Janet Bishop: A Few More Stein Stories

David Edstrom, Portrait of Miss Levy, ca. 1907-1908; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, bequest of Harriet Lane Levy

Coinciding with our exhibition, Harriet Levy’s account of her Paris years has just been published for the first time by Heyday in Berkeley as Paris Portraits, Stories of Picasso, Matisse, Gertrude Stein, and Their Circle. One of the tales Levy shares of her time in the Steins’ orbit is that of having her portrait made by the Swedish American sculptor David Edstrom. This, too, was eventually left by Levy to SFMOMA. We considered putting it in The Steins Collect. But even after Michelle Barger, our objects conservator, gave the terracotta bust new life by cleaning it, it was just too unappealing. The experience of having Levy sitting for her portrait in his studio was clearly not a pleasant one for Edstrom.  As Levy herself recalled, Edstrom said to her things like, “You have an awful effect on me,” and, “Every time my thoughts are high you drag them down.”

Henri Matisse, Harriet Lane Levy, 1913; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, bequest of Harriet Lane Levy, c Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Matisse’s drawing of Levy, on the other hand, is beautifully executed, but equally unflattering. This may have had something to do with the artist’s reluctance to make her portrait at all until she offered him an unprecedented $100, per Levy family lore.

Mathilde Vollmoeller-Purrmann, Still Life with Fruit, ca. 1906-1907; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, bequest of Esther Pollack

One last picture we were very pleased to have on view here as part of The Steins Collect was Still Life with Fruit, ca. 1906–7, by German artist Mathilde Vollmoeller-Purrmann. This handsome oil painting was left to SFMOMA in 1991, without a positive attribution. Not much was known about the picture except that it had once belonged to Sarah Stein, and that it was shown as “Hans Purrmann (?)” (Vollmoeller’s husband) in the 1970 Four Americans exhibition of the Steins’ collection organized by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Thanks to the persistent research efforts of the Metropolitan’s curator Rebecca Rabinow, and her work with the experts at the Purrmann-Haus in Speyer, Germany, the author of this long-unidentified picture is now known.

Janet Bishop is curator of painting and sculpture at SFMOMA. Along with Cécile Debray for the RMN-Grand Palais, Paris, and Rebecca Rabinow and Gary Tinterow of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Janet was one of the lead curators for The Steins Collect. She was curator-in-charge for its SFMOMA presentation this past summer.

Comments (1)

  • Apparently Levy reminded him of his previous wife, Anna Levertin, also of Jewish descent, who recently had betrayed him. This really wasn’t an auspicious coincidence… I think you’re right in saying that the portrait is unappealing, but interestingly it shows off Edström’s growing misogyny. He didn’t have the spirit to make women, whom he found base at this time of his life, goddesses.

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