On This Day
Gertrude Stein, Painted by Picasso, 1906
On this day in 1874, the writer Gertrude Stein was born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania. (books by author). Stein, a brilliant conversationalist, noted lesbian and lover of Alice B. Toklas, became a legend with her Roman senator haircut and verbal facility. When she was 30 years old, she moved to Paris and lived there for almost the rest of her life. She once said, “America is my country and Paris is my hometown.” She covered the walls of her house in Paris with paintings by Cézanne, Picasso, Renoir, Gauguin, and others. Her house became known as “The Salon,” and writers and artists came from all over to get advice and encouragement from her. Ernest Hemingway once said, “Gertrude was always right.”
FOOTNOTE: In Stein’s best known work “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas“ (1932), which is actually her own autobiography, Stein described the painting (above) done of her by Pablo Picasso in 1906:
“Picasso had never had anybody pose for him since he was sixteen years old. He was then twenty-four and Gertrude had never thought of having her portrait painted, and they do not know either of them how it came about. Anyway, it did, and she posed for this portrait ninety times.
There was a large broken armchair where Gertrude Stein posed. There was a couch where everybody sat and slept. There was a little kitchen chair where Picasso sat to paint. There was a large easel and there were many canvases. She took her pose, Picasso sat very tight in his chair and very close to his canvas and on a very small palette, which was of a brown gray color, mixed some more brown gray and the painting began. All of a sudden one day Picasso painted out the whole head. I can’t see you anymore when I look, he said irritably, and so the picture was left like that.”
Picasso actually completed the head after a trip to Spain in fall 1906. His reduction of the figure to simple masses and the face to a mask with heavy lidded eyes reflects his recent encounter with African, Roman, and Iberian sculpture and foreshadows his adoption of Cubism. He painted the head, which differs in style from the body and hands, without the sitter, testimony to the fact that it was his personal vision, rather than empirical reality, that guided his work. When someone commented that Stein did not look like her portrait, Picasso replied, “She will.”
Interestingly, Picasso’s lover at the time, Fernande Bellevallée, had this to say of the subject of Picasso’s efforts, describing Ms. Stein thus: “Masculine, in her voice, in all her walk. Fat, short, massive, beautiful head, strong, with noble features, accentuated regular, intelligent eyes.” Alas. As Joyce Carol Oates once noted: “Ugliness in a man doesn’t matter, much. Ugliness in a woman is her life.”