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The life of Gertrude Stein has been discussed time and time again. She is considered today as a master in American contemporary literature, although her talent of writing is sometimes overshadowed by her celebrity status. Many are still enthralled by the colorful life she detailed in her first book, and the stories of her and her brother’s salons. Nonetheless, her books are still well-loved, and her writing celebrated. In 2012, The Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibited The Steins Collect, an exhibit that brought some two hundred pieces of art back together that the Steins had once owned, crediting the Steins with creating a home that fostered artists and creatives alike. We look back at their lives and see the importance of not only collecting and discussing art, but also the way movements in the art world occur across multiple disciplines.
Leo Stein arrived in Paris first. He was a large, well-to-do man, who would find himself entirely wrapped up in a subject one day and then forget about it the next. He was studying at Harvard University in the United States with a number of career paths in mind, but when he first visited Europe to attend the World Exposition in Paris in 1900 he enjoyed it so much that he decided to move his life overseas. Leo’s first home in Europe was Florence where he befriended Bernard Berenson, the art historian. He then moved to Paris where his little sister Gertrude visited him in 1903. Just as her brother, she never looked back. The two of them became a driving force in the world of avant-garde art in Paris.
Leo and Gertrude Stein lived together in an apartment at 27 rue de Fleurus while their brother Michael, his wife Sarah and their son Allan lived nearby on rue Madame. Fernande Olivier, who was at one point a of friend of theirs, said they were “too intelligent to care about ridicule, too sure of themselves to bother about what other people thought; they were rich and wanted to paint.” Their friends in America probably could not understand
why they wanted to move to Paris and spend all of their money on art that the rest of the world did not yet embrace. When they first moved to Paris, they were not known as artists but rather bohemian collectors, and as a whole, the family was the most unexpected patrons of art at the time. Leo’s latest venture was painting and Gertrude’s writing. Four years after her initial move to Paris, Gertrude would meet her longtime partner, Alice B. Toklas. Toklas was another American born member of the Parisian avant-garde. Their relationship remains as an incredible example of a homesexual relationship that flourished despite an unaccepting public. They met and fell in love 1907. Within three years Toklas moved into the Stein’s apartment, pushing Leo out by 1913.
The apartment at 27 rue de Fleurus was small. It was packed with artwork, and the Steins used it not only as a home, but also a workspace. Eventually, the constant visitors coming in and out of the apartment during the week became too much, and they decided to start hosting Saturday salons. Every Saturday at nine o’clock, anyone with a reference in hand could come participate in lectures, thoughtful discussions, and invigorating debates that would last until dawn at times. Hundreds would visit the Steins, including American travelers, as well as artists and intellectuals from all over Europe. Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso were among the greats that the Steins hosted, and other notable artists included Georges Braque, Mary Cassatt, Marcel Duchamp, Alfred Stieglitz, and Arthur B. Davies; writers Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John dos Passos, Jean Cocteau, and Guillaume Apollinaire; art dealers Daniel Kahnweiler and Ambroise Vollard; critics Roger Fry and Clive Bell; and collectors Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov. The Steins had a talent for seeing the world not as it was, but how it would be in the future. They knew that the art they nurtured would be celebrated in the future. Along with the thinkers they hosted, they were able to hear the whispers of the world before the rest.
The exhibited artwork served as inspirations to all the salon’s guests, including Gertrude herself. The ideas discussed in her home made their way into her experimental writing, unique poetry, plays, and other works. She is known today, along with James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, for her experimentation with words and revitalization of the English language. Her experiments were conducted apart from the major developments of the time. She wrote about day to day life and subjects that were personal to her. She didn’t care for allegories, symbols, and myth. She spoke of Picasso’s innovations in cubism as an influence on her writing.
It has been argued that without the support of Gertrude Stein in the beginning, Pablo Picasso may have remained a struggling artist and been ultimately forgotten about, but Stein’s collection of Picasso was almost unrivalled. It was at her salons where his work was finally exhibited to a wide audience. By 1919, he had become so popular that he had to give his paintings to her, because she could no longer afford them.
Their friendship started with Young Girl with a Basket of Flowers. Leo convinced her to buy the painting - she didn’t even like it at first, but it grew on her, and Gertrude and Picasso developed a close friendship. Letters between them have been published, dating from March 1904 to November 1944. He painted a portrait of her in 1907 that she cherished the rest of her life. It was only bequeathed to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1946 after her death. In the portrait, she leans forward, her elbow on her knee, as if listening to someone sitting next to the artist. She wrote about sitting for him in one of her books, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933), saying that she sat for him ninety times while he tried to paint her face. He painted her clothes, the wallpaper, the infamous couch behind her - but he
just could not paint her face the way he wanted to. “I can’t see you anymore when I look,” he eventually told her, andpainted her face without even looking at her, painting her as he wanted her to look rather than how she truly did. How did Picasso answer critics who said that his portrait looked nothing like Stein? “She will,” he said. In 1909, he offered Stein a small painting that pictured six female angels, proffering a scroll that reads “Homage a Gertrude” (sic). It was placed above her bed, and remained there for twenty years more that she stayed in that apartment.
While Paris was her home, she still felt connected to America. She is regarded today as an American writer, despite spending the majority of her life as an expatriate. When she returned to the States in 1934-35 to visit and lecture, she already had a celebrity status. She released the Autobiography first in America, and it was then translated into French. In New York, her stories about foreign artists were fun and made her a famous expatriate, but they were not received as well in Paris. Artists were angered, flabbergasted at her exaggerations. They feared her accounts would be taken as supposed facts, rather than colorful, exaggerated anecdotes. In their fury, they retaliated. Georges Braque, Eugene Jolas, Maria Jolas, Henri Matisse, André Salmon, and Tristan Tzara all participated in a Testimony against Gertrude Stein. They hoped that if they came together and corrected everything they could discredit her account as a whole. Matisse defended his wife, whom Gertrude had described as having “a long face and a firm large loosely hung mouth like a horse.” Braque claimed she knew nothing of cubism, writing “Miss Stein understood nothing of what went on around her...she has entirely misunderstood cubism which she sees simply in terms of personalities.” He also snidely mentioned her lacking ability to properly speak French.
A Testimony against Gertrude Stein only fueled the popularity of the Autobiography in the United States. The Literary Guild chose it as a monthly selection, and she was praised among critics. Atlantic Monthly magazine ran four excerpts from the Autobiography, from May to August 1933. Time magazine did a cover story on Stein for its September 11, 1933 issue. A cover story like this one made the American public all the more aware of her. She was one of the most famous writers in the country at the time, but the story painted her as being someone off the beaten path. She was one of the most famous yet still most obscure writers of her day. The first run of 5,400 copies in 1933 sold out immediately, and more printings were to come. Six months after the publication of the Autobiography, her opera, Four Saints in Three Acts, premiered in Hartford, Connecticut and then showed in New York City, with troves of audiences to follow. She visited America shortly after and was welcomed by thousands eager to hear her lecture all over the country. When she returned back to France, she wasn’t able to write another best seller for about ten years. She fearedAmericans would not be interested in what she had to say
if it didnot involve the caricatures of artists she met on the left bank of Paris.
From 1942 to 1944, Stein wrote Wars I Have Seen. During these two years, she wrote behind enemy lines and disappeared from the outside world. Wars I Have Seen hit the bestseller list in 1945, and the press surrounding it celebrated the survival of Stein and Toklas, but did not detail how they survived. They were told on at least three occasions that they should leave, that they could be arrested and sent to a concentration camp at any moment - they even packed their bags, acquired passports, and prepared to leave. Ultimately they chose to stay, despite the danger. They even sold a beloved Cézanne portrait to buy food. We now know that their survival was not happenstance, but rather thanks to Stein’s friend, Bernard Faÿ who was a Vichy official. Their friendship preceded the war, Faÿ helped her organize her American tour and eased her anxieties about public speaking. His presence prevented any harm from coming to Stein, Toklas, or their collection of art, whether they were aware of the extent of it or not.
Words by Layne Blake