The Metropolitan Museum of Art has long been home to priceless masterpieces and artifacts from around the world. However, the current exhibit at the Met, “The Steins Collect,” has brought together some of the most coveted and historically prized works of the Iimpressionist era into a single exhibit. The exhibit boasts a major portion of what was once among one of the world’s most landmark private art collections: that of the Stein family.
The collection is set in the brightly lit, modern display enclaves of the museum’s second floor. At the entrance are two imposing photographs: one, a panorama of Paris in 1900, and the second a portrait photo of the Stein family. Each room takes the visitor through works from the early 1900s, featuring multiple works by Cezanne, Matisse and Picasso. The exhibit is laid out chronologically, opening with high Impressionism and concluding with the more modern, abstract paintings that developed after the turn of the century. The layout illustrates how the Stein family, especially the most prominent member Gertrude and her older brother Leo, helped support budding modern artists and thus facilitated the Parisian avant-garde movement into Modernism.
One of the exhibit’s most prized pieces is Matisse’s “Woman with a Hat.” This painting is a landmark work of the Fauvist movement, which is known for using unrealistically bright and dazzling color combinations—the word “fauvre” means “wild beast” in French.
Accompanying the art itself are blurbs and facts about the Stein family’s lives. Many quotations give the exhibit personality, especially one by a friend of the Steins to Gertrude: “Are you a nun, a learned doctor, or are we ignorant as to the meaning of your unique costume?” The question is unsurprising, because the Steins went beyond simply good artistic taste and were willing to invest in radical and generally opposed artistic movements. Their risky investments would more often than not pay off tenfold.
One such movement, Cubism, is well-represented toward the end of the exhibit by some of Picasso’s most abstract paintings, such as his 1918 “Guitar” and his 1922 “Still Life.” Works by Max Weber and Picabia also serve as a stark contrast to the placid Impressionist works that began the Steins’ collection.
One of the first abstract paintings in the gallery is Picasso’s “Vase, Gourd, and Fruit on Table.” The exhibit interestingly depicts Picasso’s growth as an artist, starting with very realistic paintings like his “Apple” and going all the way to “Guitar,” which hardly resembles a guitar. Next to “Apple” are Cezanne’s “Five Apples” and Morgan Russell’s “Three Apples.” Compared to Russel’s intriguingly vivid piece and Cezanne’s impressionistic work, Picasso is actually one of the more realistic painters of the exhibit. It is also interesting to see how the three artists depicted the same piece of fruit in such different renderings.
Though the Steins dabbled in art themselves (Leo’s abstract selfportrait is featured in the exhibit), their crucial role in nurturing and bringing together the avant-garde artistic styles of early 20th-century France is an accomplishment that the exhibit successfully illustrates. According to the exhibit, the Steins went on trips with Matisse, dined with Picasso, and even introduced the two for the first time. The family was instrumental in the progress of new and often controversial artistic movements. Their influence and support helped fringe artists of the time, like Cezanne, become widely accepted. Cezanne’s early paintings consisting of rough brush strokes and bright and vibrant colors were dismissed by art critics, but the Steins’ stamp of approval helped validate the new style.
The Met will maintain the exhibit until Sunday, June 3, and it is worth a trip to the museum just to see it. The exhibit demonstrates how the Stein’s keen eye, faith in Modernism, willing financial support, and above all, involvement in the artists’ social worlds, eased along the transition into Modernism. “The Steins Collect” is not only a showcase of artwork that most people have only ever seen reproduced in posters, but a microcosm of art history as impressionism fell to modernity.
Gertrude Stein once said that “a masterpiece […] may be unwelcome, but it is never dull.” Thanks to her family’s avid collecting of such “unwelcome” masterpieces a century ago, museum-goers in New York this summer will feel anything but dull.