It’s 1905 in Paris. Visitors to the Salon d’Automne are outraged. Who is that flamboyant woman with the audaciously colorful hat? Or rather who could have painted such a daring work? Matisse’s Woman with a Hat shocked most viewers. However, it was avidly appreciated, and swiftly purchased, by two new art connoisseurs; Gertrude and Leo Stein, sparking a fabulous legacy of 20th century art patronage and perhaps the greatest collection of Modern art of the era. This collection is currently brought together for the first time in decades in Paris, in a special exhibit at the Grand Palais.
The Stein family, based in San Francisco, first came to Paris in 1878 when the siblings Gertrude, Leo and Michael were still children. This initial visit must have struck a cord, as they each eventually gravitated back to Europe as adults by 1904. Having sold off their family’s holdings back in the U.S., the Steins could live a comfortable bohemian life in Paris and were quickly drawn to collecting art.
The Grand Palais exhibit opens with some fine examples of their earliest acquisitions, several works by late impressionist masters, in particular Renoir and Cezanne, purchased during their first visit to the Salon d’Automne in 1904. These works would not only adorn the walls of the Steins’ respective apartments on rue Madame and rue Fleurus, they would also serve as inspiration for the next generation of young artists who started frequenting the Steins’ Saturday night Salons, lively evenings of conversation and debate over the ensuing new ideas of the modernist movement.
The next year’s Salon d’Automne also featured the more “traditional” artists, however, just as the impressionists had shocked the art world with their innovative works forty years prior, new artists such as the bold Fauves were causing a stir. While it was Gertrude and Leo who purchased Matisse’s aforementioned masterpiece, it was Michael and Sarah who became avid collectors and friends of the artist. Over the next few decades, they almost exclusively focused their collection on his works, many of which are shown here, several displaying the unique bond Matisse had with Michael and Sarah such as the two portraits he made of them and some paintings featuring their son Allan.
Matisse might have been one of the most important leading artists of the turn of the 20th century, however, he was fervently rivaled by another visionary artist; Pablo Picasso – who in turn was greatly supported by Gertrude and Leo. Gertrude first met Picasso in 1906 and they quickly formed a strong, if not turbulent, friendship. The exhibition features a number of wonderful Picassos from their collection, including the imposing Cezanne inspired pre-cubist portrait of Gertrude, but perhaps the most intriguing are eight original sketches and studies for Picasso’s first cubist work Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), tightly displayed together on one wall, just as they might have been hung on the walls rue Fleurus.
Gertrude considered herself not merely as a patron of artists, but rather as their equal, a literary modernist, gaining inspiration for her writing from their new concepts on composition as she was developing into one of the most reputed American female writers. After WWI, Gertrude’s rue de Fleurus salon reflected her increasing interest in writing, as the artists started being replaced by the Lost Generation writers.
The end of the exhibit shows her appreciation for newer artists such as Juan Gris, then Francis Picabia and Balthus. This feels like a slightly weak closure to the amazing artistic odyssey of the Steins, who helped shape the direction of art history. Overall, the exhibit, is an exciting way to take an artistic trip back in time to one of the most creative moments in modern history … and then experience a little bit of bohemian Paris yourself, wandering the streets of the Left Bank or Montmartre in the footsteps of the Steins, Picasso, Matisse and Hemmingway.
Context Travel is arranging small group and private visits of the exhibit led by modern art historians. For more information and dates click here.
Written by Lily Heise from Context Travel for the HiP Paris Blog. All images courtesy of the Grand Palais. Looking for a fabulous vacation rental in Paris, Provence, or Tuscany? Check out our website Haven in Paris.