Gertrude Stein and her brother Leo are well known for being pioneering collectors and promoters of modern French art in the early 20th century while living in Paris. Another brother, Michael, and his wife Sarah also lived in Paris, became collectors, and brought paintings back home to San Francisco. Some of these paintings are now owned by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). Michael was the eldest of five siblings, and it was his shrewd business management of the family’s assets that enabled the others to live comfortably and begin collecting art. Fellow San Francisco art aficionados Anne Bremer and Albert Bender knew the Stein family and were no doubt influenced by their adventurous attitudes toward modern art.
The Fauve (“wild beast”) movement got its name from a critic’s comment on some of the more radical, intensely colored paintings in the 1905 Salon d’Automne. One painting that was especially ridiculed by visitors and the press was Matisse’s Woman with a Hat, now in the SFMOMA collection. One of the Steins (it’s not entirely clear who) bought the painting, and Leo and Gertrude each later bragged that they had been the first to recognize Matisse’s genius. But according to Matisse himself, “Mme. Michael Stein was the really intelligently sensitive member of the family.” She certainly became one of his most ardent early supporters and patrons, as well as studying painting with him in the Académie Matisse, which she helped establish in 1908, and keeping detailed notes of his statements about art.
An indirect result of the 1906 earthquake was the introduction of modern French art to San Francisco. Michael and Sarah Stein, who had been living in Paris and collecting art, returned to their home city that summer, bringing some paintings they had bought. Exactly what these paintings were is not entirely clear. Some accounts says there were three Matisses. According to Ray Boynton’s interview with Anne in 1922, “Her first introduction to the moderns came in the home of a friend here who had brought with her from Paris two small canvases, a Cezanne and a Matisse.” This friend had to be Sarah Stein, who wrote to her sister-in-law Gertrude:
I have had a pretty hot time with some of the artists . . . . You see, Mikey [her husband] sprang the Matisses on one just for fun, and since the startling news that there was such stuff in town has been communicated, I have been a very popular lady; it has not always been what Albert Meyer used to call “pleasant.” Oh, Albert Bender has been our most faithful & devoted—as always—he runs in to see us every few days–but his devotion hardly stood the test of the “femme au nez vert.” Anne Bremer (his cousin) insisted upon his seeing it—she had told him of it, and he had said “if Sarah Stein says it’s great it must be—and Anne said “But just wait until you see it.” Upon his demand, I assured him that perhaps he’d better spare himself this test, as I knew his belief in my infallibility was something very dear to him. “No,” he said, “I shall never, never, never say, as others have, that you are crazy.” Well, he saw it—for two minutes he was speechless—then he meekly inquired, “But don’t you think you’re crazy?”
During their stay in San Francisco Sarah (“Sally”) Stein
resumed her pivotal role in the lives of her California women friends, a group of unmarried, artistic, German-Jewish women of at least middle-class status. These women had long envied Sally her marriage and motherhood; now their friend was also privy to glamorous Parisian ways. She urged them to visit France. Among her frequent visitors was Harriet Levy, now an aspiring writer and the drama critic for The Wave, a local weekly; Annette Rosenshine, an art student; and Alice B. Toklas, Annette’s cousin and Harriet’s O’Farrell Street neighbor.
All three went to Paris not long afterward, and Alice famously stayed, moving in with Gertrude and Leo. Anne Bremer—also unmarried, artistic, German-Jewish, and so on—joined the rush to Paris a few years later. Before settling in Paris she visited Florence, Italy, early in the summer of 1910, while Gertrude and Alice were vacationing at a villa in nearby Fiesole. Anne wrote to Alice, who served as Gertrude’s secretary:
I am so very sorry, my dear Miss Toklas that I can not have the pleasure of lunching with you, but I leave on Saturday, or if I fail to get done, on Sunday, for Venice. In about a week I go on to Paris where I hope to see you a little later. My address will be care of Cook and Son, and for the first I expect to go to the American Art Students Club.
Hoping you will have a very pleasant summer, with kind greetings believe me
Cordially yours, Anne M. Bremer
Also surviving in the Gertrude Stein papers is a note from Anne after their return to Paris inviting “Miss Toklas” and “Miss Stein” to tea at her apartment, 115 rue Notre Dame de Champs. Anne must have made at least one pilgrimage to the rue de Fleurus apartment occupied by Gertrude, Leo and Alice, as did so many other American artists in the pre-war years. Anne was, of course, better acquainted with Sarah and Michael Stein, whom she may have seen soon after arriving in Paris. But Sarah’s father was seriously ill, and on July 16 they left for San Francisco, and they did not return to Paris until about the time Anne left in September 1911.
Visitors to the Gertrude Stein home, often dropping in during Saturday night salons, came away with a variety of impressions. Artist Anne Goldthwaite described her first visit there, in 1906: after walking past a concierge’s “cage” and “across a little pebbled court we went into a beautiful large studio filled with antique Italian furniture. The walls were covered with the most remarkable pictures I had ever seen. I knew that they must be pictures because they were framed and hanging on the wall.” She found Gertrude “a brilliant talker,” witty, and saying she knew nothing about painting: “I only quote my brothers, Mike and Leo.” On the other hand, she never again saw Gertrude in quite such a cheerful, talkative mood.
Agnes Meyer (who was distantly related to Anne and Albert) wrote:
During my Paris year I came to feel a real sympathy for Leo Stein and genuine respect for his artistic judgment. But I was hampered in my relations with Leo because I conceived an immediate antipathy for his sister Gertrude. . . . Most of the visitors to the Stein apartment in 1909 paid little attention to Gertrude. The center of attraction was Leo’s brilliant conversation on modern French art and the remarkable collection mostly of contemporary paintings which he made at little cost with the aid of his independent and exacting judgment. Leo was cruelly shut off from easy communication with others by his inner conflicts. But his extreme sensitivity, introspection and overly severe self-criticism aroused sympathy rather than aversion. When we looked at his collection together, he spoke little, but his occasional words and the intensity of his feeling revealed the modern paintings one saw with him in their highest significance.
Edward Fisk, an American artist who visited in 1912, wrote that Gertrude
was shaped and draped like a Hindu idol. She was not the sphinx I expected but a very gracious and charming hostess and had a tinkling, humorous laugh that one would never forget. . . . I had not come, as most people had, to meet Miss Stein but to see their collection of modern painting. Painters who were at that time considered the wild men of Paris (Fauves) lined the walls of her studio: Matisse, Picasso and others. Cezanne, Renoir, and El Greco hung with these present day wild men. . . The room was filled with Americans drinking in Gertrude’s charm and modern French art. The young man who brought me there was a Stein enthusiast . . . He invited me, a few evenings later, to see a collection of Matisse that was housed in the residence of Michael Stein.
Sarah wrote to Gertrude from San Francisco on October 15, 1910, “Mr. Bender has been very nice to us. He leaves in a few weeks to join Anne Bremer. Do your best for him.” There is no proof of his visiting rue de Fleurus, but he and Anne probably did so together. During this visit he may have even bought some of the modern French prints that he later donated to SFMOMA.
Albert would have had another chance to encounter Gertrude Stein when she visited San Francisco for eleven days in 1935, her first return to the U.S. after many years abroad. They had many literary friends and acquaintances in common, and if nothing else he would probably have attended her lecture at Mills College, where he was a Trustee. He would not have been pleased to hear that she had declined to meet Robinson Jeffers while she was in Carmel enroute to San Francisco, because he was a great friend and patron of Jeffers. But at the same time Gertrude and Alice were in San Francisco, Albert was immersed in the opening of the city’s museum of primarily modern art, featuring art he had donated. So the seeds planted by the Stein family’s early enthusiasm for modern art had germinated in San Francisco for close to three decades, nurtured by Anne Bremer, Albert Bender, and a handful of others, and finally blossomed under museum director Grace McCann Morley.
1. “Matisse’s American Patrons,” Time, 30 March 1962 (http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,895984-1,00.html)
2. Sadly, Sarah Stein sold most of her pioneering modern art collection during the Depression to fuel her grandson Daniel’s passion for racehorses. Through the efforts of Elise Haas and others, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art now owns twelve works by Matisse and Picasso from the Stein collection, and reassembled many more of the hundreds of works collected by the Stein family for an exhibition in 2011.
3. San Francisco Chronicle, 17 September 1922, p. D4.
4. Sarah Stein to Gertrude Stein, 8 October 1906, Gertrude Stein Papers, Beinecke Library, Yale University. The “woman with the green nose” was probably The Green Line, now in the Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen.
5. Linda Wagner-Martin, “Favored Strangers”: Gertrude Stein and Her Family (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1995), p. 81.
6. Anne Bremer to Alice Toklas, undated, Gertrude Stein Papers, Beinecke Library, Yale University, box 97, folder 1830.
7.. Anne Bremer to Alice Toklas, undated, Gertrude Stein Papers, loc. cit.
8. Adelyn Dohme Breeskin, Anne Goldthwaite (Montgomery, Ala.: Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, 1982), pp. 23-24.
9. Agnes E. Meyer, Out of These Roots (New York: Arno Press, 1980), p. 81.
10. Letter from Edward Fisk, circa 1931, to his sister-in-law Spalding Young, quoted in Rachael Sadinsky, “Edward Fisk: A Modern Life,” from Edward Fisk: American Modernist (Lexington: University of Kentucky Art Museum, 1998).
11. Sarah Stein to Gertrude Stein, 15 October 1910, Gertrude Stein Papers, box 126, folder 2730.