Art Through Time: A Global View
Portraits Art: Gertrude Stein
In the long and celebrated career of Spanish artist Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein is an early work.
Picasso and Stein, an American, were both expatriates living in Paris when they became friends. Stein soon became an important early patron of the artist as well. A sophisticated, modernist writer and the host of a famous weekly literary and artistic salon, Gertrude Stein was a large and formidable woman who, just as Picasso depicted her, habitually wore a brown velvet suit.
Stein posed for Picasso during more than eighty sessions in 1905, but the artist was never satisfied with the way he painted her face. The following year, however, he discovered his solution. Essentially abandoning the idea of a faithful representation of Stein’s features, the artist turned to what he considered “primitive” ancient Roman and archaic Iberian sculpture for inspiration. While he painted Stein’s body with relatively naturalistic mass, her visage in the final portrait is mask-like and planar. The face is where we normally expect to get a glimpse of personality, or at the very least individuality. Picasso’s treatment of Stein’s face was, therefore, ironic and unexpected.
Stein hung this portrait prominently in the gallery room where she held her salons (at which Picasso was a frequent guest). On seeing it, some of Stein’s friends expressed disappointment in the portrait, complaining that she did not look like the painted image. In response to this criticism, Picasso famously and succinctly predicted, “She will.” Ultimately, his wry retort proved to be accurate. This portrait has emerged as the iconic image of Gertrude Stein. Even though the likeness is not realistic, it is the picture by which history remembers her.
Susan Sidlauskas, Associate Professor of Art History, Rutgers University
“When Picasso meets Gertrude Stein, she’s already a literary figure of great note. She’s a wealthy patron and a collector. So she is the person in many ways who should be pleased. Yet, he doesn’t please her. He frustrates her. They sit opposite each other on eighty occasions, maybe more. And he keeps painting out her face. He paints her face and then he paints it out, and he paints it again and then he gets rid of it. And he can’t really figure out how to represent her face. The usual conventions for the feminine aren’t going to work. So how does he represent that face? So there are still a variety of debates about what he looked at as a kind of model for this face. Some people say he looked at African sculpture. He was looking at sculpture that would simplify, radically simplify, to an almost abstract extreme, the features of the face, and create a kind of mask behind which the person existed. She was very distressed with how she looked. She said, ‘Well, it doesn’t look like me.’ And he said, ‘Oh, it will.’
The portrait evokes the interaction between the two of them, which was a very uneasy one. They were competing with each other. These were two very dominant personalities who naturally dominated their surroundings, and now here they were in one room.
When he said to her, you will look like that, that’s exactly what happened. When people think of Gertrude Stein, they think of this portrait.”
Baldassari, Anne, and William Rubin, eds. Picasso and Portraiture: Representation and Transformation. New York: HNA, 1996.
Brilliant, Richard. Portraiture. London: Reaktion, 2004.
Giroud, Vincent. Picasso and Gertrude Stein. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2007.
Lubar, Robert S. “Unmasking Pablo’s Getrude: Queer Desire and the Subject of Portraiture.” Art Bulletin 79.1 (March 1997): 57–84.
“Pablo Picasso: Gertrude Stein (47.106).” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Web site. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ho/11/euwf/ho_47.106.htm (October 2006).
Picasso, Pablo, and Gertrude Stein. Correspondence: Pablo Picasso and Gertrude Stein. Edited by Lorna Scott Fox. London: Seagull Books, 2008
Portus, Javier. Spanish Portrait from El Greco to Picasso. London and New York: Scala, 2006.