Presenting the Life of Sarah Stein

Sheryl Nonnenberg presented "The Other Stein: How Sarah Stein Brought Matisse to America" to a riveted audience in Menlo Park.

For some, sibling rivalry is displayed through squabbling over who called shotgun or who gets the last slice of pizza.

For Sarah Stein, sibling rivalry was not so blatant. It took the form of a curious parallel, as she attached herself to an artist of timeless masterpieces which threw modern art into a vivid revolution.

Sarah Stein, who was sister-in-law of the famous Gertrude Stein, led a little known, yet remarkable life, which was deeply rooted in the Bay Area.

Sheryl Nonnenberg, a Menlo Park art researcher, has studied Stein for more than a decade, and presented a detailed narrative of the art collector to a packed house in Menlo Park's Saturday morning in a lecture entitled

“Thanks to her, Matisse had a patron when he needed it most,” Nonneberg said.

According to Nonnenberg, Sarah first became entranced by the art of Henri Matisse when she set sights on the Woman with a Hat. The 1905 painting, with its bold expressive brushstrokes and bright colors, received crippling criticism from the public. But Sarah Stein saw something genius.

“They each have what collectors refer to as: an eye,” Nonnenberg said of the Steins.

Sarah Stein loved the Woman with a Hat because it reminded her of her mother. Interestingly, the original model for the vibrant painting was dressed in all black.

Just as Matisse was discouraged from his poor reception from the art world, Sarah Stein began a lifelong patronage, friendship and dedication to the now renowned artist.

“These works were really daring for the time,” Nonnenberg said.

As Gertrude Stein took on the patronage of Pablo Picasso, the friend and artistic rival of Matisse, Sarah Stein was almost exclusively committed to the works of Matisse.

“His life offered an almost religious experience to Sarah,” Nonnenberg said.

But Sarah Stein was not always a socialite of Paris. She was born in San Francisco in 1870, later moving with husband, Michael Stein, to Paris in 1903.

There she found herself in a social circle with some of the most acclaimed modern artists of the 20th century. But her heart always remained with Matisse, so she hosted salons in which she articulated her infatuation to her guests.

“She would expound on Matisse,” said Nonnenberg, “Guests were expected to remain silent.”

Sarah Stein, vivacious and determined, returned to San Francisco for a short time after the 1906 earthquake, taking with her small art pieces by Matisse, which shocked California.  Her experiences were detailed in letters to her sister-in-law.

“Since the news of my arrival with unusual art,” Sarah Stein said in a letter, “I have been a very popular lady.”

Though Sarah attempted to become an artist, after studying intensely with Matisse she felt she did not have the talent. Instead, she became a Christian Science practitioner, or healer.

“Now that’s quite a leap isn’t it,” Nonnenberg laughed.

During the beginning of World War I, many pieces of Sarah and Michael Stein's collection were taken by the Germans, devastating her. After retrieving the pieces, Michael Stein felt the pieces had lost value, so he sold many of the paintings to a Danish collector. As the threat of a Hitler run country became more and more of a danger, the Steins returned to California with their grandson, Daniel, in the 1930s, leaving Matisse behind.

“I feel as if the best of my audience left with you,” Matisse wrote in a letter to Sarah Stein.

They settled in a house on Kingsley Street in Palo Alto, less than a 10-minute drive from the council chambers where the presentation was held. While living on Kingsley, the Woman with a Hat was the centerpiece of her home, which she enjoyed showing to Stanford students who wanted a tour. Sadly, after her husband died, Sarah Stein’s ailing health could not uphold the remains of her beautiful collection or the gambling problems of her grandson.

“He had no problem with grandma selling her art to support his hobbies,” Nonnenberg said.

As she suffered from possibly dementia or Alzheimer’s, Nonnenberg said, Sarah began to sell paintings for prices far below their market value and destroyed all letters from Matisse in order to forget the art collection that once brought such joy into her life.

“It was said by the end she was barely lucid,” Nonnenberg said.

Sarah’s friend Elise Haas bought Woman With a Hat for just $20,000 with the full intention of donating it to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. So Sarah Stein said goodbye to the piece that had birthed her life’s passion.

After Sarah Stein’s death in 1953, Daniel Stein, known as a character that many did not get along with, kept his grandmother’s memories in less than desirable form. The notebook of Sarah Stein is said to been found underneath a crawlspace in Daniel’s home. Daniel’s home also contained Matisse originals in locations meant for items of little importance.

“This is a very dysfunctional family folks, there was not a whole lot of communication between them,” Nonnenberg said.

Those in attendance at the presentation were full of questions after the presentation and generally fascinated throughout the lecture.

Audience member Bill Newell said, “I think it’s important to know as much of your local history as possibly especially with such a rich local history as ours.”

Woman with a Hat as well as several other pieces collected and painted by the Stein family, including Matisse’s Portrait of Sarah Stein, are on exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The exhibit, The Steins Collect, will be on display until September 6.

Though Sarah Steins’ life may have ended with an aching sadness, we must be reminded of the beauty she circulated throughout the world, Nonnenberg said.

“While it is always sad when someone suffers from Alzheimer’s disease or dementia,” Nonnenberg said. “We must keep in mind Sarah had a unique and happy life.”


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Roberta Roth July 11, 2011 at 05:13 PM
Thank you for your wonderful coverage of our event! Roberta Roth, Outreach Librarian, Menlo Park Library


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