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Gallery Eight


World War I had a devastating impact on Sarah and Michael's collection. At Matisse's request, they lent nineteen of their largest and most important paintings by him to a July 1914 gallery exhibition in Berlin. A month later, Germany declared war on France. After years of legal negotiations, the Steins opted to sell the paintings to the Norwegian ship owner Tryggve Sagen and the Danish collector Christian Tetzen-Lund. Matisse deeply regretted the turn of events and is thought to have painted Sarah and Michael's portraits to make amends. Although they acquired a few more of Matisses, Sarah and Michael had neither the financial resources nor the drive needed to restore their collection to its former glory.

In 1925 the couple's interest was piqued by Le Corbusier's Pavilion de l’Esprit Nouveau, which was featured in an international display of modern decorative arts. Along with their close friend Gabrielle Colaço-Osorio, the Steins commissioned a residence from the architect. This time it was Michael, rather than Sarah, who became passionately involved with the creative process.

At Michael's urging, the couple returned to California in 1935. He died in 1938, but Sarah continued to make the collection available at her Palo Alto home. It was thanks to her that scores of young West Coast artists, including Richard Diebenkorn and Robert Motherwell, were introduced to the art of Matisse.


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Curator Rebecca Rabinow discusses the villa that the Swiss architect Le Corbusier designed for Sarah and Michael Stein. Transcript available in Met Media

In 1926 Sarah and Michael and their friend Gabrielle Colaço-Osorio commissioned Le Corbusier to design a house in Garches, just west of Paris. The residence boasted two separate apartments and a shared common space. The house was expensive, but Gabrielle was able to offset the cost. (Her father had been the financial backer of Ripolin, a popular brand of commercial enamel paint.) She and Sarah had met through the Christian Science Church in Paris, with which they both remained actively involved.

Le Corbusier was delighted with his new patrons. He wrote to his mother, "They are the people who bought the first Matisses, and they seem to consider that their contact with Le Corbusier is also a special moment in their lives. Papa Stein has been spending hours on-site every day observing everything. The house is clean and pure, far beyond anything we have done: a kind of obvious, indisputable manifesto." The building incorporated Le Corbusier's "five points" of modern architecture: it was a raised structure consisting of concrete slabs supported by reinforced pillars and it had a free facade with non–weight-bearing walls, a roof garden, an open floor plan, and ribbon windows for maximum light.

The house attracted many international visitors, including the artists Piet Mondrian and El Lissitzky. Some found the ultramodern building too industrial. The Steins' Italian Renaissance furniture and numerous throw rugs added a domestic note to the interiors, though more than one guest remarked upon the odd juxtaposition of styles. Michael in particular was extremely proud of the house. "After having been in the vanguard of the modern movement in painting in the early years of the century, we are now doing the same for modern architecture," he explained.

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