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Gertrude Stein: A Self-Styled Genius

Pablo Picasso - Gertrude Stein - 1905-06 - Oil on canvas - 39-3/8 x 32 in. (100 x 81.3cm) - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New YorkNovelist, poet, and playwright Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) was born in Pittsburgh. She moved to Paris in 1903 and would spend the rest of her life in the French capital. Stein hosted a salon in Paris where Matisse, Picasso, Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and many more artists would meet. Together with her brother Leo, Stein created an impressive art collection. Between 1903 and 1914, the siblings accumulated art by Gauguin, Cézanne, Renoir, Delacroix, and Toulouse-Lautrec, among others. (You can read more about each of these artists on What About Art?)

Gertrude and Leo would split their collection after they ceased living together, but Gertrude’s reputation in the art world only grew. At the time, art critic Henry McBride wrote that Gertrude “collected geniuses rather than masterpieces. She recognized them a long way off.” Stein was especially appreciative of Pablo Picasso’s work—although she didn’t take to it right from the start. He painted her portrait in 1906—now on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art—and she continued to support his work when it transitioned to Cubism.

Stein was known as a genius in her own right for her own literary work, although her only book to reach a wide public was The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933), which was actually Stein’s own autobiography. 

Stein’s importance in the art world cannot be underestimated. Her support of early modern artists helped the careers of many artists who are now considered modern masters. Not at all humble in her estimation of herself, Stein observed, “Einstein was the creative philosophic mind of the century, and I have been the creative literary mind of the century.” 

For Picasso, Stein’s early patronage and friendship was critical to his success. He painted this portrait of her between 1905 and 1906 at the end of his so-called "Rose Period." Her body is reduced to simple masses—a foreshadowing of his adoption of Cubism—and portrays her face almost like a mask with heavy lidded eyes, reflecting his recent encounter with Iberian sculpture.

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