Brothers and sitters

Although modern art began in Paris, it fell on stony ground; Picasso and Matisse found barely a French buyer before 1914. During those years, they were bankrolled by two collectors: the fabulously wealthy Russian Sergei Shchukin and the fabulously daring but less rich Stein family from California.

At their apartment on the Rue de Fleurus, Leo and his sister Gertrude built a unique collection of Picasso as he stood on the brink of cubism. Also in Paris at the same time, their brother Michael and his wife Sarah sustained Matisse so devotedly that when they returned to the US in 1935, the artist, now globally famous, lamented: “It seems that the best part of my audience has departed with you ... how much I valued your wise judgments ... exceptional sensibility, and full knowledge of the road I have travelled.”

This splendid story, casting rare personal light on the febrile prewar period of modernist experiment, is told in The Steins Collect, an exhibition as spectacular as it is scholarly, which travels from San Francisco to Paris to New York over the next year. Highlights include landmark self-portraits from 1906 by Picasso (given in gratitude for a small loan) and Matisse – “too intimate to be shown publicly”, according to Gertrude, but acquired for its fauvist self-assurance by Sarah; Picasso’s primitivist portrait of Gertrude, a response to Cézanne’s “Madame Cézanne with a Fan”, which hung in her home; Matisse’s “Woman with a Hat”, which Leo initially thought “the nastiest smear of paint ever” then bought for 500 francs; the key Cézannes (“Five Apples”, “Bathers”) with which the Steins’ artistic education began.

Arranged according to collector, apartment, epoch, the show unravels some of art history’s defining moments. When, for example, Leo and Gertrude sold Bonnard’s sensuous “Siesta” – a sprawling nude on a frothy bed with a slumbering dog, borrowed back here from Melbourne – to buy in 1907 “Blue Nude: Memory of Biskra”, Matisse’s edgy, violent masterpiece of bulbous breasts and muscular thighs, their most mesmerised visitor was Picasso.

“If he wants to make a woman, let him make a woman,” he muttered. “If he wants to make a design, let him make a design. This is between the two.” In response, Picasso began drawing a woman with bent upraised elbow and crooked knee, as if Matisse’s nude held her pose after being rotated to a standing position. This is the first of scores of studies for “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”, some of which Leo and Gertrude also bought; their juxtaposition with “Blue Nude” here is compelling.

Picasso’s ‘Head of a Sleeping Woman (Study for Nude with Drapery)’

So was the Steins’ weekly open house to crowds of international art lovers. “Some came to mock and some to pray,” noted Leo, whose radical disquisitions on pure form, colour sensations, plasticity and rhythmic expression gave him the air of a high priest expounding a new religion. The impressionist painter Mary Cassatt complained, “The pose was, ‘If you don’t admire these daubs then I am sorry for you, you are not one of the chosen few.’”

Watching a new elite form, the old establishment closed ranks: the Steins, art historian Bernard Berenson told the collector Isabella Stewart Gardner, “are a tribe of queer, conceited, unworldly, bookish, rude, touchy, brutal, hypersensitive people. They all have power and brains but I am getting so frivolous I begin to be bored by them.”

Did he mean that modernism was too cerebral? Surprisingly, emaciated intellectual Leo came to reject cubism as all surface and no substance, while bulky Gertrude identified happily with its disembodied facets. Differences in their taste animate this show: she supported Juan Gris (restrained canvases such as “Book and Glasses”) and the playful Francis Picabia; he favoured reinterpretations of traditional motifs such as Henri Manguin’s vibrant fauvist “Study of Reclining Nude”, before retreating to impressionism. When brother and sister divided their collection in 1914, he left Paris with 16 Renoirs; she kept all the Picassos.

Michael and Sarah’s collection also dissolved that year – they lent their greatest Matisses to a Berlin exhibition on the eve of the first world war and never recovered them. In compensation, in 1916, Matisse painted exquisite companion portraits of the couple: sombre, startlingly pared-down pieces from a period when he was fervently engaged with abstraction. By raising her eyes and forehead, dropping her neckline, abstracting her gown and encompassing the composition in gold, Matisse transformed Sarah from flesh-and-blood woman into the icon she was for him.

These works were among many that eventually returned to California with Michael and Sarah, and whose impact in the US is not to be underestimated. It began early, when they visited San Francisco to check on their business interests – streetcars and property – after the 1906 earthquake, and showed some Matisses en route through New York. “Can poor people buy one? Maybe a very little one ... or is he too swell?” a framemaker called George Of asked. He acquired the delicate but frenzied oil on board “Nude in a Wood” – the first Matisse to reside permanently in the US. Hanging in Of’s shop, it won a wide audience before being donated to the Brooklyn Museum, who loan it here.

I found it exhilarating to see this exhibition in California. In the mid-20th century, West Coast artists were making a pilgrimage to the Steins’ home. They included Richard Diebenkorn, whose gracious lines clearly derive from Matisse, and Robert Motherwell, a student when a tennis partner invited him to a cocktail party. “He said: ‘I heard you are interested in pictures,’” Motherwell recalled. “‘Well, these people have some pictures.’ I said: ‘In that case, I’ll come,’ because in San Francisco in those days there were no pictures at all. Behold, it turned out to be the Stein collection. I saw Matisses and they went through me like an arrow and from that moment I knew exactly what I wanted to do.”

‘The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso and the Parisian Avant-Garde’, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, to September 6; Grand Palais, Paris, October 3-January 16; Metropolitan Museum, New York, February 21-June 3

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