Janet Bishop: A Few More Stein Stories

Henri Matisse, Woman with a Hat, 1905; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, bequest of Elise S. Haas; © 2011 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

After a terrific run at SFMOMA this past summer, during which we welcomed more than 350,000 visitors, The Steins Collect has now moved on to Paris, where it opened October 5 as Matisse, Cézanne, Picasso … L’aventure des Stein. Part of what I heard again and again about our exhibition is its appeal had as much to do with the stories as with the art itself. As hard as it was to see the exhibition packed up both the art and the stories will take on new resonances, with shifts in context,  in Paris (RMN-Grand Palais, until January 16, 2012) and New York (Metropolitan Museum of Art, February 21–June 3, 2012). The Paris presentation marks the return of Henri Matisse’s Woman with a Hat (1905) to the spectacular glass-roofed Grand Palais — the very venue where it made its controversial debut as part of the sprawling Salon d’Automne in 1905. At the time, Matisse set the price for this portrait of his wife — one of 10 pictures he submitted to the show — at 500 French francs (or about $100). After our book went to press, Claudine Grammont, one of the Paris-based essayists for our catalogue, shared a new discovery of a letter from Matisse to the Paris gallery Chaine & Simonson declining an offer of 300 francs. As much as the artist needed the money, the figure would have been insulting. In this letter of November 18, 1905, Matisse claimed he would take no less than 450. With no such offer by the show’s end, however, he accepted 400 francs from Leo Stein — a 20% break in the price — and the Stein/Matisse story began. By the terms of its bequest from Elise S. Haas in 1991, Woman with a Hat normally never leaves SFMOMA. It was only with special permission from Elise Haas’s heirs that we were able to travel it on the occasion of The Steins Collect.

Henri Matisse, The Girl with Green Eyes, 1908; © Succession H. Matisse, Paris / Artists Rights Society (ARS)

One of the opportunities our preparation for the show offered was the chance for sustained research on works in SFMOMA’s collection, both those that we knew were once owned by members of the Stein family, as one would expect, as well as others with Stein connections. While our Stein-owned Matisses are on the road with the exhibition, the artist’s Girl with Green Eyes (1908) is now installed at the entrance to our second-floor galleries. The picture’s original owner was Harriet Lane Levy, who moved from San Francisco to Paris in 1907 with her next door neighbor, Alice B. Toklas. With Michael Stein’s encouragement, Levy purchased the picture nearly wet from Matisse’s studio, then returned with it to San Francisco a couple of years later. Among the Gertrude Stein papers at Yale, we discovered a 1911 letter from Levy to Alice (who famously remained in Paris to be with Gertrude) in which she mentions her Matisse having made the Examiner. One of our researchers, Jared Ledesma, then headed to the San Francisco Public Library and located, on microfilm, the full-page article in question, “Do Deadly Diseases Inspire Art’s Masterpieces?” with an unlikely caption for the picture of a very fresh-faced girl: “Matisse paints faces crazed by absinthe drinking.”

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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