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Maurice Sterne papers

Call Number: YCAL MSS 39

Scope and Contents

The Maurice Sterne Papers consist of the correspondence, manuscripts, sketches, photographs, and miscellaneous papers of Russian-born painter-sculptor Maurice Sterne. The papers span the years 1915 to 1963, with the bulk of Sterne's writings and correspondence coming in the last decade of his life. The collection was presented to The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library in 1965 by the estate of Sterne's wife, Vera Segal Sterne.

The collection consists of seven series: I. Correspondence (Boxes 1-4), II. Writings (Boxes 5-16), III. Family Papers (Boxes 17-21), IV. Photographs (Boxes 22-24), V. Printed Material (Boxes 25-27), VI. Other Papers (Box 28), and VII.2000 Addition (Boxes 32-34). Oversize material is housed in Boxes 29-31.

Series I., Correspondence , contains the alphabetically arranged correspondence of Maurice and Vera Sterne between 1915 and 1964. Although the majority of the letters are written to the Sternes, there is a small accumulation of letters from both Maurice and Vera Sterne, with some of Maurice Stern's letters existing only in draft form.

Although the collection contains only a few of Sterne's letters in which he discusses his art at any length, many letters to Sterne reveal much about his work and life. Since Sterne counted as personal friends many museum and gallery directors, government officials, and other artists, their letters often contain a mixture of business and personal material. Artists whose letters discuss Sterne's work or art include Albert Bender, George Biddle, Edward Bruce, Leon Krull, and Jules Pascin. While revealing the bureaucratic problems that artists of Sterne's generation confronted, the letters of Biddle, Bruce, and Edward Rowan discuss Sterne's major artistic triumph: the set of large murals he created for the Justice Department Building in Washington, D. C., in 1939. A letter from Biddle (Box 1, folder 15) comments on government support for artists and cultural affairs. Letters from officials of many museums, art galleries, and art schools also reveal much about Sterne's career as both painter and sculptor. Art patrons Albert Bender and Samuel Lewisohn were both close friends of Sterne. Their letters attest to Sterne's ability and comment on the art scene of the 1930s and 1940s. Several of Bender's letters discuss the political situation in Europe in the late 1930s and the early years of World War II and evaluate the plight of the Jews in Germany. A group of letters from Ansel Adams discusses the technicalities of photographing Sterne's Justice Department murals while displaying Adam's sense of humor. Included with a Christmas card for 1943 is an original Adams photograph.

Others from the world of arts and letters represented in the collection are Hutchins Hapgood, Hiram Haydn, Mabel Dodge Luhan, Carleton Noyes, Leo Stein, Stark Young, and Franz Werfel (Box 4, folder 122). Haydn's letters pertain primarily to the editing of Sterne's autobiographical manuscript, while Mabel Dodge Luhan's letters discuss her involvement in the world of artists and her relationship with Sterne before, during, and after their brief marriage. Stark Young's letters reveal his keen appreciation of art and discuss his readings and influences. In a letter of January 2, 1954, he names those who in his opinion have achieved greatness in literature, music, and art.

Other prominent correspondents include Felix Frankfurter and Harlan Fiske Stone, both of whom write on the controversy between Sterne and the Catholic Church over his Justice Department murals. A series of mimeograph letters from Eric Wolman (Box 4, folder 126) details his travels around the world on the Yankee in 1948.

The letters and drafts of letters from Sterne himself are scattered throughout the collection, but a number can be found in the correspondence of Vera Sterne, Sam Lewisohn, and Margaret Lewisohn. Twenty-three letters to Vera, written while she was hospitalized in 1954, poignantly discuss Sterne's illness, Vera's nervous breakdown, and Sterne's devotion to his wife. The letters to the Lewisohns are a blend of personal commentary and discussions of his art. A significant letter to Monseignor Ready of the Catholic Church (Box 3, folder 88) contains an impassioned defense of the subject matter of Sterne's Justice Department murals.

In 1936 Sterne found himself involved in a dispute between the estate of Vaso L. Chucovich and an art advisory committee for the city of Denver, Colorado over acceptance of a design for a memorial statue to Robert W. Speer. Copies of correspondence between Sterne, who served as a judge for the design competition, and various officials connected with the Speer Memorial controversy have been placed in the Speer Memorial file under Family Papers (Box 21, folder 358).

Series II, Writings , contains five boxes of holograph and typescript notes for Sterne's posthumously published autobiography. These notes, often recopied several times with variations, chronicle in great detail Sterne's boyhood in Russia and the personalities of his parents, his arrival in America in 1889, his early jobs in New York City and his early training and work in art (especially at the National Academy of Design), his life and work in Europe and the East from 1904 to 1914, his early love affairs, his return to America at the outbreak of World War I, his early relationship and subsequent marriage to Mabel Dodge, his painful divorce, his return to Europe in 1919 and his marriage to Vera Segal, and his later work in the United States from the early 1930s to his death in 1957.

Sterne began writing his memoirs in the late 1940s, when he was already suffering from cancer. Although there are notes for his entire life, the coverage is much more thorough for his early life and career. His autobiography was still not complete at his death, and his illness in his last years prevented him from giving adequate treatment to his later life. Thus autobiographical notes for his life and career from 1930 to 1967 are relatively sparse, and one must look in the correspondence and newspaper clippings in the collection for detailed accounts of his work on the Justice Department murals, his involvement in the Speer Memorial controversy, and his teaching and work in commercial art.

The various drafts of specific episodes of Sterne's life are not always consistent, suggesting a faulty memory. Sterne's handwriting is often illegible and only a small number of pages were transcribed by the several editors who worked on the drafts before and after Sterne's death. The editors' summaries of many of the episodes Sterne describes have been left with the notes. Sterne's memoirs are also contained in a series of notebooks (Boxes 10 and 11), which at times include financial accounts, addresses, memos, and sketches.

Sterne's comments on art; the lives and works of prominent artists such as Picasso, Cézanne, Matisse, and Van Gogh; and numerous other topics have been singled out and placed in Subject Files (Boxes 12-15) under broad headings such as Psychology, Individualism, Judaism, and Religion. More extensive subjects such as Art, Artists, and National Characteristics have been subdivided into more specific categories.

A separate section, Essays (Box 10), has been established for Sterne's writings on art or on his life which are complete in themselves and were either separately published or intended for separate publication.

Series III, Family Papers , contains among its subdivisions Biographical Material, Drawings and Paintings, Financial Records, Reports of Professional Organizations, Speer Memorial Controversy material, and Reminiscences of Vera Sterne. Biographical Material contains information provided by Sterne himself or given in published accounts. The section Drawings and Paintings contains numerous sketchbooks and loose sketches of Sterne's and two small unsigned gouaches presumably by Sterne. Several of the sketchbooks also contain brief autobiographical notes and memos.

Material on the Speer Memorial in Denver (for which Sterne was a judge) consists of copies of letters to and from Sterne on this debate and reports from a number of newspapers covering several months.

Vera Sterne's reminiscences, though focusing only on certain early periods of her life with Sterne, clarify some of the events in his life and provide a different perspective of Sterne.

Series IV, Photographs , has been divided into Individuals, Places, Nature, Art, Negatives, and Miscellaneous. The subseries Individuals contains both professional and home photographs of Sterne, his mother Naomi and sister Rosa, Vera Segal Sterne and her family, and numerous friends. Two noteworthy inclusions are a series of photographs of Sterne by Carl Van Vechten and photographs of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., with accompanying news releases. Unidentified photos have been collected at the end of the subseries.

The subseries Places contains numerous photos taken by Sterne on his travels, especially in India and Bali. This section also contains postcards and slides. The subseries Nature includes an original photo by Ansel Adams, "Sierra Foothills," as part of a greeting card in 1948.

The subseries Art contains numerous professional photographs of Sterne's work, especially his Justice Department murals, the Rogers-Kennedy Memorial, and the Fairmont Park monument. Many of the photos of the Justice Department building murals were taken by Ansel Adams and are preserved in a separate portfolio (Box 31). Photos of other noteworthy paintings and sculpture are also included.

Negatives for photos in all of the subseries have been placed together (Box 24, folders 425-26), and miscellaneous photos are collected at the end.

Series V, Printed Material , contains among its divisions Articles, Books, Exhibition Catalogs, and Newspaper Clippings, all of which relate to Sterne's career. The published articles contain commentaries and evaluations of various aspects of Sterne's art by such authors as Joyce Kilmer, Duncan Phillips, Stark Young, and Martin Birnbaum. An issue of American Artist of December 1941 contains an interview with Sterne on his career and his thoughts on art. Under Books is included a proof copy of Maurice Sterne: The Maestro in Art, art critic Harry Salpeter's unpublished collection of reproductions of Sterne's art. The items in Exhibition Catalogs all contain references to or reproductions of Sterne's contributions to numerous art exhibitions, including the catalog for his one-man show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1933.

Newspaper Clippings contains an extensive assemblage of newspaper articles (and some excerpts of magazine articles) on Sterne's career and his exhibitions, including obituaries and reproductions of his art. Many of these deal with Sterne's life in Bali in 1913 and his artistic rendering of the island. One group of articles discusses Vera Sterne's occasional professional dance appearances. Miscellaneous news clippings collected by Sterne or Vera but not relating to their lives or careers have been placed at the end of the series.

Series VI, Other Papers , contains apparently unpublished material by others, including an article by an unknown author entitled "Maurice Sterne and His Time."

Series VII, 2000 Addition (Boxes 32-34), contains correspondence, financial records, and other material, including an untitled oil painting, by or relating to Maurice Sterne. The correspondence includes letters from galleries, publishers, and art patrons.

Oversize material (Boxes 29-31) houses papers from the Correspondence, Family Papers, and Photographs series.


  • 1903-1963


Language of Materials

Chiefly in English; some materials in German and Italian.

Conditions Governing Access

The materials are open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

The Maurice Sterne Papers are the physical property of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Literary rights, including copyright, belong to the authors or their legal heirs and assigns. For further information, consult the appropriate curator.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Gift of the estate of Vera Segal Sterne, 1965, and Robert Meredith, 2000.


17.38 Linear Feet ((33 boxes) + 1 art)

Catalog Record

A record for this collection is available in Orbis, the Yale University Library catalog

Persistent URL


The collection consists of correspondence, manuscripts, sketches, photographs, and papers relating to the life and career of painter-sculptor Maurice Sterne.

MAURICE STERNE (1877-1957)

One of nine children of Gregor and Naomi Sterne, painter-sculptor Maurice Sterne was born in the German-speaking city of Libau in the province of Latvia, Russia, in 1877 or 1878. (Sterne himself was apparently never certain of the date of his birth). In 1884, after his father's death, Sterne's family moved to Moscow, where Maurice attended a Jewish trade school with the anticipation of becoming a locksmith. He soon left the trade school and found encouragement in his artistic endeavors at a polytechnic school. In August 1889, Maurice, his mother, and younger sister Lena joined older brother Max in New York City.

In his first few years in his new country, Sterne worked part-time in, among other places, a flag factory, a cigar store, a bronze factory, a mirror factory, and a saloon. One of his jobs, an apprenticeship in a map-engraver's shop, refocused his attention on art; he subsequently undertook first a class in mechanical drawing at Cooper Union, then a course of study at the National Academy of Design, while continuing to work in the evenings. Though Sterne chafed at the rigid requirements of formulaic academic study, he had the opportunity to study anatomical drawing under the renowned Thomas Eakins. After four years he finished his art education at the National Academy in 1899 with high honors, winning several major competitive awards during his final year. Unable to find a paying outlet for his talent immediately after graduating, he joined William James Glackens, George "Pop" Hart, and others in forming an artistic group called the Country Sketch Club. In 1903 he became a teaching assistant to James D. Smillie at the National Academy.

Awarded a scholarship by the Academy to study abroad, Sterne went to Europe in 1904 for what would be a ten-year period of artistic experimentation. Going first to Paris where he met Leo and Gertrude Stein and Picasso among others, he later went to Germany, then to Italy to paint at Rome and at Anticoli Corrado, with briefer sojourns in Florence and in Greece. Having declined to study at formal academies in Paris, Sterne had come under the influence of Impressionist painters such as Degas, Renoir, and especially Cézanne, and likewise was drawn to the classical style of Mantegna, Pollauiola, and Piero della Francesca. During his stay in Europe he attempted to merge these influences and formulate his own style. In Germany in 1910 he enjoyed the patronage of Alard Dubois-Reymond, who commissioned several paintings from him. With this money he travelled in 1911 with his friend Karli Sohn first to Egypt, then to India, Burma, Java, and finally Bali. Entranced by the peaceful, primitive lifestyle in Bali, Sterne remained there from the fall of 1912 until May, 1914, capturing the native life on canvas. His early reputation in art would come from his work in Bali.

In 1914, Sterne returned to New York City. Resuming briefly his instructorship at the National Academy, he became acquainted with the art patron Mabel Dodge, who set up a studio for him at Provincetown, Massachusetts and invited him to join her artistic circle of friends. Sterne and Mabel Dodge were married in 1917 and after a brief, tumultuous life together in New York and Taos, New Mexico, they separated and were finally divorced in 1921.

In 1920 Sterne returned to Europe. There he renewed his relationship with young Vera Segal, whom he had known as a student at the Duncan School of Dance in New York. They married in Vienna in 1923 and went to live in Anticoli Corrado, where Sterne set up a studio with Edward Bruce. Between 1923 and 1932, the Sternes split their time between Europe and the U.S. For six years in the mid-1930s Sterne taught art at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco and in 1939 went to Hawaii to execute his first and only commercial art project--a series of paintings for the Hawaiian Pineapple Company. Returning to New York, the Sternes settled at Mt. Kisco, while maintaining a home in Provincetown. In the early 1940s he suffered his first bout with cancer. By the end of the decade, finding painting all but impossible, he gave full attention to writing his memoirs, a project on which he worked for over seven years and which still was not completed at his death in 1957.

During his life Sterne received a number of awards and honors for his work. In 1925 he became the first American artist to be given an one-man show to represent the United States at the International Exhibition in Rome. In 1928 he was the first living American to be invited to paint his self-portrait for the Uffizzi Gallery in Florence, and the same year he was awarded the Logan Medal for his exhibited work at the Chicago Art Institute. In 1926 he was selected to execute the sculpture for the Rogers-Kennedy Memorial in Worcester, Massachusetts, a task that he completed in 1929. Generally regarded as his major artistic triumph, the sculpture was called by Henry Francis Taylor, director of the Metropolitan Museum, "the finest piece of outdoor sculpture in America," an opinion echoed by several art critics. In 1929 Sterne was elected president of the Society of American Painters, Sculptors, and Gravers.

Throughout his life Sterne was honored with one-man shows at major galleries in the U.S. and abroad. Among the more noteworthy of these exhibitions were those at the Berlin Photographic Gallery in 1912 and 1917, the Bourgeoise Gallery in 1917 and 1922, the Scott-Fowles Gallery in 1925, Rheinhart Gallery in 1930, the Art Institute of Chicago in 1933, and the Honolulu Museum of Art in 1939. His painting After Lunch was awarded the first William Clark prize for painting at the Corcoran Gallery in 1930. In 1933 Sterne became the first American artist to have a one-man retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Near the end of the 1930s Sterne completed his two major commissions of the decade: a series of twenty large murals on the theme The Struggle for Justice for the Justice Department Building in Washington, D. C., and a large outdoor sculpture group for Fairmount Park in Philadelphia. Both works received much acclaim, but Sterne became involved in a brief controversy when the Catholic Church protested his depiction of an Inquisition in one of the Justice panels. In 1936 Sterne also received some notoriety when as a judge he became involved in a controversy over selection of a memorial to Robert W. Speer in Denver.

In 1945 Sterne was selected by President Truman to serve on the National Commission of Fine Arts, a post which he held for six years. The purchase of his painting Mexican Church Interior by the Tate Gallery in 1946 made him the first living American to have a work of art in that renowned gallery. In 1956 President Eisenhower honored another of Sterne's paintings, After the Rain, by borrowing it from the Museum of Modern Art to hang in his White House office. Perhaps Sterne's greatest tribute came after his death when the city of Anticoli Corrado named a street in his honor in 1959. Maurice Sterne died on July 23, 1957, after a long second battle with cancer.

Sterne's paintings and sculptures are represented in the permanent collections of major museums throughout the world, but his reputation rests mainly on his Worcester sculpture, his Department of Justice murals, his collection of Bali sketches, and a series of marine paintings he completed in the early 1940s.

In 1965, Sterne's autobiography, Shadow and Light, on which he had worked for over seven years, finally appeared in print, edited by Charlotte Mayerson and much reduced from Sterne's original manuscript.

Processing Information

Additional material received by the library in 2000 was added to the the collection in July 2013 as Series VII. 2000 Addition.

Former call number: Uncat MSS 66.

Guide to the Maurice Sterne Papers
Under Revision
by William K. Finley
May 1989
Description rules
Beinecke Manuscript Unit Archival Processing Manual
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English.

Part of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library Repository

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