With its acid colors and slapdash brush strokes, the painting still jolts the eye. The face, blotched in mauve and yellow, is highlighted with thick lines of lime green; the background is a rough patchwork of pastel tints. And the hat! With its high blue brim and round protuberances of pink, lavender and green, the hat is a phosphorescent landscape by itself, improbably perched on the head of a haughty woman whose downturned mouth and bored eyes seem to be expressing disdain at your astonishment. If the picture startles even after a century has passed, imagine the reaction when Henri Matisse’s Woman with a Hat was first exhibited in 1905. One outraged critic ridiculed the room at the Grand Palais in Paris, where it reigned alongside the violently hued canvases of like-minded painters, as the lair of fauves, or wild animals. The insult, eventually losing its sting, stuck to the group, which also included André Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck. The Fauves were the most controversial artists in Paris, and of all their paintings, Woman with a Hat was the most notorious.
So when the picture was later hung in the Parisian apartment of Leo and Gertrude Stein, a brother and sister from California, it made their home a destination. “The artists wanted to keep seeing that picture, and the Steins opened it up to anyone who wanted to see it,” says Janet Bishop, curator of painting and sculpture at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which organized “The Steins Collect,” an exhibition of many pieces the Steins held. The exhibition goes on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City from February 28 to June 3. (An unrelated exhibition, “Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories,” about her life and work, remains at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery until January 22.)