by Katy Geisreiter
Gertrude Stein, an American art collector and writer, was born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania on February 3, 1874. She was the youngest of seven children. Stein was exposed to Europe at an early age; her family lived in Vienna and Paris before finally settling in Oakland, California. Both of Stein’s parents died by the time she reached age seventeen. Because they had been distant, Stein felt freed by her parents’ deaths. Stein’s relationship with her parents was “marked by pain and struggle” (Knapp 21); for most of her life, she had relied on her brother Leo for support and saw him as a father figure. From 1893 until 1897, while Leo was attending Harvard, Stein attended Harvard Annex College (now Radcliffe College). After graduating, she studied at Johns Hopkins Medical School, but ultimately failed to receive a degree after failing four courses.
In 1903, Stein followed Leo to Paris, where he was studying art. This was the Belle Époque period in Paris, which meant sexual, social, and artistic freedom for Stein. According to Lucy Daniel, Stein went through “an intellectual rebirth” (Daniel 51) and became determined to make herself a more worldly individual. Stein admired the city’s appreciation of the arts and was fascinated by emerging art trends. During their time in Paris, Gertrude and Leo Stein were lauded as ground-breaking art collectors. Their home at 27 rue de Fleurus was one of the most celebrated salons in Paris. Her brother was a perceptive critic and had studied art after deciding to become a painter; Gertrude
Stein viewed art with intuition and a “discerning eye” (Knapp 29). The Steins collected works by Renoir, Eugène Delacroix, Toulouse-Lautrec, Matisse, Gauguin, and Cézanne. In 1905, they purchased Cézanne’s Portrait of Mme Cézanne and Matisse’s Woman with the Hat; these paintings are considered to be some of the Steins’ most monumental purchases as the paintings solidified the Steins’ reputation as avant-garde art collectors. In 1905, the Steins met Pablo Picasso. Leo Stein bought Young Girl with a Basket of Flowers, despite Gertrude Stein’s negative first impression of the painting. Stein eventually became fascinated by Picasso’s “genius and prophetic vision”, and during 1905 and 1906 she posed for Picasso (Knapp 34). Initially, Picasso did not like the portrait of Stein. However, he realized later this dislike was the result of his failure to capture her essence. He then stopped attempting to make the painting realistic; Knapp describes the impact this portrait had upon the rest of Picasso’s work:
“Because the mask in Picasso’s portrait of Stein took on the power of both an icon and a ‘thing,’ it could be said that he was in the process of developing a new iconography which would depict reality so powerfully that it would take on aesthetic importance, becoming as significant as the figures and objects within the composition. In time his iconographic reality was to become the primary element out of which the canvas was born” (Knapp 36). The style demonstrated in the portrait of Stein ultimately became the basis for most of Picasso’s paintings.
Gertrude Stein is famous for her revolutionary approach to writing. She is known for phrases like “a rose is a rose is a rose,” and she mocked punctuation, syntax, and grammar. Art also heavily influenced her writing. Her book Three Lives was influenced by Cézanne’s work; like Cézanne’s paintings, Knapp argues that this book lacks a center: “In transliterating Cézanne’s advice to painters in her writing, all events, tensions, anguishes in ‘Melanctha’ were distributed equally throughout the novella, thus eliminating climaxes and sequential episodes. Neither does a single idea take shape in the narrative around which others gravitate, nor does one approach to characters or events prevail over another any more than one point of view assumes greater importance than the previous one” (Knapp 30). Stein’s involvement in the Paris art scene allowed her to fully develop her unique writing style. Stein’s most famous work, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, was published in 1933.
In Paris, Gertrude Stein also found relief from heartbreak. Around the same time Stein was failing to get her degree at Johns Hopkins, she experienced her first sexual relationships with other women. She became involved in a love triangle, which, when the relationship didn’t work out, made Stein depressed. Paris took Stein away from memories of her heartbreak. She found freedom from the “anxiety of influence” that she might have encountered at home; in Paris, there was no pressure to get married and have children (Daniel 53). In 1907, Gertrude Stein met Alice B. Toklas; the women were immediately drawn to each other. Toklas went to Stein’s home daily to take care of secretarial work and Stein taught Toklas about art. As Stein’s relationship with Toklas grew, her relationship with her brother grew distant; in 1913, he moved out of their apartment at 27 rue de Fleurus. The two women lived in Paris until Stein’s death in 1946.
Daniel, Lucy. Gertrude Stein. London: Reaktion, 2009. Print.
Knapp, Bettina L. Gertrude Stein. New York: Continuum, 1990. Print.