Elizabeth Lennard’s documentary focuses on the impact that the Stein family had on the development of 20th century modern art.
Daniel Stein was a German-Jewish businessman who made his fortune in the San Francisco streetcar lines. His children – Gertrude, Leo and Michael, along with Michael’s wife Sarah – enjoyed the family fortune as expatriates in Europe. Art collecting was a passion among the siblings, and they encouraged the careers of barrier-breaking artists Picasso and Matisse. Gertrude settled in Paris, while Leo stayed in Florence; Michael and Sarah would return to the U.S. and maintain the family business operations.
The film is rich with rare photographs and footage of the Steins and their art world protégés, and Lennard does a masterful job in detailing how the Steins influenced the European and U.S. appreciation of the avant-garde movement. However, the film is less successful in offering a balance on the Stein siblings’ lives – Michael and Leo remain ciphers, overshadowed by the luminous literary sensation that Gertrude would create through her writing.
The film is also vague on why Gertrude and Leo refused to leave Europe at the start of World War II, or how they survived at a time when European Jews faced deportation to the Nazi death camps.
Still, the production offers invaluable insight into art history and appreciation, and it is hard to imagine how the art world could have evolved if the Steins never left America.