The Steins Collect

Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde

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"It is no exaggeration that the Steins did more to support avant-garde painting than any other collectors or institutions anywhere in the first decade of the 20th century."
Emily Braun, art historian

Who were the Steins, and how did they influence the development of modern art? Follow the links below to find out more about this unconventional family and their extraordinary impact on modern art. You can also watch the videos and read excerpts from the mobile tour to learn more about the Steins and the artistic revolution they helped spark.


From left: Paul Cézanne, Bathers, 1898–1900; The Baltimore Museum of Art: The Cone Collection; photo: Mitro Hood. Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein, 1906; Collection The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, bequest of Gertrude Stein, 1946; © 2011 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY. Henri Matisse, Femme au chapeau (Woman with a Hat), 1905; oil on canvas; Collection SFMOMA, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Bequest of Elise S. Haas; © Succession H. Matisse/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Meet the Steins

In the early years of the 20th century, the Steins — author Gertrude, her brothers Leo and Michael, and Michael's wife, Sarah, all of whom grew up in the Bay Area — moved to Paris. Almost immediately, they began collecting the most compelling art of their time and became central figures in the burgeoning avant-garde scene. They were especially inspired by the work of Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso and forged lifelong relationships with these artists. Both Stein households — Leo and Gertrude at 27 rue de Fleurus, and Sarah and Michael a couple of blocks away at 58 rue Madame — opened their apartments every Saturday evening to all who wished to see and discuss the wild new art they were collecting. As gathering places for artists, collectors, dealers, curators, friends, and even curiosity seekers, these salons became pivotal in the unfolding of modern art.


Leo Stein

Leo Stein

Leo was the first Stein sibling to settle in Paris. Passionate about art and art history, Leo was deeply interested in the work of Paul Cézanne. With his sister Gertrude, Leo purchased the Bathers painting shown above  for 150 francs in 1904. Sarah and Michael also owned a Cézanne painting of the same subject, as did their friend Matisse.

Leo was the initial driving force behind the Steins' collecting and salons. From 1903, he and Gertrude lived and collected together for a decade, but eventually grew apart. They split up their joint collection when Leo moved to Italy in 1914.


Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas

Alice Toklas (left) and Gertrude Stein

Picasso painted the portrait of Gertrude shown above early in their relationship, and it marked the beginning of an intimate friendship. Gertrude claimed the portrait took between 80 and 90 sittings. True or not, the painting was a crucial turning point in Picasso's artistic practice and was a precursor of his radical work Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907). The avant-garde visual art Gertrude supported also had parallels in her own work as a writer. After Leo left Paris, Gertrude continued collecting, and she and her partner Alice Toklas, who had moved from San Francisco in 1907, maintained the salon tradition at 27 rue de Fleurus.


Sarah and Michael Stein

Sarah and Michael Stein

Leo and Gertrude initially purchased Matisse's Woman with a Hat (shown above) after its scandalous debut at the 1905 Salon d'Automne, where it inspired a critic to classify Matisse and his peers as Les Fauves, the "wild beasts." The purchase established the Steins' reputation as avant-garde collectors. Just as Matisse and Picasso enjoyed an artistic rivalry, so did the Steins as collectors. By 1915, Gertrude was solidly in the Picasso camp and sold Woman with a Hat to Sarah and Michael, who had become fully aligned with Matisse. It was Sarah who had the deepest relationship with Matisse. She was one of the artist's closest confidants, and their friendship continued even after she and Michael eventually moved back to the Bay Area in 1935.

Photos from top: Leo Stein; Theresa Ehrman papers and photographs, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley. BANC MSS 2010/603. Alice Toklas (left) and Gertrude Stein with their dogs Pépé and Basket, Bilignin, France, 1934; Department of 19th-Century, Modern, and Contemporary Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, gift of Edward Burns, 2011. Sarah and Michael Stein; photo: Theresa Ehrman papers and photographs, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley. BANC MSS 2010/603.


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Behind the Scenes at the Birth of Modern Art: Matisse, Picasso, and the Steins

Henri Matisse at work on his portrait of Michael Stein, Paris, 1916; photo: courtesy estate of Daniel M. Stein

You know their names: Pablo Picasso. Henri Matisse. Gertrude Stein. But you may not know that they were friends, and that their first meetings came about when they were all just getting started in their careers. No one outside of their tight-knit circle of avant-garde artists and writers had heard of them yet, but they were all deeply engaged in creating the very first works that would make them famous. And instrumental in Picasso and Matisse eventually becoming household names was the indefatigable enthusiasm of Gertrude Stein and her siblings: her brothers Leo and Michael, and Michael's wife, Sarah.

The Steins Collect is not a Picasso or a Matisse retrospective, although it does contain a rich selection of works by both, from great masterpieces to intimate postcards, many of which are not usually loaned out and certainly haven't been in the same room together for decades. Instead, the exhibition tells the story of the Steins and their lives as highly unusual but frequently brilliant collectors and patrons. Though it's impossible to replicate in the SFMOMA galleries the Steins' chaotic apartment walls, which were covered floor-to-ceiling with the artworks they bought and loved almost like family members, the exhibition does offer an in-depth and highly personal insight into their lives and tastes.

The story is quite a potboiler: intense sibling rivalry, lesbianism, two world wars, foreign intrigue. Wealthy Russian magnates, cranky art dealers, summers in the south of France. It is also a detective story: more than a century later, it is no small feat to reconstruct exactly what artworks the Steins acquired, let alone to figure out where on earth those works are today. The curators pieced together the timeline and tracked down the artworks using a fascinating array of clues, from original sales paperwork to old photographs of the Steins' apartments and letters they wrote to friends about their latest acquisitions. They had to separate the truth from the propaganda in Gertrude's now-legendary account of those years, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933), and the countless, mostly apocryphal stories by others who claimed to be there.

If you lived in Paris at the time and cared about art, it was obvious that change was afoot. Everything being taught at the art schools was being challenged from all sides, and artists and their gallery representatives were suddenly offering up a cacophony of possible new directions. Critics couldn't agree on which of these would solidify into coherent movements, but it became clear within just a few months of their arrival in town that the Steins had a special sixth sense for where things were headed. Their acquisitions were daring, prescient. If you wanted to see the latest in painting, you showed up on Saturday evening at the Steins' apartments, when these tastemakers opened their doors for semi-public visiting hours. As long as you knew someone who knew someone, you could get in.

The gatherings, or salons, were studded with artists, writers, and musicians, but attitudes of in-crowd exclusivity had to be left at the door. The Steins were an unusual thing for art collectors: not super-rich. They saw themselves as part of a distinguished tradition of artistic patronage, but they collected without the vast wealth that the word patron usually implies.

The Steins in Fiesole, Italy, 1904 (from left: Gertrude Stein; unidentified woman; Leo, Michael, and Sarah Stein; Theresa Ehrman; Allan Stein); Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven

With the slightest encouragement, Leo could hold forth for hours on the merits of the art hanging on the walls. And the words he used became the new language of modern art criticism. Saturday nights at the Steins', then, were not only about the discovery of the new art, but also the invention of new ways of understanding it, describing it. Which were necessary, because the art was shocking. Ugly. It made you uncomfortable. But by the time Leo or Sarah got through explaining it, you might start to see it as beautiful.

Eventually, like all social scenes, the Steins' homes gradually ceased to be the places to go on Saturday evenings. By 1914 Gertrude had become so committed to Picasso's career, and Cubism so turned Leo's stomach, that Leo actually moved out and the siblings became estranged for life. And the outbreak of war left much of Sarah and Michael's collection stuck in Berlin.

It was more complicated than that, of course: Leo also objected to Gertrude's homosexuality, and as a semi-failed writer and artist himself, her ego and literary accomplishments led to irreconcilable differences. But over the following decades all four Steins continued to collect art and advocate passionately for the artists they believed were defining the next new edge of the avant-garde. They lived to see Picasso and Matisse become, arguably, the most famous artists of the 20th century.

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The Salon

Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas’s home at 27 Rue de Fleurus, Paris, 1934

A fashionable and elegant domestic space populated by fashionable and elegant people discussing contemporary culture and ideas. The French perfected the practice in the late 17th century and invented a new word for it: the salon.

Like modern-day book clubs, salons were partly social, but mostly about creating a congenial opportunity for intellectual conversation. By the mid-18th century, they were popular all across Europe. Salons were typically run by women, and indeed they offered a respectable way for women to exercise their minds in an era when formal higher education was mostly closed to them.

The Steins put a twist on the tradition when they began opening their Paris apartments on a weekly basis, welcoming friends and acquaintances eager to see and discuss their newest artistic acquisitions. Salons were already notable as events where gender and social class lines could be crossed, but the crowd the Steins attracted was exceptionally democratic and international. The intellectual level of the discussion was extremely rigorous. The hosts dressed eccentrically. And the artworks were so avant-garde that they shocked many attendees.

Yet many frequently came back, eager for more. "It is no exaggeration," says noted art historian Emily Braun, "that the Steins did more to support avant-garde painting than any other collectors or institutions anywhere in the first decade of the 20th century. They also came to epitomize the societal freak show of bohemia for cultural conservatives."

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The Steins Return to the Bay Area

Henri Matisse, The Girl with Green Eyes, 1908; Collection SFMOMA, bequest of Harriet Lane Levy; © 2011 Succession H. Matisse/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

It is April 1906. Sarah and Michael Stein are in a rush to leave Paris, where they've been living the bohemian expatriate life, to catch a ship for the United States. The sobering news of the earthquake and fire has called them back to their hometown of San Francisco to check on Sarah's family and their rental properties; the latter are an important source of income and thus a matter of no small anxiety.

They weren't in such a hurry, however, that they didn't make time to pack three paintings by Henri Matisse to show their friends back home. It would be the first time Matisse's work was seen in the United States. And San Francisco wasn't ready; the words grotesque, demented, affront, and horror all appear in their friends' writings about encountering Matisse's paintings for the first time.

One of the acquaintances who got a sneak peek was Albert Bender, later a crucial early donor to the San Francisco Museum of Art (now SFMOMA). After a speechless moment he meekly remarked to Sarah, "But don't you think you're crazy?" Another acquaintance who saw the Matisses in San Francisco was Alice Toklas, who the following year went to Paris, met Gertrude Stein on her very first day there, and the rest was history — one of the most famous literary love stories of the 20th century.

Sarah and Michael Stein on the grounds of their house in Palo Alto, California, ca. 1935–38; photo: courtesy estate of Daniel M. Stein

Matisse's work continued to provoke displeased reactions here for several years more; in 1911, the San Francisco Examiner remarked of The Girl with Green Eyes (at right, now in the SFMOMA collection) that "Matisse paints faces crazed by absinthe drinking." 

In 1935 Grace McCann Morley, director of the newly opened San Francisco Museum of Art, lost no time in introducing herself to Sarah and Michael when she heard they were moving from France to Palo Alto. The Steins had barely settled into their house on Kingsley Avenue when Morley arranged to have their Matisses whisked away on loan for the artist's first-ever solo museum show on the West Coast. "Our paintings have been hung for two weeks now and we were finally feeling at home," Sarah wrote to Matisse, "when today a large part of them (11 canvases) are leaving for an exhibition of your work in San Francisco. The house will be a bit sad but the exhibition will be superb."

For more than a decade after moving to Palo Alto, Sarah continued her Parisian habit of hosting a steady stream of culturally engaged guests — university professors, museum people, artists, and writers — at weekly salon-style gatherings.

The Abstract Expressionist Robert Motherwell, a Stanford student in the mid-1930s, found himself tagging along to a cocktail party at the home of "some people who had some pictures." "Behold it turned out to be the Michael Stein collection!" said Motherwell, who told the story many times over the years. "I saw Matisses and they went through me like an arrow and from that moment, I knew exactly what I wanted to do."

Henri Matisse, Tea, 1919; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, bequest of David L. Loew in memory of his father, Marcus Loew; © 2011 Succession H. Matisse, Paris/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; photo: © 2001 Museum Associates/LACMA/Art Resource, NY

Richard Diebenkorn, also a Stanford student, was another guest at the house in the early 1940s. He saw Woman with a Hat, the panoramic Tea (right), and other Matisses and was greatly affected by them; his work subsequently manifested a strong Matisse influence as he went on to become a prominent Abstract Expressionist and later a key figure in the Bay Area Figurative movement.

Elise S. Haas became a close friend of Sarah's, and the two women discussed eventual plans for the Stein collection. Sarah had hoped to keep it intact and donate it to a local public institution, but in the late 1940s she started selling pieces to support her grandson's horse racing habit. Haas offered to help Sarah sell the works locally. She acquired Woman with a Hat, a sketch for The Joy of Life, and others. At her death, Haas left many of these to SFMOMA, and they are now core components of the museum's permanent collection.

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The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde is organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Réunion des Musées Nationaux–Grand Palais, Paris; and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Presenting Sponsor
Lead Corporate Sponsor Premier Sponsors Major Sponsor
Charles Schwab Walter & Elise Haas Fund
Major Media Sponsors Generous Promotional Support

Major support is provided by Martha and Bruce Atwater; Gerson and Barbara Bakar; the Helen Diller Family Foundation, a supporting foundation of the Jewish Community Endowment Fund; the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund; the Walter & Elise Haas Fund; and The Bernard Osher Foundation. Generous support is provided by the National Endowment for the Arts; Gay-Lynn and Robert Blanding; Jean and James E. Douglas Jr.; Ann and Robert S. Fisher; Gretchen and Howard Leach; Elaine McKeon; Deborah and Kenneth Novack, Thelma and Gilbert Schnitzer, The Schnitzer Novack Foundation; and Lydia and Douglas Shorenstein. Additional support is provided by Dolly and George Chammas, and Concepciá½¹n and Irwin Federman, and the French American Cultural Society. This exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities. Generous promotional support is provided by KGO-TV and KQED.