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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.

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)
Related Names
Sterne, Maurice, 1878-1957
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