SFMOMA exhibit shows how Steins found, defined modern art 

In the early 1900s, the Stein family — Gertrude, her brothers Leo and Michael, and Michael’s wife, Sarah — were swept up in the excitement of Parisian life. The American expatriates lived modestly and spent their money on paintings by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and other young artists they befriended.

Their extraordinary collection has been reunited in an exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. “The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde,” which opens Saturday, offers a fresh look at a family that influenced the course of modern art.

The exhibition features some 200 paintings, sculptures, drawings and other items, including postcard sketches and masterpieces. The touring show was organized by the SFMOMA, the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Réunion des Musées Nationaux-Grand Palais in Paris.

“It’s really impossible to overestimate the role of this eccentric American family as patrons of visual art in early 20th-century Paris,” says Janet Bishop, the SFMOMA’s curator of painting and sculpture. “They not only avidly collected works when the artists most needed support, but also enthusiastically opened their modest Left Bank homes to anyone wishing to see the most radical art of the day.”

Leo and Gertrude chose carefully, sometimes pooling their resources. In 1905, they saw Matisse’s controversial “Woman With a Hat.” Matisse refused to lower the price, so they paid 500 francs, about $100 at the time, says Rebecca Rabinow, the Met’s associate curator for 19th-century, modern and contemporary art.

“This exhibition really shows what someone with a limited budget and a great eye can achieve,” Rabinow says.

There was such demand to see their collections that the Steins — Leo and Gertrude on rue de Fleurus, and Michael, Sarah and their son Allan in an apartment nearby — opened their homes Saturday evenings. The artists they championed became so popular that the Steins eventually priced themselves out of the market, Rabinow says.

There are several gems on view, such as Picasso’s painting of Gertrude. In response to people who said she did not resemble her portrait, Picasso would say, “She will.” Other artists are represented as well, with Pierre Bonnard’s “Siesta” and Paul Cezanne’s “Bathers.”

Also of interest is Matisse’s 1908 “The Girl with Green Eyes,” a painting Michael acquired for his San Francisco friend Harriet Lane Levy. When Levy showed it publicly in 1911, a newspaper ran a photo with the caption, “Matisse paints faces crazed by absinthe drinking.”

One gallery is devoted to Académie Matisse, a school established with the support of Michael and Sarah. Sarah was a student there, and her notebook is on display.

Also worth a look are paintings by Matisse and Henri Charles Manguin, both called “La Coiffure.” The similarities show just how much the artists who mingled with the Steins influenced each other.

The Steins couldn’t keep their collections together. By 1914, Leo and Gertrude’s relationship had frayed, and Michael and Sarah had to sell paintings to pay off their grandson’s gambling debts, Rabinow says.

“The Steins Collect” is a rare opportunity. Don’t miss it.

IF YOU GO

The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso and the Parisian Avant-Garde

Where: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third St., San Francisco
Hours: Opens Saturday; 11 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. daily, except until 8:45 p.m. Thursdays and closed Wednesdays; through Sept. 6
Cost: $18 to $27; timed tickets required, advance purchase strongly recommended
Contact: (415) 357-4000, www.sfmoma.org

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Cathy Bowman

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