Art Beat: The Stein Collection at the Met

I occasionally fantasize about traveling back in time, just briefly. My first stop would be the Saturday evening Salons held by siblings Gertrude and Leo Stein at 27 Rue de Fleurus in Paris, in the early years of the 20th century. Woody Allen’s recent film, “Midnight in Paris”, brought that time to life with the…

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Published April 11, 2012 7:55 PM
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art beat matisseI occasionally fantasize about traveling back in time, just briefly. My first stop would be the Saturday evening Salons held by siblings Gertrude and Leo Stein at 27 Rue de Fleurus in Paris, in the early years of the 20th century. Woody Allen’s recent film, “Midnight in Paris”, brought that time to life with the mix of writers, musicians, and artists who met and shared ideas in the Stein’s apartment.


By Mary Brennan Gerster

 

art beat matisseI occasionally fantasize about traveling back in time, just briefly. My first stop would be the Saturday evening Salons held by siblings Gertrude and Leo Stein at 27 Rue de Fleurus in Paris, in the early years of the 20th century. Woody Allen’s recent film, “Midnight in Paris”, brought that time to life with the mix of writers, musicians, and artists who met and shared ideas in the Stein’s apartment.

 

The Metropolitan Museum has brought us a tantalizing taste of that era with “The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde”, an exhibition devoted to the artists befriended and collected by the Stein siblings. Gertrude, Leo, and Michael Stein, along with Michael’s wife Sarah, brought Picasso, Matisse, Cezanne, and Renoir to the attention of collectors and critics and the general public in the United States.

 

As you enter the exhibition, photographs of the interior of the salon with the paintings covering every inch of wall space create a sense of the atmosphere within the studio of Leo and the apartment he shared with his sister Gertrude. You will have to imagine the scintillating conversations that must have taken place among the ever-changing guests. Along with the artists, were writers and musicians, as well as the gallery owners Ambrose Vollard and Durand-Ruel.

 

Leo and Gertrude, along with thousands of other Americans first visited Paris in 1900 for the World’s Fair. Leo chose to remain in Europe traveling to Italy where he became friends with art critic Bernard Berenson. Upon his return to Paris, Leo decided to stay and become a painter himself.

 

Older brother Michael managed the family finances that allowed Gertrude and Leo to live modestly in Paris and devote themselves to writing, painting, and collecting. From this exhibition, I learned the integral role he and his wife played in bringing artists, especially Matisse, to the United States.

 

When they returned to San Francisco following the disastrous 1906 earthquake, Sarah and Michael brought with them three Matisse paintings and a drawing, his art beat picassofirst exposure in America. Sarah also introduced Edward Steichen to Matisse in Paris in 1907. He then wrote to Alfred Stieglitz who presented three exhibitions of Matisse at his 291 Fifth Avenue Gallery.

 

Leo, like Gertrude, was well educated and fluent in several languages. The pair took the money Michael had given them to set up house in Paris and used it to buy paintings. Alfred Barr, the first director of MoMA, said of Leo: “For the two brief years between 1905 and 1907 he was possibly the most discerning connoisseur and collector of 20th century painting in the world.”

 

Sarah and Michael built a home designed by Le Corbusier in Garches, west of Paris, and also founded an art school, the Matisse Academy. Paintings by some of the students, including Sarah, are in one gallery in the Met exhibition. They sadly lost their Matisses when upon his request they loaned 19 of them to a gallery in

Berlin in 1914. When World War I started, they ended up selling them to a Danish collector and Norwegian ship owner.

 

There are many gems in this show. Bonnard’s (1900) was one of Leo’s first purchases. He bought it in 1903 and traded it for a Renoir the following year. It’s classic Bonnard, with soft edges and warm colors permeating the interior of the room. Leo particularly loved bright colors and figurative painting.

 

Picasso’s Lady with a Fan (1905) possesses all the tragedy found in his Blue Period, and a warmth not usually seen in these works. Two other Blue period works,  Melancholy Woman (1902) and Soup (1902), are exquisitely beautiful. The former would evoke melancholy even if untitled. The brilliant patch of sunlight on the side of the subject’s face and arm create breathtaking emotion.

 

In Gallery Five, three paintings side-by-side of apples by Cezanne, Manet, and Picasso were the ones I kept returning to, just soaking up the genius of the depictions.

 

See “Midnight in Paris” and read Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast” before seeing this exhibition if at all possible. See it you must.

 

“The Steins Collect” is at the Metropolitan Museum through June 3. The museum is closed on Monday. Call 212-535-7710 or visit metmuseum.org for more information. 

 

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