. According to Matisse, Picasso became smitten with African sculpture after Matisse, on his way to the Steins, picked up a small African head in an antiques shop and, upon arriving, showed it to Picasso, who was “astonished” by it.

Music was one of the last Matisses that Gertrude and Leo bought, in 1907. Beginning in 1906, however, Michael and Sarah collected Matisse’s work primarily. Only a world-class catastrophe—the earthquake in San Francisco on April 18, 1906—slowed them down. They returned home with three paintings and a drawing by Matisse—his first works seen in the United States. Happily, the Steins discovered little damage to their holdings and returned to Paris in mid-November to resume collecting, trading three paintings by other artists for six Matisses. Michael and Sarah were his most fervent buyers until the Moscow industrialist Sergei Shchukin saw their collection on a visit to Paris in December 1907. Within a year, he was Matisse’s chief patron.

Gertrude’s love of art informed her work as a writer. In a 1934 lecture, she remarked that a Cézanne painting “always was what it looked like the very essence of an oil painting because everything was always there, really there.” She built up her own sentences by using words in the deliberate, repetitive, blocky way in which Cézanne employed small planes of color to render mass on a two-dimensional canvas.

The 1909 publication of Three Lives, a collection of stories, marked Gertrude’s first literary success. The following year, Alice B. Toklas, who, like Gertrude, came from a middle-class Jewish family in San Francisco, moved into the rue de Fleurus apartment and became Gertrude’s lifelong companion. Leo, possibly chafing at his sister’s literary success, later wrote that Toklas’ arrival eased his imminent rupture with Gertrude, “as it enabled the thing to happen without any explosion.”

Gertrude’s artistic choices grew bolder. As Picasso staked out increasingly adventurous territory, many of his patrons grumbled and refused to follow. Leo, for one, derided Demoiselles as a “horrible mess.” But Gertrude applauded the landscapes that Picasso painted in Horta de Ebro, Spain, in the summer of 1909, which marked a crucial stage in his transition from Cézanne’s Post-Impressionism into the new territory of Cubism. Over the next few years, his Analytical Cubist still lifes, which fragmented the picture into visual shards, alienated people still more. Picasso deeply appreciated Gertrude’s purchase of some of these difficult paintings. The first work she bought without Leo was The Architect’s Table, a somber-colored, oval Analytical Cubist painting of 1912 that contains, amid the images of things one might find on such a table, a few messages: one, the boldly lettered “Ma Jolie,” or “My Pretty One,” refers covertly to Picasso’s new love, Eva Gouel, for whom he would soon leave Fernande Olivier; and another, less prominent, is Gertrude’s calling card, which she had left one day at his studio. Later that year she bought two more Cubist still lifes.


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus