Leo Stein was an American writer and art critic. Active in Europe and the United States, he is best known as an early champion and collector of Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso. Stein is also credited with introducing his siblings, younger sister Gertrude and older brother Michael, to modern art.
Stein studied law at Harvard University and biology at John Hopkins University. Throughout his life, he approached, cultivated, and shared his artistic interests in diverse ways: He was an amateur painter and collector, as well as a theoretician, critic, and historian of art. While studying Mantegna and Quattrocento in Florence in 1900–02, Stein befriended the American art historian and connoisseur Bernard Berenson, whose views on art had a lasting impression on Stein. For example, Berenson drew Stein’s attention to Paul Cézanne, whose work was virtually unknown at the time.
Stein lived in Paris from 1902 to 1914 where he became an early supporter of emerging artists, a passion he shared with his siblings. In the course of the siblings’ first decade at 27, rue de Fleurus, Leo and Gertrude made numerous joint acquisitions directly from artists or from the local dealers, including Paul Durand-Ruel, Clovis Sagot, and Ambroise Vollard. Leo is credited with taking the lead in these purchases, which began in 1903 with Cézanne’s landscape The Spring House (ca. 1879; The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia). It was followed by the acquisition of works by Honoré Daumier, Eugéne Delacroix, Édouard Manet, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso. The most controversial early purchase was Matisse’s Woman with a Hat (1905; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) the Fauvist painting mocked by the critics for its unorthodox palette and execution.
From 1906 to around 1912, Leo used the weekly Saturday evening salons at the siblings’ home to lecture on modern art and aesthetics. However, despite his initial passion for artists like Cézanne, Matisse, and Picasso, Stein’s interests and attitudes toward their work began to shift around 1910 when he turned from champion of the avant-garde to critic, especially with regard to Picasso and the artist’s shift toward Cubism. Around 1913–14 he began to sell off his Cézannes, Matisses, and Picassos in order to purchase paintings by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, many of which came from the Bernheim-Jeune Gallery in Paris. His change in perspective caused a permanent rift between him and his sister who was an outspoken supporter of Cubism. In 1913–14 the siblings divided their collection, and in the spring of 1914 Leo left rue de Fleurus.
During World War I, Stein lived in New York where he played an active role in local artistic circles and developed close relationships with Mabel Dodge (née Ganson) and Dr. Albert C. Barnes, both of whom he had met in Paris. During this time, he wrote regular art reviews and criticism for the New Republic. After the war ended, Stein divided his time between Italy and France, with occasional visits to the United States. In 1929, for example, he delivered a series of lectures at the New School, New York. Stein also continued to write art criticism; in 1924 the New Republic published his essay on Picasso in which he recapitulated his negative opinion of Cubism. His lifelong preoccupation with aesthetics and psychology led to the publication of The A-B-C of Aesthetics (1927) and Appreciation: Painting, Poetry, and Prose (1947).
After the division of the siblings’ collection Stein’s holdings included a few works by Matisse, two Cézannes, one work by Delacroix and Daumier respectively, and sixteen Renoirs. He elected not to retain any Picassos. In need of financial resources, he gradually sold works from the collection, many of which were purchased by Dr. Barnes for his private holdings (The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia) and Durand-Ruel for his New York gallery.