From Gertrude Stein to the Rockefellers: The collecting of modernist masterpieces

Christie’s Impressionist and Modern Art specialists Max Carter and Jessica Fertig tell the story of how important works from one of the first ever great collections of modern art, formed by Gertrude Stein, were acquired by Peggy and David Rockefeller

‘It’s rare that you can capture a moment of great change and transition,’ says Max Carter, Head of Department for Impressionist and Modern Art at Christie’s in New York. The suite of works from the Gertrude Stein collection that are offered in The Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller  this May is, says Carter, ‘fascinating for the way it links two great collecting families, which were both driven by an adventurous spirit and strong women who were looking at modernism and really finding themselves.’

The three works that Carter and his colleague Jessica Fertig admire in Christie’s Rockefeller Center galleries were initially assembled by Gertrude Stein, the great American writer and facilitator of the avant-garde who became the epicentre of beau monde Paris in the 1900s. When her collection came up for sale some half a century later, Peggy and David Rockefeller hatched a plan to acquire it.

Gertrude and her brother Leo Stein moved to an apartment on the rue de Fleurus in Paris in 1903 and began acquiring paintings from their then unknown artist friends, who included Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Paul Cézanne. At the time, the works cost just a few dollars each.

The Steins’ Paris home, circa 1912-13. Picasso’s Fillette a? la corbeille fleurie, 1905, is to the left of the stove. Photo from the Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas papers, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Artworks © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2018. © Succession H. MatisseDACS, London 2018. ©

The Steins’ Paris home, circa 1912-13. Picasso’s Fillette a? la corbeille fleurie, 1905, is to the left of the stove. Photo from the Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas papers, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Artworks: © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2018. © Succession H. Matisse/DACS, London 2018. © Succession Picasso/DACS, London 2018

Every Saturday Leo, Gertrude, and her partner Alice B. Toklas presided over a salon attended by their creative cohorts. Guests included not only the rivals Picasso and Matisse (who competed for space on the high walls of Gertrude’s atelier), but artists such as André Derain and Georges Braque, and the writers Guillaume Apollinaire, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

The family bond between Gertrude and Leo was disrupted after 1910 when Alice moved into the apartment, although their views on art were becoming irreconcilable too. Leo was retreating from his earlier enthusiasm for the new painting; Renoir was now his paragon. Gertrude, meanwhile, had come to look on Picasso as a kind of twin soul — and to see her own fractured, iterative poetry as the literary equivalent of Picasso’s faceted Cubist canvases. Leo loathed his sister’s work (‘I think it abominable’, he said) and in 1913 this open antipathy resulted in the inevitable rupture. Leo decided to move out of rue de Fleurus; the collection, their joint project and mutual property, had to be divided between them.

Gertude Stein (left) and Alice B. Toklas. Photo from the Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas papers, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University

Gertude Stein (left) and Alice B. Toklas. Photo from the Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas papers, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University

It was mostly an easy parting of the ways: Gertrude kept the Picassos; Leo took the Renoirs, the Renaissance furniture, and nearly all the Ce?zannes when he left Paris for a house outside Florence. Leo and Gertrude never set eyes on each other again.

Gertrude and Alice remained in Paris for 30 more years, buying and selling works when finances fluctuated. During the Second World War Gertrude once quipped ‘we are eating the Cézanne’ when questioned about a painting missing from her walls.

After Gertrude died in 1946 her collection of 47 paintings (38 of which were by Picasso) was bequeathed to her nephew but remained on the walls of Toklas’s home. Gertrude’s nephew eventually passed ownership on to his three children, who decided to sell when Toklas died.

David and Peggy Rockefeller were no strangers to modernism by the time news of the sale broke in 1967. David’s mother, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, had co-founded the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1929, and the museum was now keen to acquire a group of six Picassos from Stein’s collection, although it needed to find the funds.

The back of Picasso’s Pomme still retains the handwritten note from the artist to the couple, which reads, ‘Souvenir pour Gertrude et Alice. Picasso. Noel 1914’

David Rockefeller stepped in and formed a six-man syndicate made up of himself, his brother Nelson, William Burden, Andre? Meyer, Bill Paley and John Hay Whitney, publisher of the New York Herald Tribune. An independent expert placed a total value of $6.8 million on Stein’s cherished paintings. This meant that each of the six syndicate members needed to put in a little more than a million dollars. ‘I felt this was far too good an opportunity to miss,’ David later wrote in his memoirs.

On a Saturday afternoon in December in 1968 in a back room at MoMA, numbered pieces of paper were put into an old felt hat. David was able to draw two lots from the hat after doubling up on his investment when Burden dropped out. By the time the hat reached him, however, there were only two pieces of paper left inside. ‘Fortunately for [David], the two lots that were left were numbers one and three,’ says Carter.

David’s first selection was easy: Picasso’s 1905 masterpiece Fillette à la corbeille fleurie (Young Girl with a Flower Basket), which every other member of the syndicate wanted. ‘We actually know this is a portrait of Linda, a flower seller in Montmartre,’ says Jessica Fertig of the teenage model who worked outside the Moulin Rouge and later posed for Modigliani and Van Dongen. ‘It has such a unique palette in the way that [Picasso] uses colour and where he chooses to use it. And then the face — it’s haunting, it’s self-assured, it’s knowing.’

Leo Stein had paid $30 for the painting in 1905, long before his disenchantment with Picasso. Gertrude did not like it at all, and was furious with her brother for buying it. But over the years, once it was hers alone, she came to admire the work greatly. This Rose Period Picasso, which was painted while the artist was in his early twenties, went on to hang in between two windows of the library in David and Peggy’s 65th Street New York townhouse for the rest of their lives.

Juan Gris (1887-1927), Le tapis vert, 1925. 28¾ x 36¼  in (73.1 x 92.1  cm). Estimate $2,000,000-3,000,000. This lot is offered in The Collection of David and Peggy Rockefeller 19th & 20th Century Art, Evening Sale on 8 May at Christie’s in New York

Juan Gris (1887-1927), Le tapis vert, 1925. 28¾ x 36¼ in (73.1 x 92.1 cm). Estimate: $2,000,000-3,000,000. This lot is offered in The Collection of David and Peggy Rockefeller: 19th & 20th Century Art, Evening Sale on 8 May at Christie’s in New York

By the end of the wintry meeting at MoMA, David had selected seven more Picassos and two works by Gris, including the 1925 work Le Tapis (The Green Cloth). Seven Picassos remained unchosen by any member of the syndicate, but David later swapped one of his paintings, a still life, for a study of a head for Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907).

For Fertig, Picasso’s charming Pomme (Apple)  is another highlight from the Rockefeller Collection, and one that comes with an evocative story. The watercolour was a Christmas gift from Picasso to Gertrude and Alice in 1914, and was painted to fill the fruit-shaped hole left in their collection after Gertrude had reluctantly let her brother keep a picture of apples by Cézanne — the only painting the two had quarrelled over when dividing up their collection. Later, Leo wrote a letter to Gertrude saying, ‘I’m afraid you’ll have to look upon the loss of the apples as an act of God.’

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Pomme, 1914. 5? x 7  in (13.5 x 17.7  cm). Estimate $1,000,000-1,500,000. This lot is offered in The Collection of David and Peggy Rockefeller 19th & 20th Century Art, Evening Sale on 8 May at Christie’s in New York © Succession PicassoDACS, London 2018

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Pomme, 1914. 5? x 7 in (13.5 x 17.7 cm). Estimate: $1,000,000-1,500,000. This lot is offered in The Collection of David and Peggy Rockefeller: 19th & 20th Century Art, Evening Sale on 8 May at Christie’s in New York © Succession Picasso/DACS, London 2018

Picasso’s inscription to Gertrude and Alice on the back of the painting © Succession PicassoDACS, London 2018

Picasso’s inscription to Gertrude and Alice on the back of the painting © Succession Picasso/DACS, London 2018

The back of Picasso’s Pomme  still retains the handwritten note from the artist to the couple, which reads, ‘Souvenir pour Gertrude et Alice. Picasso. Noel 1914.’ The consolation work became one of Stein’s most treasured pieces.

‘[Picasso] is stepping out of synthetic Cubism at this point,’ explains Carter. ‘This is 1914 and he is really breaking artistic ground, yet as a token of friendship and as an artistic challenge, he tries to simulate and pay homage to this great master [Cézanne].’

For both specialists, it was Gertrude Stein’s pioneering approach to collecting that inspired David and Peggy Rockefeller ‘to think intelligently and to be on the cutting edge of what they were acquiring.’ As David once remarked, ‘All these objects will go out into the world and will again be available to other caretakers who, hopefully, will derive the same satisfaction and joy from them as we have.’

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