The Stein Exhibit: Parisian Avant Garde at the Met

At the turn of the 20th century, Paris was the place to be for aspiring artists, writers, or musicians. It was the epicenter of the avant-garde, a bustling community that thrived on discovery and innovation. As much of the emerging aesthetics challenged the formal elements of art and stood in stark contrast to the academic standards, artists found that they did not have an official forum for which to interact with one another and to display their work. That is, until 27 rue de Fleurus came along.

Home to the siblings Gertrude, Leo, and Michael Stein, this apartment became the hub for the pioneers of modernism. It has been argued that the Steins were the most important patrons of 20th century art, influencing the development of modern art to a profound extent. To honor the importance of the Stein’s impact, the Metropolitan Museum in NYC has created a new exhibition, “The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde.”

Leo Stein moved to Paris in 1903. Here, he began collecting pieces by unknown artists. It just so happened, some of these unknown artists included Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. Before long, his siblings began to follow suit. They sought out beautiful, memorable, and distinct work, pooling their resources to increase their collection. They acquired paintings by Cézanne, Gauguin, Renoir, Pierre Bonnard, Maurice Denis, Juan Gris and many other artists. Met Curator Rebecca Rainbow says: “They were among the very few who could appreciate Matisse and Picasso early on when these artists were still relatively unknown.”  Indeed, the Steins had a discerning eye for budding talent.

Unlike many other collectors who purchased pieces by contemporary artists and took them home to enjoy privately, the Steins wanted their collections to be accessible to everyone. They opened a Saturday evening salon at their home with the intent to create a safe, comfortable space for emerging artists, dealers, and collectors to unite. “They opened up their homes to an international group of artists and collectors and dealers so for the first time people had an opportunity to come to a safe environment where people weren’t laughing and looked at the art on walls,” explains Rainbow. It was at this salon that Matisse met Picasso, and formed their everlasting friendship.

After ten years in Paris, Leo decided to leave. At this point, he and Gertrude decided to split their collection. Gertrude took the Picasso paintings and Leo took with him sixteen Renoirs. Michael (and his wife Sarah) took many works by Matisse, among other artists.

Nearly a century later, the Museum of Modern Art has gathered 200 works of art—from the turn of the century through two World Wars and afterwards—that collectively showcase the impact the Steins’ patronage had on the artists of their time. The exhibit chronicles the Steins’ artistic preferences and examines the bonds formed between them and the artists themselves. The viewer is able to see firsthand how the Stein family ultimately promoted a new standard of taste for modern art.

It may seem odd that it has taken so long to create such a meaningful exhibit, but the reason is largely attributed to one key painting—Matisse’s Woman with a Hat, which serves as the centerpiece of the show. The masterpiece is owned independently by each of Steins’ heirs, who stipulated that it can leave its home at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art only once. “It was really because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for that picture to travel,” Rainbow said. After the Matisse was acquired, it took eight years of diligent effort to bring this exhibit into fruition.

The majority of the 200 pieces were once owned by the Steins—and actually hung on the walls of their apartment at 27 rue de Fleurus in Paris, which has even been recreated in the exhibition. The exhibit centers around works by Matisse and Picasso, but also features paintings, prints and sculptures by Cézanne, Degas, Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec, Manet, and Renoir. It is an exquisite collection that truly embodies the artistic spirit that the Steins fostered. “For me, this exhibition provided an Alice in Wonderland-like rabbit hole to slide back down to the first two decades of the 20th century,” says Rainbow. “I think it will give people an opportunity to see a little bit more of the complexities and the relationships, not only of the artists but their patrons, and I hope bring it to life for them.”

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