February the third is Gertrude Stein’s 142nd birthday. Her position and importance as a collector and patron of the arts is undeniable; her legacy in those areas and in her literary career are regularly re-examined. It’s almost impossible to be indifferent about her. As a result, she has been layered over with so many interpretations and re-interpretations that we have gone far from whoever she truly was – or so I assume. Every year the number of people who knew her grows smaller, and their memories, weathered by time, become more uncertain.
The portrait above is famous for the circumstances of its creation. Picasso worked on it for quite a while, and found that her face presented particular challenges. Then one day, when Ms. Stein was not present, he repainted her face, incorporating some of the stylization he was picking up from Iberian sculpture. These sculptures, along with African masks, would deeply affect Picasso’s work, and play important roles in the development of Cubism. When viewers said she did not look like that, Picasso replied, “She will.” Even in the visual, subjective truth trumps the objective truth. This portrait stands stylistically as an important transition from Picasso’s Blue and Rose periods to his Cubist work, but it is more important as the image most art lovers think of then Gertrude Stein is mentioned.
“Gtde” was how she sometimes wrote her name when signing books. Like the Picasso portrait, it captures some essential element while not quite resembling the whole. I suppose every portrait does that. There are things in Ms. Stein’s life that might make her uncomfortable to know – dealings with members of the Vichy government during the Second World War (but not even that is certain; an alternate interpretation can be found here) – but her influence as a patron of the arts is undeniable. If we expelled from art history everyone with some unsavory characteristics, there would be tremendous holes, many due to things unrelated to art. So I will say Happy Birthday, Gertrude Stein, whoever you were. If nothing else, we are grateful you agreed to sit for Picasso.