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Gertrude Stein Collected More Than Roses

BY Spencer Michels  May 31, 2011 at 6:18 PM EDT

Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in 1922 in their Paris apartment

Gertrude Stein coined the phrase, “A rose is a rose is a rose.”  She is also known for the quote, “There’s no there there,” about Oakland, California, the city of her childhood home.  But Stein was far more than the author of aphorisms that became clichés. She was also an art collector — big time –along with her brothers and sister-in-law.

The Steins’ art collection is on display this summer at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA).  After that, it will go to Paris, and finally to the New York’s Metropolitian Museum of Art next February.

 Meanwhile, the Jewish Contemporary Museum, just across the street from the SFMOMA, is showing the life of Gertrude Stein in photos, movies, paintings and sculpture.

The art is amazing, but so is the story of the Steins and how they managed to snare an incredible collection of Picassos, Matisses, plus a healthy sample of works by Paul Cezanne, Juan Gris, Pierre Bonnard and other early 20th century modernist giants.

Gertrude and her family moved to Paris just after the turn of the century, where they frequented galleries and salons popular to the art scene.  With money from the family’s inheritance (their father had managed a San Francisco cable car company), they began to buy.  Things were cheap in those days, and they snapped up unknown artists they liked – artists who, with their help, would soon become household names. The Steins had terrific taste.

They brought the art back to their apartments, and plastered the walls with paintings today worth millions of dollars. They paid bargain rates for paintings like Henri Matisse’s “Woman With a Hat”, one of the staples of the San Francisco show. Nobody else wanted the painting, the colors were too weird, and the model (Madame Matisse) had a green face.  Left unsold after a show, Gertrude and Leo Stein, her brother, bargained down the price. And they became fast friends with Matisse in the bargain.

Over the years, the Steins’ collection grew, but Leo and Gertrude feuded, finally deciding to split the art work. She loved Picasso; he didn’t. And even after the siblings split up, partly as a result of Gertrude’s liaison with Alice B. Toklas, they continued to let the collection slip away; they needed the money.

 The works were scattered to the winds. Gertrude – eager to protect her legacy — left only Picasso’s portrait of her to a museum. Some ended up in the hands of art patrons, who sold them to museums. And many stayed in private hands.  

But now –with great effort – the collection, or a good part of it, has been reassembled.  And it’s a great show. Especially thrilling is a hundred-year-old, black-and-white photo of the Steins in their Paris apartment. In the photo, several pieces of art can be seen on the walls. That same artwork – in color – is now on the walls of the museum.

Both shows run until September 6 in San Francisco.