The Brutons Meet Matisse

Henri Matisse
Henri Matisse, Paris, May 13th, 1913
by Alvin Langdon Coburn
Public Domain 

The Bruton sisters had the opportunity of a lifetime in 1930, when they were invited to attend a party at Ralph Stackpole’s San Francisco studio in honor of Henri Matisse. Matisse, who was passing through the city on his way to Tahiti, had never been to San Francisco before and would never return again after this visit.
  Matisse was in town for just two days and agreed to attend Stackpole’s party, which included forty guests. 

Ralph Stackpole

San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library

Esther described the memorable evening in a letter to her good friend Ina Perham Story: “We had some excitement Tuesday night all right all right,” she wrote.  Esther described the dinner as “very noisy and boisterous” with “deadly cocktails” and “five gallons of red wine.” Yet Matisse didn't "drink wine or 'licker' at all," Esther said, "so it must have sounded like bedlam to a good quiet gentleman (with nice bushy whiskers).” Esther also reported that Matisse, as a vegetarian, wouldn't eat the chicken dinner that was brought in from a nearby restaurant.  Margaret "had the honor of cooking him an omelet and it was a bum one she said." A star-struck Esther tried to communicate with Matisse using her rusty French. He “wanted to know a lot about Tahiti,” she said, “and I having been there tried to tell him in my cockeyed French… [but] everything I wanted to say stuck somewhere in my gullet.” 

Dorr Bothwell
Dorr Bothwell in her studio, 1967
Photograph by Bill Foote
Dorr Bothwell papers, 1900-2006
Archives of American Art

Artist Dorr Bothwell, who was also at the party, “was the star of the evening.”  Bothwell had just returned from two years in American Samoa, where she lived with the native people and learned their culture and customs.  Esther reported that she had “both legs tattooed from knee to hip in a beautiful all over design that looks as if she had on a pair of tight little lace pants.”  Bothwell performed a Samoan dance for Matisse at the party. “Gee it was a thrill,” wrote Esther. “The guest of the evening certainly enjoyed
that.”  It was a night the Brutons would never forget.


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