Gertrude and her brother Leo shared living quarters on the Left Bank of Paris at 27 rue de Fleurus from 1903 until 1914, when they dissolved their common household. Their residence, located near the Luxembourg Gardens, was a two-story building with adjacent studio. It was here they accumulated the works of art into a collection that would become renowned for its prescience and historical importance.
The gallery space was furnished with imposing, Renaissance era furniture manufactured in Florence, Italy. The paintings lined the walls in tiers trailing many feet to the ceiling. Initially illuminated by gaslight, the artwork was later lit by electric light shortly prior to World War I.
The joint collection of Gertrude and Leo Stein began in late 1904 when Michael Stein announced that their trust account had accumulated a balance of 8,000 francs. They spent this at Vollard's Gallery, buying Gauguin's Sunflowers and Three Tahitians, Cézanne's Bathers, and two Renoirs.
Leo Stein cultivated important art world connections, enabling the Stein holdings to grow over time. Bernard Berenson hosted Gertrude and Leo in his English country house in 1902, facilitating their introduction to Paul Cézanne and Ambroise Vollard's art gallery.
The art collection increased and the walls at Rue de Fleurus were rearranged continually to make way for new acquisitions. In "the first half of 1905" the Steins acquired Cézanne's Portrait of Mme Cézanne and Delacroix's Perseus and Andromeda. Shortly after the opening of the Salon d'Automne of 1905 (on October 18, 1905), the Steins acquired Matisse's Woman with a Hat and Picasso's Young Girl with Basket of Flowers.
Henry McBride (art critic for the New York Sun) did much for Stein's reputation in the United States, publicizing her art acquisitions and her importance as a cultural figure. Of the art collection at 27 Rue de Fleurus, McBride commented: "[I]n proportion to its size and quality... [it is] just about the most potent of any that I have ever heard of in history." McBride also made the observation that Gertrude "collected geniuses rather than masterpieces. She recognized them a long way off."
By early 1906, Leo and Gertrude Stein's studio had many paintings by Henri Manguin, Pierre Bonnard, Pablo Picasso, Paul Cézanne, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Honoré Daumier, Henri Matisse, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Their collection was representative of two famous art exhibitions that took place during their residence together in Paris, and to which they contributed, either by lending their art, or by patronizing the featured artists. The Steins' elder brother, Michael, and sister-in-law Sarah (Sally) acquired a large number of Henri Matisse paintings; Gertrude's friends from Baltimore, Claribel and Etta Cone, collected similarly, eventually donating their art collection, virtually intact, to the Baltimore Museum of Art
While numerous artists visited the Stein salon, many of these artists were not represented among the paintings on the walls at 27 Rue de Fleurus. Where Renoir, Cézanne, Matisse, and Picasso's works dominated Leo and Gertrude's collection, the collection of Michael and Sarah Stein emphasized Matisse.
In April 1914 Leo relocated to Settignano, Italy, near Florence, and the art collection was divided. The division of the Steins' art collection was described in a letter by Leo:
The Cézanne apples have a unique importance to me that nothing can replace. The Picasso landscape is not important in any such sense. We are, as it seems to me on the whole, both so well off now that we needn't repine. The Cézanne's had to be divided. I am willing to leave you the Picasso oeuvre, as you left me the Renoir, and you can have everything except that. I want to keep the few drawings that I have. This leaves no string for me, it is financially equable either way for estimates are only rough & ready methods, & I'm afraid you'll have to look upon the loss of the apples as an act of God. I have been anxious above all things that each should have in reason all that he wanted, and just as I was glad that Renoir was sufficiently indifferent to you so that you were ready to give them up, so I am glad that Pablo is sufficiently indifferent to me that I am willing to let you have all you want of it.
Leo departed with sixteen Renoirs, and relinquishing the Picassos and most of Matisse to his sister, took only a portrait sketch Picasso had done of him. He remained dedicated to Cézanne, nonetheless, leaving all the artist's works with his sister, taking with him only a Cézanne painting of "5 apples".
The split between brother and sister was acrimonious. Stein did not see Leo Stein again for more than thirty years, and then through only a brief greeting on the street. After this accidental encounter, they never saw or spoke to each other again.
The Steins' holdings were dispersed eventually by various methods and for various reasons.
After Stein's and Leo's households separated in 1914, she continued to collect examples of Picasso's art, which had turned to Cubism, a style Leo did not appreciate. At her death, Gertrude's remaining collection emphasized the artwork of Picasso and Juan Gris, most of her other pictures having been sold.
Gertrude Stein's personality has dominated the provenance of the Stein art legacy. It was, however, her brother Leo who was the astute art appraiser. Alfred Barr Jr., the founding director of New York's Museum of Modern Art, said that between the years of 1905 and 1907, "[Leo] was possibly the most discerning connoisseur and collector of 20th century painting in the world." After the artworks were divided between the two siblings, it was Gertrude Stein that moved on to champion the works of what proved to be lesser talents in the 1930s. She concentrated on the work of Juan Gris, André Masson, and Sir Francis Rose. In 1932, Stein asserted: "painting now after its great period has come back to be a minor art."
In 1945, in a preface for the first exhibition of Spanish painter Francisco Riba Rovira (who painted a portrait of her), Stein wrote:
I explained that for me, all modern painting is based on what Cézanne nearly made, instead of basing itself on what he almost managed to make. When he could not make a thing, he hijacked it and left it. He insisted on showing his incapacity: he spread his lack of success: showing what he could not do, became an obsession for him. People influenced by him were also obsessed by the things which they could not reach and they began the system of camouflage. It was natural to do so, even inevitable: that soon became an art, in peace and in war, and Matisse concealed and insisted at the same time on that Cézanne could not realize, and Picasso concealed, played and tormented all these things. The only one who wanted to insist on this problem, was Juan Gris. He persisted by deepening the things which Cézanne wanted to do, but it was too hard a task for him: it killed him. And now here we are, I find a young painter who does not follow the tendency to play with what Cézanne could not do, but who attacks any right the things which he tried to make, to create the objects which have to exist, for, and in themselves, and not in relation.