A rose is a rose is a rose…even in Palo Alto
Everyone knows about Gertrude Stein and her famous Paris salon, where artists, including Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque and others gathered to talk about art, politics and philosophy. Gertrude and her partner Alice B. Toklas are often heralded for their role in nurturing these emergent artists, buying their work and promoting it to other collectors.
But few people know about Gertrude’s connection to the Bay Area and how one house in Palo Alto served as a bridge between modern art in Europe and the United States.
Real estate investment gave Gertrude and her siblings the freedom to travel
The story starts, as many Bay Area stories do, with real estate. Due to smart investments in San Francisco rental property (and streetcars) by their father Daniel Stein in the 1800s, Gertrude Stein and her brother Leo had the means to relocate to Paris in 1903 and explore the bohemian life.
Gertrude’s other brother Michael also yearned to move abroad, so he sold the streetcar business in 1904 and followed his siblings to Paris along with his wife Sarah and son Allan. Through the 30 years that Michael and Sarah lived on and off in Paris, Gertrude developed a bond with their son Allan and eventually left her collection to him when she died in 1946.
Henri Matisse, the Steins and Palo Alto
Although all of the Stein family members were fascinated by art and the artistic life, it is Sarah Stein’s connection to Henri Matisse that is especially relevant for Palo Alto as she could come to live here in her later years.
Sarah took a keen interest in Matissse’s work from the moment she arrived in Paris and began collecting his work almost exclusively in 1905. Through financial help from the Steins, Matisse was able to open a painting school in 1908 and exhibit his work in New York, Boston and Chicago through the famous Amory Show in 1913, where many Americans saw modern art for the first time.
Sarah and Henri: a moral and spiritual connection
But Sarah’s connection to Matisse was more than just as a collector or funder, as she was also a student of his and ceaseless champion of his work. As the Matisse biographer Hilary Spurling said, “The real debt that Matisse owed to Sarah Stein was a moral debt. She understood him at a time when no one else did, and this was priceless to him. She believed in him and his art and she fed that belief back to him, making him believe in his art too.” Henri and Sarah continued to correspond throughout their lives and the two families remained connected until Sarah’s death in 1953.
American artists discover Matisse in Palo Alto
In 1935, Sarah and Michael moved back to the Bay Area and bought a gracious home at 433 Kingsley Avenue, where they continued the tradition of hosting salons to bring art and artists together.
A large work by Matisse called, “Tea” was placed in a prominent location in their home, and many curators and collectors saw their first Matisse at the Stein’s house. California artist Richard Diebenkorn was invited to the Stein’s while he was a student at Stanford University, and he was vividly impressed by seeing Matisse in person. (The Cantor Art Center at Stanford is currently displaying Diebenkorn’s notebooks).
Matisse: “Sarah knows my paintings better than I do…”
The San Francisco MOMA curated a show in 2011 that highlighted the role of the Stein family in the history of modern art, and the relationship between Sarah and Henri Matisse. The show included Matisse’s portrait of Sarah Stein, of whom he is purported to have said, “”She knows my paintings better than I do.”
A unique window into art history right on Kingsley Street
The next time you walk, ride or drive down Kingsley street, take a look at the driveway for #433 and consider the role that its owners once had in the history of modern art. Without Sarah Stein and her fierce belief in Henri Matisse, we might never have the amazing legacy of his work to appreciate now and for generations to come.