Gertrude Stein was angry when Leo, her brother, bought Picasso’s Fillette à la corbeille fleurie (Young Girl With a Flower Basket) in 1905. The Steins were shown the painting by Clovis Sagot, the former circus clown who had become Picasso’s dealer in Montmartre. The painting is of a pubescent girl, naked and pale against a chalky blue ground. Her side-on silhouette seems borrowed from an Egyptian frieze, but there is nothing stylised in the awkward way she clutches a self-consciously symbolic punnet of blowsy, blood-red blooms. The girl’s stare is a troubling “what are you looking at?” admonition; there is a double string of pearls around her neck, and a line of crimson on her lips. A vague sense of duress challenges the viewer, through the painter’s eyes.
Gertrude Stein was mostly put off by the young woman’s proportions. She thought Picasso’s girl had too-long legs and found her clumsy-looking feet “repulsive”. But her brother prevailed. Picasso was then 23 years old and this was the first significant purchase of his work the Steins had made. The painting was hung in their house at 27 rue de Fleurus, where Picasso became a regular visitor. It grew on Gertrude. She held on to it when she and Leo fell out; he had the Cezannes.
For the next couple of weeks, Picasso’s discomfiting portrait will be briefly in London, coolly staring down her viewers. The painting was acquired by the late David Rockefeller and it is among the multiple headline acts in the sale of 1,600 of his artworks, which the auctioneer Christie’s believes will be a record-breaking charity sale in New York in May.
After Stein’s death in 1946, the Picasso was passed along with the rest of the collection to her partner Alice B Toklas and, on her death in 1967, Rockefeller created a consortium of friends to buy the paintings. Having put in a million dollars each they drew lots from a felt hat to determine who had first pick. David Rockefeller drew number one, and chose the girl with her basket (he also chose Picasso’s singular Pomme, the angular apple painted for Stein to fill the Cezanne-shaped hole in her life). Up until David Rockefeller’s death, at 101, last year, the flower girl was on the wall of the Rockefellers’ Upper East Side mansion in New York. Again, the painting was not a favourite of Rockefeller’s wife, Peggy; he had it facing his desk in his library.
One of the excitements of seeing these touring pre-sale highlights of the Rockefellers’ joint collection – and they come thick and fast: a Delacroix tiger; a citrus-sharp Seurat seascape – is to get a sudden, quickening sense of how it would have been to live with these extraordinary pictures and objects. The collection represents two extended generations of buying; it was started by David’s parents. John D Rockefeller Jr, who took his duties as a protestant philanthropist extremely earnestly, inherited from his own father not only America’s greatest fortune but also a profound distrust of “squandering” it on modern pictures. The best decision John Jr made was to marry Abby Aldrich, party-loving daughter of a Republican senator, who tended, judiciously and irrepressibly, to think otherwise.
Abby was the leader of the “indomitable ladies” who established and nurtured the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Without her husband’s approval, or much of his money, she built not only MoMA’s reputation but also her own private collection after forming friendships with artists across the world, including Matisse. She passed on her collector’s compulsion to her youngest son and his wife, along with the tutelage of Albert Barr, the inspired curator Abby had installed as director of MoMA. It was Barr who persuaded the Rockefellers to buy the violet, eye-drenching Monet here, Nymphéas en fleur, at the time he was making the argument that Monet’s then neglected Giverny work was the bridge from impressionism to abstraction.
Jonathan Rendell, deputy chair of Christie’s US, who dealt with the Rockefeller estate for the auction house, has been planning the possibility of a sale with the family for several years – partly as a strategy against death duties, partly a commitment to philanthropy. Rendell imagines the event, at the Rockefeller Center in New York, as the consummate piece of art theatre (even surpassing, perhaps, the benchmark of the three-day sale of Yves St Laurent’s collection in 2009, which featured a Maria Callas aria before every major lot, had St Laurent’s bulldog sitting in the front row, and realised £333m). The Rockefellers’ cumulative legacy – set against death duties – is likely to raise more than half a billion dollars for their chosen charities.
Rendell suggests that as well as buying for quality, you might read something of the emotional biography of the Rockefellers in the paintings they chose. If you look hard at these singular pieces, there seems to be more than one sensibility at play. Gauguin’s La Vague, a wild Japanese-influenced Brittany seascape, with a pair of Victorian bathers on hot orange sand (one of Peggy Rockefeller’s choices) seems at odds with a hard-to-get-at Edward Hopper landscape, with a forbidding foregrounded granite rock; while the startling sensuality of Matisse’s Odalisque, lounging on a chaise, makes an easy womanly antidote to the in-your-face assault of the Picasso. In this way, the collection might feel a little like a portrait of a marriage, a rarefied one in which anything and everything could be reflected and expressed in what you chose to buy.
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