When you have the power to request, reject, and finally approve a work of art directly from Henri Matisse, it’s safe to say that you have, as the euphemism goes, arrived. Sydney and Frances Brody, California philanthropists and art patrons with finely honed ideas about art, had that enviable brand of influence, and the story about how they came to commission and own a mural designed by the great French artist is a fascinating story in which money, vision, architecture and art collide—ultimately, for the greater good.
The Brodys, already the owners of an unassailable art collection in the 1950’s, and of a Mid Century home commissioned and designed by A. Quincy Jones, saw a prime spot for a major bespoke art piece in their indoor courtyard—an idyllic Southern California setting for lazy sun-dappled afternoons and glamourous evening soirees. Matisse, their only choice for the commission, was then working feverishly on his famous paper cut-out compositions, but was interested enough in the assignment to begin working on a design immediately—a proposal, incredibly enough, rejected by the Brodys upon seeing it at the artist’s home in Nice.
Matisse acquiesced to their wishes, and responded with La Gerbe (The Sheaf), a colorful, graphic composition of leaves perfectly attuned to the refined, breezy context for which it was requested. Applied to white ceramic, the final product, a 2,000-pound masterwork, was shipped (in pieces) from France in 1953, and installed in the Brody’s courtyard, remaining “the heart of the home,” according to Frances Brody, for the next 50 years. It’s easy to see why. Photos of the Matisse-bedecked indoor courtyard are amongst the most heart-stopping domestic vignettes involving a great work of art anywhere.
Thankfully, Frances Brody had the foresight to bequeath the mural to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), ensuring its safety from the personal preferences of the house’s future owners. In the aftermath of her death in 2009, La Gerbe was painstakingly removed from its original site in one piece, and transported to LACMA, where it remains on view for the rest of the mortal world to see. A fate that all great art surely deserves.