Emerging from the shadows

Spotlight turns to Sarah Stein and her efforts to promote Matisse's work

By Caitlin Moyles

Special to the Almanac

The galleries were crowded for a Thursday evening as I wandered through the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art's latest exhibition, "The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde," a treasure trove of modern artworks. The Stein family -- celebrated Oakland writer Gertrude Stein, her brothers Leo and Michael, and Michael's wife, Sarah -- collected them in Paris in the early 20th century.

A few of the visitors glided through the maze of gallery rooms, but most merged with the amorphous groups that had gathered to gaze at some of the exhibition's most recognizable works, Matisse's "Woman with a Hat" and "The Girl with Green Eyes" among them.

By the time I reached the room dedicated to paintings from Picasso's Cubist phase, I realized that I'd missed what I had come to the museum to see, and doubled back. Eventually, I strolled into an inconspicuous side room, and there it was: the gallery dedicated to l'Academie Matisse, the art school Matisse founded in Paris in 1908 with the encouragement and financial support of Sarah and Michael Stein.

Although the Steins' lives have been well-documented -- notably in "Four Americans in Paris," the 1970 exhibition at the New York MOMA this room is one of several ways the research on Sarah has been fleshed out in "The Steins Collect." It's about time.

Typically overshadowed by the imposing persona of her sister-in-law, Gertrude, Sarah dedicated much of her life to promoting Matisse's work and convincing others of his artistic genius. While Gertrude and Leo began collecting the work of Picasso, Matisse's rival, it was Sarah who introduced Matisse's work to the United States when she visited the Bay Area in 1906 after the San Francisco earthquake.

Although she collected about 40 Matisse paintings, 70 prints, and several bronzes, Sarah was much more than one of his most avid patrons. The two maintained a lifelong friendship, and she continued to increase the awareness about his work in the Stanford community when she, Michael, and their grandson Daniel moved into a home on Kingsley Street in Palo Alto in 1935.

Fortunately for posterity, Sarah took notes in a small, leather-bound notebook when at the l'Academie Matisse, where she and about a hundred other German, Scandinavian, and American students took lessons from the master himself during the school's two-year existence. In the SFMOMA exhibit, that notebook, recently found in the Ladera home of Sarah's late grandson, now rests in a glass case at the center of the gallery for all the world to see.

Even as the spotlight continues to shine brightly on Gertrude this summer not only in "The Steins Collect" but also in the "Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories" exhibition at the Contemporary Jewish Museum and in the new Woody Allen film, "Midnight in Paris" -- several local ties to Sarah Stein have encouraged this writer to explore Sarah's relative anonymity.

A decade-long project by Menlo Park art researcher Sheryl Nonnenberg promises to shed new light on Sarah's life.

"My interest in Sarah started when I read in a book that she once intended to leave her Matisse collection to Stanford, over 10 years ago," Ms. Nonnenberg says. "You have to do a lot of research to find out things about Sarah, but I feel she is as interesting and has made as many contributions to the art world as Gertrude."

Ms. Nonnenberg will share some of what she's learned through her research in a talk, "The Other Stein Salon: How Sarah Stein Brought Matisse to America," at the Menlo Park Library on Saturday, July 9.

The notebook

"Oh my goodness, you found the Holy Grail!"

That was a co-curator's reaction when Carrie Pilto, project assistant curator of painting and sculpture at SFMOMA, discovered Sarah Stein's 1908 notebook in the late Daniel Stein's home. Distinguishable by Sarah's distinctive scrawl, the notebook is filled with the advice Matisse gave his students -- from how to construct a picture to the philosophical importance of a work of art, Ms. Pilto says.

Often labeled a Fauve, the Matisse that Sarah portrays proves to be a rather traditional teacher, Ms. Pilto says. Although Sarah transcribed portions of the notebook to be published in Alfred H. Barr's 1951 book, "Matisse: His Art and His Public," the original notes were thought to be lost until now.

Currently, the notebook is propped up in a glass case at the center of the l'Academie Matisse gallery room at SFMOMA, where it will be on display through Sept. 6. "Because of the haphazard organization, we believe Sarah was taking (the notes) in class and transcribing them into English as Matisse spoke," Ms. Pilto says. "And yet her notes are eloquent. She really does manage to convey Matisse's own eloquence as a teacher."

Indeed, the fervor with which Sarah recorded Matisse's words is visible in her writing, which she overlaid with giant colored letters -- a large purple "p" indicates notes on painting; a giant "S" indicates sculpting; and a capital "P" in green indicates critiques of pupils' work.

As dedicated as Sarah was to sharing her notes with Mr. Barr for publication, not all of the passages made it into his book; among those left out was Matisse's commentary on human anatomy and the relationship of the navel, belly, and pubis.

Sarah probably self-censored such passages from being published because of her "Victorian sense of propriety," Ms. Pilto says.

In another, Matisse speaks to the use of photographs in painting by encouraging his students to enhance the image with qualities the camera fails to capture:

"Nature excites the imagination to representation. A photograph would include only as much of this landscape as could be taken in by the plate but you certainly want (to) add to this the spirit of the landscape in order to help its pictorial quality."

Another interesting tidbit from Sarah's notes: Matisse's students included Hans Purrmann and the cubist painter Max Weber.

A labor of love

After her years in Paris, Sarah continued her crusade from her Kingsley Street home by re-creating the salons she once hosted at her 58 Rue Madame apartment in Paris. At her Palo Alto home, Stanford professors and students came to view the collection and hear Sarah read from Matisse's letters, according to Sheryl Nonnenberg.

"She had an almost spiritual, deep connection to Matisse's work," Ms. Pilto says. However, unlike Gertrude, Sarah never perceived herself as an artist, and tended to avoid the limelight.

"Whereas Gertrude saw herself as equal to Picasso's genius, Sarah did not have the role of the artist's equal genius," Ms. Pilto says. "She had a self-deprecating sense of humor, and perhaps a lifelong complex over not having a university degree. She used to joke with Stanford professors about them coming to an uneducated woman to learn about modern art."

Although Sarah was the valedictorian of her graduating class at Girls' High School in San Francisco, she was never able to attend university. Ms. Pilto adds that Matisse described Sarah as "the sensitive member of the Stein family."

Although Sarah spoke to Stanford University about giving them her collection, she fell into dementia and Alzheimer's disease, and sold the art to private collectors to underwrite her grandson's habit for owning race horses, Ms. Nonnenberg says.

Some of the paintings were purchased by her friend Elise Haas, who bought Matisse's portrait of Sarah and "Woman with a Hat," and helped place some of the other paintings with Bay Area families, Ms. Pilto says. Some of the paintings purchased by Bay Area collectors were regrouped to create the Sarah and Michael Stein Memorial Collection at SFMOMA.

Treasure hunt in Ladera

Although Sarah sold her collection, Ms. Pilto and head curator Janet Bishop knew there might be some valuable artifacts hidden away in Daniel Stein's home. When William Ashton, heir of the estate, invited them to scour the home for valuable materials, the curators jumped at the opportunity.

Mr. Ashton was one of Daniel's closest friends. They met in 1979 at the Shell Station in Ladera, where Mr. Ashton was pumping gas during his college years.

"I met Dan Stein because he always had five cars, and he had race horses. That was his business," Mr. Ashton says.

When asked why Daniel had never given museums access to his archives before, Mr. Ashton replies: "Daniel was just a private person who didn't want to be bothered. He didn't really talk about his grandparents unless you asked him. I didn't find out who they were until my mother took me to the Matisse exhibit at the MOMA in New York in 1990.

"I saw Matisse's portraits of Sarah and Michael and noticed a strong resemblance. When I asked Dan about it, he said, 'Oh yeah, those were my grandparents. Yeah, Matisse used to bounce me on his knee.'

"The Steins were hoarders. Daniel's wife Betty never threw anything away."

Among the materials the curators found: letters from Matisse to Sarah, as well as photographs of the two together; a Renaissance chair that belonged to Sarah; five paintings by Sir Francis Rose that say "property of Gertrude Stein" on the back; glass plates that show Matisse's portrait of Sarah in various stages of development; and, of course, the notebook.

"Sarah was not as prone to self-mythologizing as Gertrude or Leo," Ms. Pilto says, "but she was just as important as Gertrude and Leo in spreading the new religion of modern art in the Anglophone community," and in the Bay Area in particular.

Ms. Nonnenberg hopes to tie the threads of Sarah's life together at her talk. "I'm mostly interested in telling her story," she says. "I don't think it's really been done before."

Note: "The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde" is at SFMOMA through Sept. 6. Tickets: $7-$25. Go to for more information.

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Like this comment
Posted by Hmmm
a resident of another community
on Jul 7, 2011 at 1:07 am

Thank you for this fascinating story. I've always loved Matisse and now I know there's a local link. It's marvelous that her notebook was found. Thanks to Ms. Nonnenberg for sharing her knowledge and interest with others.

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