American Art Collector and Writer
Allegheny City (now Pittsburgh), Pennsylvania
Summary of Gertrude Stein
An avant-garde novelist of some note, Stein is better remembered by art historians for the comings-and-goings at her Parisian apartment, 27 rue de Fleurus, which acted as a social gathering space for a group of young men and women who were destined to become some of century's most important artists. With her brother Leo, Stein became the impoverished artistic community's chief benefactor, and amongst the very earliest collectors of experimental paintings by the likes of Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Juan Gris, and Georges Braque. A matriarch within the Parisian bohemian set, she helped broaden the influence of modernism through her associations with other American writers staying in the city, most notably Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson ("the lost generation" as she dubbed them), and Britons including Edith Sitwell and Harold Acton.
Well known for her combustible and eccentric personality, Stein was not short on self-belief either, declaring in her pomp that: "Einstein was the creative philosophic mind of the century, and I have been the creative literary mind of the century". She would, however, make enemies of many in her circle through the publication of a controversial, though hugely popular, autobiography. Stein's place in the folklore of twentieth-century French culture was cemented through her actions during the two World Wars when she gave up her self-interests and dedicated her time to the war wounded and the wellbeing of the scores of American servicemen. In America, meanwhile, Stein was to find lasting fame, first as an iconoclastic literary innovator, and then as a celebrity who amassed a devoted public fan base through her irreverent autobiographical works and her enthralling public appearances.
- A woman of intimidating drive, Stein saw beyond the prejudices of the existing art establishment, becoming the first important patron to some of the great pioneers of twentieth-century modernism, including Matisse whose career she effectively launched. Her vocal (she could make or break reputations with her judgements on art) and financial interventions went a long way to deciding the future fortunes of those she called the "New Moderns".
- Stein was one of the first to recognize the potential for Picasso's early Cubist works. While most were struggling to comprehend the Cubist agenda, Stein was hailing it as the future of art. She saw in her friend (Picasso) the type of trailblazing spirit she wished for herself. Indeed, her own style of writing sought to parallel in words the Spaniard's experiments in fragmentation and abstraction.
- As her reputation grew, Stein published a series of "portraits" which were written summaries of the lives of many in her artists' circle. These appeared, with photographs from her collection, in America in Alfred Stieglitz's Camera Work magazine and in Arts and Decoration magazine. As such, Stein emerged as the lynchpin between New York and Paris at a time when the magic of the European avant-garde was beginning to generate excitement across the Atlantic.
- Though it caused considerable bad blood between Stein and many of the artists and authors whose lives she had described, her somewhat libelous memoir, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (sic), became a bona-fide best seller. Stein can therefore take credit for her role in introducing the exotic world of the Parisian avant-garde to an audience well outside the usual reach of the select modernist community.
Biography of Gertrude Stein
Gertrude Stein was the youngest of five children. When she was one year old, her father, Daniel, abandoned the family clothing business (Stein Bros.) following a falling out with his brother and moved with his wife (Amelia) and his children to Vienna. The Stein's moved again to Paris (via Passy) when Gertrude was four years old before returning to America in 1879. Having spent a year in Baltimore they settled finally in Oakland California in 1880.
Gertrude Stein and Important Artists and Artworks
Henri Matisse has depicted his wife, Amélie, in a floral dress and large hat, seated in a chair looking out over her shoulder. Represented in vivid colors and loose, gestural, brushstrokes, the painting caused a scandal when it debuted in the 1905 Paris, Salon d'Automne. One critic was so outraged he called Matisse and other artists painting in this style "fauves" (or "wild beasts"), but in so doing, he or she inadvertently named the movement that would be known henceforward as Fauvism.
The author and critic James R. Mellow argued that for Stein the purchase "seemed perfectly natural and she could not understand why it [had] infuriated everybody". Matisse's biographer and first Director of Museum of Modern Art in New York, Alfred H. Barr, Jr., even referred to the purchase as "an act of considerable courage and extraordinary discernment" (though it is known that Leo had not been so easily persuaded by the painting's merit). The author Janet Hobhouse states that "the Stein family's friendship with the Matisses greatly altered the fortunes of the painter and his wife. They now not only had loyal patrons [...] but an intelligent and responsive audience for work which few others were then willing to support".
Stein developed a close relationship with the artist and described him as a man with, "an astonishing virility that always gave one an extraordinary pleasure when one had not seen him for some time. Less the first time of seeing him than later. And one did not lose the pleasure of this virility all the time he was with one". Unfortunately, Stein's description of the Matisses in her 1932 autobiography The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas ended their friendship with the artists taking offence to (amongst other things) Stein's comments about his wife's looks which she likened to that of a horse. In 1915 Stein would sell this painting to her brother and sister-in-law, Michael and Sally, in order to secure funds so that she and her partner Alice Toklas could support themselves while they volunteered to support the war effort.
Arguably one of Pablo Picasso's most well-known portraits, Stein is depicted with hair pulled tightly into a bun and dressed in a brown corduroy suit which was the "uniform" that made her stand out from the crowd in the streets, galleries and cafes of Paris. The muted color palette in which the work is rendered was chosen by Picasso in order to direct the viewer's attention directly to Stein's face and her intense gaze. Author and critic James R. Mellow describes how for Picasso "the portrait became a stunning transitional work, lingering at the end of his Rose Period of harlequins and circus subjects. With its brown and somber coloring, its tawny hits of rose in the flesh colors and in the background, the painting represented the autumn of that style. But its sharp and angular characterization of the sitter looked ahead to the approach of Cubism".
Picasso asked Stein if he might paint her portrait not long after he had become a regular guest at 27, rue de Fleurus; the site of many dinners and long evenings of conversation about modern art. His request that Stein sit for him proved something of a turning point for the artists. According to the author Janet Hobhouse, Picasso had not worked with a model in eight years and "over the months that Gertrude came to pose for him at his studio - some ninety sittings in all - their friendship was [truly] formed". Picasso had in fact shown frustration at his inability to truly capture Stein's likeness. According to Mellow, in the spring of 1906, "one day, in a fit of irritability, Picasso had painted out the head. 'I can't see you any longer when I look'" he exclaimed. The artist did manage to "find her again", however, and he completed the painting in Stein's absence.
To show his appreciation for the Steins' purchase of his work for their collection, Swiss painter Félix Vallotton painted this portrait of Gertrude by way of a gift. Author and critic James R. Mellow described his rendering of Stein, "as an august and sleek personage in the loose, brown corduroy robe with a lapis-lazuli mandarin chain [...] which she wore as a sort of official costume at her 'at homes' on Saturday evenings".
This was only the second time Stein had sat for a portrait (after Picasso a year earlier) and she observed the contrast between the two approaches. She said of Vallotton, "when he painted a portrait he made a crayon sketch and then began painting at the top of the canvas straight across". Stein likened the artist's strategy to "pulling down a curtain as slowly moving as one of his Swiss glaciers. Slowly he pulled the curtain down and by the time he was at the bottom of the canvas, there you were". Vallotton never came close to Picasso's fame, nor as close to Stein personally. Mellow argues in fact that Stein's indifferent "feelings about the picture are no doubt reflected in the fact that it never appears in photographs of the studio in early years". This does not mean that Vallotton's portrait was less deserving of its place in Stein's legacy, however. Indeed, according to the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, "in pulling Stein's head back from the picture plane and making her robe a monolithic platform for her massive head and hands, Vallotton rendered her a female Buddha [and by] the late 1920s, his interpretation of Stein as imperious, remote and ageless became the common one".
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Gertrude Stein
- Charmed Circle: Gertrude Stein and CompanyOur PickBy James R. Mellow
- Everybody Who Was Anybody: A Biography of Gertrude SteinOur PickBy Janet Hobhouse
- PicassoOur PickBy Gertrude Stein
- The Autobiography of Alice B. ToklasOur PickBy Gertrude Stein
- An Eye for Genius: The Collections of Gertrude and Leo SteinOur PickBy Arthur Lubow / Smithsonian Magazine / January 2012
- From Gertrude Stein to the Rockefellers: The Collecting of Modernist MasterpiecesOur Pickchristies.com / April 17, 2018
- When Gertrude Stein Toured AmericaBy Megan Gambino / Smithsonian Magazine / October 13, 2011
- Why Won't the Met Tell the Whole Truth About Gertrude Stein?By Emily Greenhouse / The New Yorker / June 8, 2012
- From Gertrude Stein to the Rockefellers: The Collecting of Modernist MasterpiecesOur PickIn this video Christie's Impressionist and Modern Art Specialists Max Carter and Jessica Fertig discuss the Rockefeller family's historical acquisition of Gertrude Stein's collection
- Picasso and Gertrude Stein: A Friendship of InspirationOur PickThis video clip produced by the SFMOMA museum discusses the relationship between artist Pablo Picasso and his patron, author Gertrude Stein