There once was a family named Stein
There’s Gert and Ep and Ein
Gert’s writing is bunk
Ep’s sculpture is junk
And no one can understand Ein.
In his informative and interesting book, Charmed Circle, author James Mellow explains how the ever-widening circle of Gertrude Stein’s acquaintances left a legacy of new ideas in Literature and Art for the twentieth century.
To examine that circle and its intricate relationships is to appreciate Mellow’s title and get deeper into the “glory years”. Leo, Gertrude’s older brother, had gone to Europe to study art and poetry. While in Florence, he discussed art with Bernard Berensen and began understanding the work of Cezanne. Gertrude soon left medical school, sailed for Europe and moved in with her brother (who was now living at 27 rue de Fleurus), close to the Luxembourg Gardens.
The Stein’s older brother Michael, now the bread-winner in the family, sent a monthly allowance to his siblings. They lived comfortably but not lavishly, spending about $150 a month on travel and art. When there was a financial windfall and Leo received an extra 8,000 francs, he and Gertrude went to Ambroise Vollard’s tiny and chaotic studio at 6, rue Lafitte (no longer there) and purchased two paintings by Gauguin, two Cézannes and two Renoirs. Vollard threw in a painting by Maurice Denis.
Soon, on his buying expeditions, Leo was introduced to the works of Pablo Picasso, an unknown Spanish painter; he purchased a painting of a girl with a basket of red flowers. While Gertrude hated the picture its purchase did bring Picasso and his friends to their newly created atelier to see the paintings. Eventually there were other paintings added. Gertrude bought a large painting of Matisse’s wife. There was a portrait by Cezanne, watercolors, women bathing, a small Manet, an El Greco, an amazingly luminous La Baigneuse de dos by Renoir, a Valloton and paintings by Manguin and Puy and eventually, a number of Picassos. Friends (and their friends) began knocking at the door at all hours. To stop the constant intrusions, the ‘Saturday Night’ parties began.
In the meantime Michael and Sarah discovered Matisse and began collecting his work. They too had an open house at 58, rue Madame only minutes from Leo & Gertrude’s every Saturday afternoon. The circle expanded with the arrival of Leo’s, and Michael & Sarah‘s friends, including Alice B. Toklas. The rest is history.
Eventually, Picasso was a regular. In 1906, Gertrude often rode a horse-drawn omnibus to Montmartre where Picasso lived and worked in The Bateau Lavoire, (13 rue Ravignon) with “la belle Fernande” and his friends, known affectionately as the ‘Picasso gang’. There, in the tiny, messy studio, Picasso spent over eighty sessions painting Gertrude’s portrait. While he painted, they discussed ideas like Gertrude’s “continuing presence” while Fernande concentrated on American comics. After the sessions, Picasso painted out the face. “I no longer see you, when I look”, he said. He then went off to Spain. When he came back, he re-painted the face from memory.
It was at this time that he was beginning his cubist experiments and his interest in African masks. I truly believe that that influence and the conversations with Gertrude planted the seeds of Cubism and his “Demoiselles d’Avignon”. Picasso delivered her finished portrait to her, which hung among the other paintings. When someone looked at the mask-like face and suggested that it didn’t look like her, he replied, “Don’t worry, it will”.
By the Twenties the soirées drew “everybody who was anybody”. Gertrude welcomed friends and strangers. She listened and she expounded. Then after everyone was asleep, she wrote. “I lived half my life in Paris”, she once said. “Not the half that made me, but the half in which I made what I made.”
Gertrude was an influence and a writer of some importance. She wrote an opera, The Saints in Four Acts, which was a smash hit in New York. She lived in the country and was there when WWII broke out. She lived in a Louis XV chateau in Bilignin, near Belly and at Le Clos Poncet in nearby Culoz. She survived the war years, even with Nazi officers billeted in her home. There she wrote her famous line, “Rose is a rose is a rose”.
Diagnosed with cancer, she ended her days at 5 rue Christine with her lover, Alice B. Toklas. As she was being wheeled into the operating theatre she tuned to Alice and asked, “What is the answer?” Alice was too chocked up to reply. “In that case,” she whispered, “what is the question?” Gertrude Stein died at the American Hospital shortly after in July 1946. She is buried with Alice in the Père Lachaise Cemetery.
Note: Because of her association with so many of the expatriates, Gertrude will reappear throughout much of this series.
Works by or about Gertrude Stein:
Janet Hobhouse, Everybody Who Was Anybody ,, Doubleday, New York, 1975
Malcolm Brinnin, The Third Rose, Little, Brown & Co., Boston, 1959
Ambroise Vollard, Recollections of a Picture Dealer, Little, Brown Co., Boston, 1936
Gertrude Stein, How To Write, Plain Edition, Paris, 1931
_____________, Paris France, Batsford, London, 1940