Spencer Platt/GETTY IMAGES
A part of the exhibit "The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which focuses on the collections of Gertrude Stein and her brothers, Leo and Michael and Michael's wife, Sarah.
If this has not already happened to you, the chances are good that it will. You will find yourself in your parents’ house — a house much more quiet now than once it was. And as you move from room to room you will think: how strange to be in a place in which every object evokes memory. This is particularly true in the kitchen. In my mother’s house, you have to remember the ’70s to make a cup of coffee.
My mother still lives in the house in which I grew up. It’s in the most underrated city in Canada, just below what Hamiltonians call “the mountain.” It’s a modest home that, as my mother has pointed out for 60 years, won’t win any architectural awards. It does, however, have one remarkable characteristic. Unlike the dishwasher, it’s something undiminished by the passage of time. It’s a house that has art on its walls.
We were a middle-class family. But like many couples of their generation, my parents were frugal. My father declined the option of a radio in his car until radios were no longer optional. He only bought a power-mower when it became impossible to repair the clattering antique I struggled with throughout my boyhood. Having recently done some cooking in my mother’s kitchen I can assure you that a great deal of money was saved over the years on the Le Creuset pots and German knives that they never bought.
But they did buy art: not reproductions, and not posters. They bought real paintings and real prints by real living artists. And, while the value of what became their collection has increased substantially, I doubt that they ever made a purchase for any reason other than the simplest rule of investment: they liked it.
In the 1960s, they bought several of David Blackwood’s “Lost Party” series — in part because my mother was from Newfoundland, and in part because they wanted to support “young David.” In the 1970s they bought water-colours and oils by Manly MacDonald, an artist who taught at the Ontario College of Art until the mid-1960s. They bought work by a school friend of mine, Robert Rutherford, an artist now living in Nova Scotia.
In the den — a room mostly dedicated to photographs of grandchildren — there is a watercolour by Henry W. Smith. It’s one of my favourites. It was painted in 1952, and it evokes the Hamilton downtown that municipal politicians have done their best to destroy in the past half-century. My mother remembers that the cost of framing was 10 times what she paid at the garage sale where she found it.
If their stove is anything to go by, I doubt my parents spent much for their acquisitions. The only piece I can find that has a price on the back is an oil-painting, now hanging next to a watercolour done in 1908 by my great-aunt, Grace Paterson. My guess is that the $180 they paid for Still Life by W.W. Bates was at the higher end of their range.
Until June 3, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the collection of Gertrude Stein and her family is testament (on an infinitely more grand scale) to the same instinct that motivated my parents. The Steins bought Picasso and Matisse before you needed to be a national gallery to do so. Ditto, the early buyers of Tom Thomson, an artist whose brief life and extraordinary work is the subject of West Wind, a documentary at the TIFF Bell Lightbox from April 20 to 26.
People buy real art from real artists because they like it, and because they know that — more than any Sub-Zero fridge, or flat screen TV, or reproduction of a Warhol or Cezanne — it’s one thing that brings a home to life.