Mark Rothko and Gertrude Stein had at least one thing in common. Both were the youngest of several siblings. Mark had two brothers and a sister. Gertrude had three brothers and a sister.
Mark's eldest sibling was his sister Sonia, with whom he travelled to the US from Dvinsk, Russia (now Daugavpils, Latvia) as a ten year old, accompanying their mother Anna. Their dad Jacob and two brothers had preceded them to Portland, Oregon. Jacob died not long after their arrival. Sonia and her two other brothers spent a while working for their Uncle Sam's clothing business. The two brothers, Albert and Maurice (Moishe), then set up a pharmacy, following in their father's footsteps, while Sonia went to work for a dentist.
An interview with Ruth Cloudman the year before she died in her mid-nineties unfortunately reveals little about Sonia's relationship with her little brother. Though lucid, her memory is clearly failing. The interview does,, however, give some idea of the family dynamics and the pressures the young Rothko was under. After the death of their father, Sonia reveals, Mark sold newspapers on the street and was regularly beaten up for being chubby and not knowing how to fight.
An interesting discrepancy arises in the reported attitudes of Mark and Sonia to their arrival in the USA. According to James Breslin, citing an earlier interview with Sonia, they were pretty excited about the prospect of coming to America.
Rothko's sister Sonia remembered the elation of their journey to the New World: "We all thought we were coming to Heaven."
Sonia, however, tells a different story in the Cloudman interview:
MS. CLOUDMAN: Was Mark excited about going to America?
MS. ALLEN: I don't know. He was just a youngster then.
MS. CLOUDMAN: What image of America did you have before you arrived?
MS. ALLEN: Not very good. I don't know. I didn't want to go.
MS. CLOUDMAN: You didn't. Were you leaving friends behind and your life behind? Why didn't you want to come?
MS. ALLEN: We had an idea that America is all mercenary, all money and nothing else. And I kind of leaned to the other side.
MS. CLOUDMAN: Do you think Mark had any vision or image of what America was like before he came?
MS. ALLEN: I don't know. I don't think he did.
Gertrude Stein went the other way. Born in Pennsylvania, she and her siblings were taken to Vienna when she was three, returning to the US via Paris a year or two later. While Gertrude is most often bracketed with her brother Leo, it was eldest sibling Michael who arguably had a greater influence on her life in Paris. Michael Stein kept her afloat financially until she made her own money from the Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. When her father died in her late teens, Michael took over the family business and became the family breadwinner.
He won a lot of bread. In 1893, two years after his father's death, Michael oversaw the consolidation of street railways in San Francisco – near where the family was then living – into the Market Street Railway Company. His judicious investments for the family trust fund provided the seed money for the art collection that Gertrude and Leo began to accumulate in 1903 in Paris. It was also Michael who was responsible for the meeting of Alice B. Toklas and his little sister.
Michael and his wife Sarah Samuels were significant art collectors in their own right. They were the first patrons and collectors of Matisse:
Michael ..., a shy, bearded Harvard-man... took over his father's business of operating San Francisco's famed cable cars. He and his wife Sarah lived mostly in and around Paris: they not only commissioned Le Corbusier to build them a villa, but they also got interested in Matisse and Picasso at a time when few Frenchmen would touch them.
Gertrude Stein always maintained that she was the first to recognize Matisse's great gift. Leo said that it was he. But according to Matisse himself, "Mme. Michael Stein was the really intelligently sensitive member of the family."
Bonus Gertrude Stein goat quote:
A long war like this makes you realise the society you really prefer, the home, goats chickens and dogs and casual acquaintances. I find myself not caring at all for gardens flowers or vegetables cats cows and rabbits, one gets tired of trees vines and hills, but houses, goats chickens dogs and casual acquaintances never pall.