- Charmed Circle: Gertrude Stein and CompanyOur PickBy James R. Mellow
- Everybody Who Was Anybody: A Biography of Gertrude SteinOur PickBy Janet Hobhouse
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".