Picasso’s Portrait of Gertrude Stein | The Painting of Pablo Picasso

In the early 1900s, Gertrude Stein’s residence in Paris became a gathering place for artists and writers. Some of the visitors who frequented 27, Rue de Fleurus were the young experimental painters whose work Gertrude and her brother Leo Stein had been collecting: Picasso, Braques, Manet, Renoir, Cézanne, Matisse. Beside the more gregarious and articulate Matisse, Picasso, who was new to France and just learning to speak French, was thought of as “the quiet Spaniard” and was not at first understood by the guests at the Saturday-night dinner parties. But as the number of visitors and the frequency of the salon-evenings increased, Stein’s friendship with Picasso blossomed. She became more and more certain of his genius. As her brother increasingly sided with the Impressionists, her taste in art became more experimental, and she was among the first major collectors of the Cubists.

In 1905, Picasso asked her to sit for a portrait, and the results (not Cubist, but representational) were dark, brooding, and strange. Picasso famously said, “Everybody says that she does not look like it but that does not make any difference, she will,” which was quoted by Stein in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Stein said later, “I was and still am satisfied with my portrait, for me it is I, and it is the only reproduction of me which is always I, for me.” The completion of the portrait marks the beginning of Stein’s interest in portraiture and “resemblance,” concepts that would come to influence her writing nearly as much as Picasso’s Cubist philosophies.

Stein’s literary portrait of Picasso “If I Told Him,” completed nearly twenty years later and first published in Vanity Fair, is a similarly strange but tender attempt to capture a resemblance of his genius. It begins: “If I told him would he like it. Would he like it if I told him.” As a painter might wonder if he is flattering his subject sufficiently, Stein wonders if Picasso will like the “portrait” she writes for him as he hears it told back to him—his own Cubist philosophies translated into language. A later passage addresses how one might create “resemblance” in a verbal passage, which becomes something like repetition:

Exact resemblance. To exact resemblance the exact resemblance as exact as a resemblance, exactly as resembling, exactly resembling, exactly in resemblance exactly a resemblance, exactly and resemblance. For this is so. Because.

In fact, Stein continues to defend the representational nature of Cubism throughout her life, as if one could only get to an exact “resemblence,” or image of life, through the distortion, repetition, and altering of the present moment to mimic perception. In her 1938 book Picasso she mentions an incident in 1909 when Picasso, after having completed the Cubist paintings Horta de Ebro and Maison sur la Colline, showed Stein the photographs that inspired the paintings. Stein swore that they were no different than the photographs.

Stein’s most notable experiment with “verbal Cubism” was her book of poetry Tender Buttons, a series of prose poems divided into “Objects,” “Food,” and “Rooms.” In these strange and fractured descriptions of what she sees, the poet works toward the kind of resemblance and portraiture she first saw in Picasso’s work, beginning with a Cubist description of a carafe that seems to alert the world to the exciting changes afoot in poetry and painting:

A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt color and an arrangement in a system to pointing. All this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling. The difference is spreading.

Pablo Picasso was born in 1881 in Malaga, Spain, and grew up in Barcelona, where he associated with a large group of artists and writers that gathered at the Quatre Gats café. In 1904, Picasso settled in Paris and became friendly with artist Georges Braque, with whom he developed Cubism, and writers Max Jacob and Guillaume Apollinaire. Picasso’s painting style changed many times throughout his career, and he produced a range of images, from classical figures to radical abstractions. He exhibited widely and is considered one of the most important and influential figures in twentieth-century art. Besides being a prolific painter and draftsman, he was also an accomplished sculptor and printmaker and produced ceramics and theatrical designs.

Along with her brother Leo, Gertrude Stein was among the first Americans to respond with enthusiasm to the artistic revolution in Europe in the early years of the twentieth century. The weekly salons she held in her Paris apartment became a magnet for European and American artists and writers alike, and her support of Matisse, Braque, Gris, and Picasso was evident in her many acquisitions of their work. For Picasso, this early patronage and friendship was of major importance.

Picasso’s portrait of the expatriate writer was begun in 1905, at the end of his Harlequin Period and before he took up Cubism. Stein is shown seated in a large armchair, wearing her favorite brown velvet coat and skirt. Her impressive demeanor and massive body are aptly suggested by the monumental depiction.

In her book The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1932), Stein described the making of this picture: “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.”

  • Gertrude Stein, 1905–6
    Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881–1973)
    Oil on canvas

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