Gertrude Stein

Gertrude Stein

Gertrude Stein was born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, on 3rd February, 1874. As a child she lived in Vienna and Paris before returning to the United States to study at Radcliffe College (1893-97) and Johns Hopkins Medical School (1897-1901) but left before taking her degree.

In 1903 Stein moved to France where she lived with her lover, Alice B. Toklas. Her home became a gathering place for European artists and American writers.

Her first novel, Three Lives, was published in 1909. Its prose style is highly unconventional and virtually dispenses with normal punctuation. Tender Buttons (1914) was even more experimental and sold extremely badly. Other work by Stein include her theory of writing, Composition and Explanation (1926), The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933), two volumes of memoirs, Everybody's Autobiography (1937) and Wars I Have Seen (1945), a novel about the Second World War, Brewsie and Willie (1946) and an opera about Susan B. Anthony, the women's rights campaigner, The Mother of Us All (1946).

Gertrude Stein died at Neuilly-sur-Seine on 27th July, 1946.


Gertrude Stein

Gertrude Stein, 1934. Photographer: Carl Van Vechten.

Gertrude Stein, the American modernist writer, was an international celebrity, an artistic iconoclast, and a self-proclaimed genius. Her literary experiments still puzzle structuralist, deconstructionist, and feminist critics. Her contribution to American literature, however, is not in doubt: Scholars consider Stein an important innovator whose attention to language and questioning of narrative conventions influenced such writers as Ernest Hemingway and Sherwood Anderson. A legendary personality, from the early 1900s, when she first arrived in Paris, until her death in 1946, she reigned at the center of a flourishing Parisian salon whose guests included Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, Edith Sitwell and Harold Acton, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thornton Wilder, and scores of other writers, artists, and musicians.

Gertrude Stein was born on February 3, 1874, in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, the youngest of five children—three boys and two girls—of Daniel, a businessman, and Amelia (Keyser) Stein. Both parents were of German Jewish descent. Her father was born in Bavaria and immigrated to the United States in 1841. The Steins recognized their cultural roots in Judaism, but although Daniel and Amelia Stein were members of a synagogue throughout Gertrude’s childhood, the Stein children were not raised to be practicing Jews. Nevertheless, Stein grew up believing strongly that Jews shared certain personal traits, such as superior intelligence, financial acumen, and loyalty to one another.

When Gertrude was an infant, the Stein family left Pennsylvania and traveled back to Europe. Stein spent her early years in Austria and later in France. In 1879, the Steins returned to America, settling first in Baltimore, where Amelia Stein had relatives, and then, in 1880, moving to Oakland, California, where Stein spent the rest of her youth. Of Oakland she was later to utter the famous remark, “There is no there there,” claiming that she could no longer discover her youthful memories in the changed community. Growing up, she countered a lack of cultural stimulation by reading voraciously. Shakespeare, Scott, Richardson, Fielding, and Wordsworth were among her favorite authors.

After both parents died—her mother in 1888 and her father in 1891—Stein’s eldest brother, Michael, moved his four siblings to San Francisco, where he directed a street railway company. In 1892, with her brother Leo and sister Bertha, Stein moved to Baltimore to live with an aunt. Throughout Stein’s youth, Leo was her closest companion and confidante. When he decided to leave Baltimore to enroll at Harvard, Stein followed without hesitation.

Because Harvard was closed to women, in the fall of 1893 Stein enrolled at the Harvard Annex, the precursor to Radcliffe College, where she studied for four years, graduating in 1897. In a composition class in 1896, Stein wrote “The Modern Jew Who Has Given Up the Faith of her Fathers Can Reasonably and Consistently Believe in Isolation,” an essay that reflects her rejection of Jewishness as religion in favor of race, which she argues should be preserved by the prohibition of intermarriage. Stein studied with William James, George Santayana, Josiah Royce, and Hugo Munsterberg, among others, and later cited James as the most significant influence of her college years. Stein worked in James’s psychology laboratory, carrying out experiments in automatic writing that became the basis of her first publication, “Normal Motor Automatism” (coauthored with a classmate, Leon Solomons), which was published in the Psychological Review in 1896.

Although some critics later connected Stein’s experimental writings to these laboratory experiments, it is more likely that the experiments inspired Stein’s interest in subconscious layers of personality. In early notebooks and various literary portraits, one can see Stein attempting to discover the “bottom nature,” as she put it, of her friends, acquaintances, and her own personality. Because Stein expressed an interest in studying psychology, James suggested that she continue her education at the Johns Hopkins Medical School. Following his advice, she began to study at Johns Hopkins in the fall of 1897. But her enthusiasm for scientific coursework soon waned, and her grades plummeted.

Besides disappointment in her studies, Stein, not for the first time, suffered in her personal life. Her occasional writings during her undergraduate years at Radcliffe reveal a troubled and depressed young woman, unable to envision herself fitting into such prescribed roles as wife and mother. Her “red deeps,” as she termed her tumultuous feelings, became exacerbated at Johns Hopkins, where her love for another woman was not reciprocated. This emotional crisis made its way into her first extended piece of fiction, Things As They Are (1903), which was published posthumously.

Leo and Gertrude Stein, Paris, ca. 1905.

Lonely and despondent, Stein left Johns Hopkins and followed her brother Leo to Europe, where he had recently settled. The two lived first in London in 1902 and then in Paris in 1903, where Stein joined him in his flat at 27, rue de Fleurus, in the Montparnasse district of the city. Soon their brother Michael, his wife Sarah, and their son Allan, took up residence nearby.

Although the Steins’ expatriation was not unusual at a time when many artists, writers, and intellectuals found a more hospitable environment in Europe than in the United States, Stein sought in Paris a liberation from the strictures of American society that made her feel like an outcast. In a community of artists and writers who were trying to invent a new language in painting, poetry, and prose, Stein was able to create her own identity as a literary pioneer. In a community that accepted and even affirmed a wide range of sexual identities, Stein did not need to fear censure.

Stein began writing earnestly in Europe. Her two early works, Three Lives, a collection of stories loosely modeled on Flaubert’s Trois Contes, and The Making of Americans, a novel, are based largely on her own life, concerns, and struggles. The protagonist of each story in Three Lives is a woman who does not conform to mainstream society because of ethnic or racial difference. The setting of Baltimore serves to represent America at large. Of the three stories, “Melanctha” has received most attention, partly because it is the longest story, and partly because Melanctha, the central character, and her lover, a physician, are African American. In depicting their troubled love affair, Stein pits the sexually impulsive Melanctha against the more cerebral Jeff Campbell to portray the pain and frustration both feel as they try, but fail, to understand each other. Alienated from white society because of their color, they cannot find a sense of community with each other. Written with the pain of her own thwarted affair still afflicting her, Stein was concerned less with exploring racial issues than with reconsidering her own feelings of loneliness.

The Making of Americans, written from 1906 to 1911, was not published in its entirety until 1966. More than Three Lives, this book is stylistically unconventional, reflecting Stein’s interest in creating a sense of “continuous present” that represents our experience of time. Even an abridged version that appeared in 1934 seemed to most readers bloated and inaccessible because of its long, rambling, repetitious sentences and paragraphs. In her effort to explore the shaping of American identity, she used herself and her family as representative Americans. The main characters, the Herslands, are barely fictionalized versions of the Steins, with Gertrude Stein appearing as the depressed and unhappy Martha. Much of the book describes and reiterates autobiographical episodes. While it has served some of Stein’s biographers as a source for documenting her life, it has not won Stein many admirers.

Nevertheless, writing these two works persuaded Stein that she had found her vocation. Her growing confidence, however, was not evident to visitors at the rue de Fleurus. Friends who remember Stein in the first years after her arrival in Paris describe a quiet, reticent woman who sat in the shadow of her loquacious brother. Leo, eagerly engaged in art collecting and formulating his own aesthetic theories, claimed the role of family intellectual. Unfortunately, he had no admiration for his sister’s writing.

But Stein soon found ample encouragement from Alice B. Toklas, who arrived in Paris in 1907 and soon replaced Leo in Stein’s affections and in her life. When Leo moved out of the rue de Fleurus apartment, Toklas moved in, becoming Stein’s lifelong companion. They continued to make their home in Paris and later spent part of the year at Bilignin in the south of France, where they rented a house.

With Toklas as appreciative reader, Stein felt free to experiment more boldly than she had before. In Tender Buttons (1912), she created verbal collages that have been compared, in effect, to the cubist paintings of her friends Picasso, Georges Braque, and Juan Gris. Stein aimed in these pieces, and also in many later works, to revitalize language by stripping words of their historical and cultural connotations. Sometimes she believed that merely by repeating a word, she could divest it of its contextual barnacles. The most familiar line that demonstrates this technique comes from the poem “Sacred Emily”: “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.” In her attempt to achieve an accurate representation of her own experienced reality, she juxtaposed words and phrases in an order that defied conventional logic and readers’ expectations. Most of Stein’s experimental works were published in small literary magazines or by vanity presses.

During World War I, Stein and Toklas left Paris for Mallorca. During this period of isolation, Stein wrote short pieces in which she developed further the technique she had used in Tender Buttons, juxtaposing mundane descriptions (of weather conditions and food, for example), bits of conversation, and random reflections. Allusions to Jewish identity show Stein grappling with stereotypes of Jews as geniuses or degenerates. The Mallorcan pieces reflect Stein’s interest not only with artistic experimentation, but with exploring her feelings about Alice Toklas, their relationship, and their future together. These feelings emerge in exclamations of exuberant love, sometimes expressed in private code, as well as revelations of jealousy and insecurity. Although some biographers portray the Mallorcan period as an idyllic honeymoon, a careful reading of Stein’s works suggests that the atmosphere often was tense and even volatile.

When Stein and Toklas returned to France in 1916, the two women volunteered their services for the American Fund for French Wounded. Stein learned to drive, and she and Toklas delivered hospital supplies throughout the south of France. The sight of the two atop their Ford truck has been recalled vividly in the memoirs of many of their contemporaries.

In the 1920s, Stein’s lively literary and artistic salon attracted a growing population of young American expatriates whom Stein called the Lost Generation—lost, she said, because they had been too young to fight in World War I and therefore had found no political or social cause to inspire them. Among these lost young men, the most notable was Ernest Hemingway, whose attentions to Stein inspired Toklas’s jealousy. Toklas eventually succeeded in banning Hemingway from the rue de Fleurus, but not before Hemingway took Stein’s words for the epigraph of his first novel, The Sun Also Rises.

In 1926, when Stein was invited to lecture at Oxford and Cambridge, she offered her first sustained discussion of the theoretical basis for her experimental prose. In “Composition As Explanation,” she argues that cultural and artistic contexts affect the way a literary work is both written and read. But writer and reader sometimes do not share the same context at the same time. When writers bring to their works new patterns of thinking and perceiving, readers may deem their creations avant-garde and, sometimes, impenetrable. Stein cited her own invention of the “continuous present” as a technique that was “natural” to her, but difficult for some of her readers. “Composition As Explanation” was followed by such pieces as “Sentences and Paragraphs” (1930) and What Are Masterpieces and Why Are There So Few of Them (1935), both of which served as guides for understanding modernist literary experiments. These cogent, thoughtful works testify to the deep and complex intellectual basis of Stein’s literary productions.

By the 1930s, Stein had gained a reputation as a literary innovator, but her works had only a small readership: the writers who frequented her salon, the readers of the “little magazines” in which she was published, and her circle of Parisian friends. She longed for wider recognition, however, and decided to take the advice of some American friends—the music critic Carl Van Vechten and the publisher Bennett Cerf, among them—and write her memoirs. Although the book was unlike her literary experiments, Stein chose an innovative literary device: creating a narrative from Toklas’s often acerbic point of view. According to Stein, Toklas’s version of events was always definitive. When The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas was published in 1933, Gertrude Stein at last found the fame that she had sought for so long. This witty, gossipy, and irreverent memoir created the public legend of Gertrude Stein.

Suddenly, Stein became a sought-after personality on both sides of the Atlantic. The literary lion who landed in New York in October 1934 for a much-publicized lecture tour bore no resemblance to the vulnerable young woman who had left three decades before. Reporters thronged the ship, interviewers and photographers followed her everywhere, and her fans packed auditoriums to hear her talk.

Yet as delighted as she was with recognition and accolades, privately Stein wondered if her identity as a writer had been compromised. In experimental pieces written in the 1930s, she questioned the effect of publicity and readers’ expectations on her ability to be true to her own aims as a writer. Although she continued to produce popular books, including Everybody’s Autobiography (1937) (a sequel to The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas) Paris, France (1940), an homage to her adopted city and Brewsie and Willie (1945), an affectionate tribute to the American soldiers who fought in World War II, she never stopped writing experimental prose.

Because Stein never confined herself to any genre, some readers may know her through her plays, which sometimes find their way into the repertory of experimental or college theatre groups. Although many of her plays were not written to be staged, two were set to music by Stein’s friend Virgil Thomson: Four Saints in Three Acts, an opera featuring Saint Theresa of Avila, and The Mother of Us All, which celebrates the life and work of Susan B. Anthony. Their repetitious lyrics, lack of character development or plot, and unremarkable score have not earned them wide acclaim.

Stein’s reputation as an avant-garde writer is based largely on her experimental, hermetic works: pieces that have been collected in eight volumes published by Yale University Press and in several other collections. In evaluating criticism of these works, it is important to remember that Stein often wrote hermetic pieces in order to veil her lesbian relationship with Toklas and to explore personal issues that she did not want outsiders to understand. Although Stein defended her work by asserting that she wanted to challenge her readers’ preconceptions about language and narrative, she also used her writing to dissect and probe her own “bottom nature.” While it is tempting to explain Stein’s experimental writing as her rebellion against a literary patriarchy, or her creation of a literary cubism, no single explanation is viable for all of her works.

Stein and Toklas remained in France during World War II, during which Stein wrote a controversial essay praising Maréchal Petain, which has been the subject of much scholarship. Their American friends feared for the safety of the two Jewish women and encouraged them to flee. But they fled only as far south as Bilignin, where they waited out the war and scrounged for food and necessities. It is likely that they were protected by French friends, notably Bernard Fay, who had ties to the Vichy government. Stein herself never spoke out on behalf of the persecuted Jews.

After the war, Stein, who had suffered from stomach problems throughout her life, was diagnosed with stomach cancer. She died on July 27, 1946, at the American Hospital at Neuilly-sur-Seine. Gertrude Stein is buried at the Père-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.


Moves to France

Stein did not take a degree at Radcliffe or Johns Hopkins University, in Maryland, where she studied medicine for four years. In 1903 she went to Paris, France, and took up residence on the Left Bank (a famous neighborhood in Paris) with her brother Leo. In 1907 she met Alice B. Toklas (1877�), a wealthy young San Franciscan who became her lifelong companion and secretary, running the household, typing manuscripts, and screening visitors. France became their permanent home.

During Stein's early Paris years she established herself as a champion of the avant-garde painters, or artists that strive for new methods and techniques within their art. With her inherited wealth she supported young artists and knew virtually all of the important painters, including Pablo Picasso (1881�), who did a famous portrait of her, Henri Matisse (1869�), Juan Gris (1887�), Andrພ Derain (1880�), and Georges Braque (1882�). Her brother Leo became a famous art critic, but their relationship, which had been extremely close, fell apart in 1912 because of a disagreement over his marriage.

Stein's first two books, Three Lives (1909) and Tender Buttons (1915), stirred considerable interest among a limited but sophisticated audience, and her home became an informal meeting place visited by many creative people, including American composer Virgil Thomson (1896�), British writers Ford Madox Ford (1873�), Lytton Strachey (1880�), and Edith Sitwell (1887�), and American writers Ezra Pound (1885�), Elliot Paul (1891�), Sherwood Anderson (1876�), F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896�), and Ernest Hemingway (1899�). It was to Hemingway that Stein characterized the disenchanted expatriate veterans (those living overseas) as a "lost generation."

A woman with deep black eyes and a supremely self-assured manner, Stein was frequently intimidating, impatient with disagreement, and oftentimes pushed people away. The unique style of her writing appealed primarily to a small audience, but her reputation as a patron of the arts was lifelong.

Stein's 1934 visit to the United States for the opening of her opera Four Saints in Three Acts, with music by Virgil Thomson, started an enormously successful university lecture tour. During the German occupation of France (the time during World War II when German forces took over large portions of France), both Stein and Toklas lived briefly in Culoz, France, returning to Paris in 1944. Stein's reactions to World War II (1939� a war in which American-led British, French, Soviet, and American forces battled those led by Germany) were recorded in Paris, France (1940) and Wars I Have Seen (1945), and her interest in the soldiers was reflected in the conversations of Brewsie and Willie (1946), which was published a week before her death, on July 27, 1946, in Neuilly, France.


The haunted text

  • 3 The original French version reads: “Ce style “pulvérulent” répond au même refus de la mémoire, au d (. )
  • 4 Throughout this paper, I will use Marvin Carlson’s typology of stage directions. Carlson distinguis (. )

3 In his seminal 2001 book, The Haunted Stage. The Theatre as Memory Machine, Marvin Carlson argues that “every play is a memory play”: “it is the repository of cultural memory,” he writes, “the present experience is always ghosted by previous experiences and associations while these ghosts are simultaneously shifted and modified by the processes of recycling and recollection” (2). Drawing on reception theory and Hans Robert Jauss’s concept of the receptor’s “horizons of expectation,” Marvin Carlson affirms that “we are able to ‘read’ new works … only because we recognize within them elements that have been recycled from other structures of experience that we have experienced earlier” 3. Intertextuality is thus central in our reception of works. Gertrude Stein plays with this notion by seemingly adopting some of the traditional codes of the dramatic genre to inform the readers that they are dealing with a play. The playwright, in the image of the iconoclast modernist artist, quotes the dramatic conventions of the past to humorously dismantle them. At first glance, the first play of the sequel appears as a conventional piece with the introductory didascalia of characters and location:4

4 The layout of the dialogue seems conventional with the names of the characters before their lines. Resorting to their knowledge and thus memory of past forms, the credulous readers may thus expect a traditional play. Yet, their horizons of expectation are challenged as they get into the text and discover that the characterizations in the character lists break away with the expected physical or psychological descriptions of the characters and that the lines attributed to the characters do not read as a dialogue but as a series of non-sequitur statements.

5 Contrary of what is expected of plays introduced as “historic,” the three works do not tell the stories of great historical figures. The first play is introduced as a tribute to the anonymous Winnie Elliot who is never mentioned in the body of the work. In fact, the titles of the plays are early paratextual evidence of Gertrude Stein’s playful reinvention of the past. The category “historic drama” is an invention from Stein. The traditional phrase is indeed “history play.” The phrase “historical drama” is also used but the adjective “historic” is never used to define a play. By calling her pieces “historic drama” or rather “Øistoric drama”—since the article “an” instead of the normative “a” before the phrase is used—, Stein announces from the start to her readers/spectators that she will twist the traditional Shakespearean dramatic history pattern. The adjective “historic” is also a humorous note on the part of the playwright who presents her work as exceptional, “historic,” important in the history of literature as if to underline the originality of her pieces in the literary canon which she playfully turns inside out. The play on words can be read as the expression of Gertrude Stein’s desire to enter the literary history from which—she argues in an interview she gave near the end of her life—she was ostracized on account of the very “newness” of her art which—contrary to James Joyce’s fiction—did not “smell of the museums:”

You see it is the people who generally smell of the museums who are accepted, and it is the new who are not accepted. You have got to accept a complete difference. It is hard to accept that, it is much easier to have one hand in the past. That is why James Joyce was accepted and I was not. He leaned towards the past and in my work the newness and difference is fundamental. (Stein qtd. in Caramelo 198)

6 The tension between the familiar and the unfamiliar—which is specific of the uncanny—, the references to the dramatic conventions and their distortions create a feeling of alienation from the receptors who feel they have entered a foreign universe which, at first glance, had however looked familiar. Stein’s interest in dramatic alienation may be explained by her own past as a spectator. She was influenced by her memory of her first experiences as member of an audience. In “Plays,” one of her “Lectures in America,” the writer remembers her impressions as she attended a Sarah Bernhardt’s performance in San Francisco:

I must have been sixteen years old and Bernhardt came to San Francisco and stayed two months. I knew a little French of course but really it did not matter, it was all so foreign and her voice being so varied and it all being so French I could rest in it untroubled. And I did. It was better than the opera because it went on. It was better than the theatre because you did not have to get acquainted. The manners and customs of the French theatre created a thing in itself and it existed in and for itself as the poetical plays had that I used so much to read, there were so many characters just as there were in those plays and you did not have to know them they were so foreign, and the foreign scenery and actuality replaced the poetry and the voices replaced the portraits. It was for me a very simple and direct and moving pleasure. (71)

7 The show was “better than the theatre,” that is traditional theatre, because of the moving and pleasant sense of alienation it awoke in Stein. The scenery and the voices were foreign to the teenager. Pleasure derived from this impression of alienation, of novelty which is at work in Stein’s “historic drama.” Breaking away from the past, from the conventions which the writer quotes to better transgress them is the quality of the modern artist, of the artist of the present who—unfortunately according to Stein—will be recognized only after his or her death when he or she becomes an artist of the past, a classic. In “Composition as Explanation”—which she wrote in the winter 1925-1926 and delivered as a lecture at the Cambridge Literary Club and at Oxford University that summer—, the author writes:

Those who are creating the modern composition authentically are naturally only of importance when they are dead because by that time the modern composition having become past is classified and the description of it is classical. That is the reason why the creator of the new composition in the arts is an outlaw until he is a classic, there is hardly a moment in between and it is really too bad very much too bad naturally for the creator but also very much too bad for the enjoyer, they all really would enjoy the created so much better just after it has been made than when it is already a classic, but it is perfectly simple that there is no reason why the contemporaries should see, because it would not make any difference as they lead their lives in the new composition anyway, and as every one is naturally indolent why naturally they don’t see. (22)

8 Composition becomes appreciated by the art critics when they have become “memory,” a position Stein rejects as she works against the tide of memory to reinvent the past in the present.


She started her famous collection with her brother.

The Steins in the courtyard at 27 rue de Fleurus, Paris, ca. 1905. (From left: Leo Stein, Allan Stein, Gertrude Stein, Theresa Ehrman, Sarah Stein, Michael Stein)

Shortly after abandoning her studies, Stein decided to accompany her brother, Leo, to London, where they lived for one year. After this stint, they moved into an apartment on the Left Bank of Paris. Using connections Leo had made during his travels in the early 1890s, they quickly began collecting contemporary works, with Paul C ézanne‘s Bathers and Paul Gauguin‘s Sunflowers and Three Tahitians among their first acquisitions.

In their Paris apartment, the Stein siblings would regularly host avant-garde artists and groundbreaking writers, including Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Due to the nature of these gatherings, their flat would become known as the “Stein Salon”&mdasha name that stuck even after Leo Stein moved out in 1914.


History or Messages from History

Written in 1930, History or Messages from History explores the meaning of history in opposition to what Stein scholar Donald Gallup has described as “its narrative of past, present, and future events and rumors.” In this poetically conceived prose work, Stein sets historical concepts against narrative patterns of meaning. Words and phrases such as “baking a cake,” “birds,” “apricots,” “begonias,” “dogs,” “horses and oxen,” and many others are subtly repeated, each time in a slightly different context, to weave a seeming narrative pattern which is set against the reader’s own history as he or she makes their way through Stein’s text.

The very experience of these recurring images, which do not actually function as narrative but seem to point to it, helps the reader perceive Stein’s own definition:

History is the learning of spectacular consistency privately and learning it alone and when more comes they receive.

Written at a time when Stein was exploring concepts of history through her historical dramas and other writings, History or Messages from History is a crucial work in understanding her ideas.

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Attending Academie Matisse

It was well known that Henri Matisse could be a stubborn man. He had gained a reputation as a non-conformist. He was kicked out of multiple studios over the course of his career because of this attitude, and he was repeatedly under attack for his unorthodox color usage and his lack of interest in representing naturalistic anatomy. As he formed his own style and gained notoriety for it, a few of his wealthy friends and patrons funded the opening of his own school in Paris, where he had the opportunity to spread his own ideas about painting to burgeoning artists. Academie Matisse opened in January 1908.

Matisse and his students, 1909
Matisse amongst his students, 1909

Attending “Academie Matisse” was a unique experience from the other painting schools in Paris. Matisse allowed his students to draw from models and casts, such as one of the Apollo Belvedere—in fact, for the first few months, students were only allowed to draw, only being allowed to paint once Matisse felt they had mastered the drawing basics—and encouraged them to visit the Louvre on the weekends to study and copy works on display. Matisse’s interest in Post-Impressionist color theory meant that he would allow his students to use color experimentally. Many students recall that Matisse could be a tough teacher and discouraged art that he considered lazy or unfocused, urging his students to be intentional about their painting rather than simply copying another’s style.

As was typical of Parisian academies of the time, on Saturdays Matisse would conduct a weekly critique of his students’ work. Making sure to leave enough time to fairly critique every student, many of his pupils found this to be both the most nerve-wracking experience of attending Academie Matisse and the moment where Matisse would shine, as students found his direct practical advice to be the most valuable part of attendance. Matisse would also often host his students in his own studio, showing them works from his own collection or his current works in progress, giving his students the opportunity to comment on his work in return.

Students at work at the Academie Matisse

The Academie Matisse was short-lived. Matisse would stop teaching only a year after its founding in 1909, though the school would continue without him for two more years. In the summer of 1911, Academie Matisse would close altogether when the Matisse family would move to Issy-les-Moulineaux. During the brief existence of Academie Matisse, however, Matisse would teach multiple influential figures, including the painters Max Weber, Beatrice de Waard, Patrick Henry Bruce, Hans Purrmann, and more, and the artistic exchanges made there would become world famous.

Examples of work done by students while at Academie Mattise:

Hans Purrmann, Standing Nude (1910)
Jean Heiberg, Figure Study (1909)


Gertrude Stein - Biography and Legacy

Gertrude Stein was the youngest of five children. When she was one year old, her father, Daniel, abandoned the family clothing business (Stein Bros.) following a falling out with his brother and moved with his wife (Amelia) and his children to Vienna. The Stein's moved again to Paris (via Passy) when Gertrude was four years old before returning to America in 1879. Having spent a year in Baltimore they settled finally in Oakland California in 1880.

Stein enjoyed a comfortable childhood but she found it difficult to interact with other children. To compensate, she formed a close bond with her brother Leo of whom she later wrote, "it is better if you are the youngest girl in a family to have a brother two years older, because that makes everything a pleasure to you, you go everywhere and do everything while he does it all for you and with you which is a pleasant way to have everything happen to you".

Though she retained a special fondness for her oldest sibling Michael, the author Janet Hobhouse observed that Leo and Gertrude regarded themselves as "superior creatures who ignored as best they could the existence of other members of their family, and the pressures of what discipline there was". Hobhouse adds that the pair didn't care for either of their parents and Gertrude welcomed their premature passing. Stein said of her mother's death from cancer in 1885, "we had already had the habit of doing without her" while on the event of her father's demise in 1891, she stated, "our life without a father began a very pleasant one" in which the twenty-six-year-old Michael took over day-to-day parental responsibilities.

Early Training

When Stein was eighteen she left California to live briefly with her mother's family in Baltimore. Missing Leo, however, she followed him to Massachusetts where he was attending Harvard. To be near him, she enrolled at the Harvard Annex (the women's school today known as Radcliffe) in 1894. At first it was as a "special student", a status given to students with no high school degree. However, Stein worked assiduously to achieve full student status and focused her college studies on psychology and philosophy under the "father of American psychology", William James. Indeed, encouraged by James, Stein published two research papers in the Harvard Psychological Review before enrolling at the Johns Hopkins Medical School.

It was at John Hopkins School that Stein experienced new personal freedoms exploring her own sexuality through her first love affair with a woman. While she enjoyed the social side of academic life, Stein began to lose interest in her studies and, in 1902, after failing her exams, she left school for good, joining Leo in London where he had been living for the last year.

Mature Period

Gertrude and Leo settled in Paris in the fall of 1903, moving into what was destined to become one of the city's most famous apartments: 27, rue de Fleurus: "Paris was the place that suited us who were to create the twentieth century art and literature", she stated later. Stein, who had begun to take writing seriously by this time, had also became interested in art due largely to Leo who had been studying painting. Associating with figures such as dealer Amboise Vollard, Leo and Gertrude began collecting modern art based purely on their aesthetic preferences (not as investments in other words). Vollard considered the Steins among his favorite customers, and according to author and critic James R. Mellow, "they were the only clients who bought pictures 'not because they were rich, but despite the fact that they weren't". Among those early works were numerous paintings by Paul Cézanne and Henri Matisse with one of their most notable purchases being Matisse's controversial Woman with a Hat (1905). Around this time, Stein's older brother Michael moved his family to Paris and began to collect modern art too marking the beginnings of a true family enterprise.

Gertrude and Leo began to host Saturday evening dinners in the apartment where people gathered to examine the paintings and discuss their merits (or demerits). Together, Gertrude and Leo developed quite the reputation as eccentrics which, according to Hobhouse, included, "their irregular behavior and dress: their cigar smoking and loud laughter in public places (they were barred from the Café Royal) [and] the brown corduroy suits which they wore with sandals (even in winter)". Initially it was Leo that led the group gatherings, but Gertrude soon began to assert her own authority. Such was her insight she would soon start to play a key role in shaping the careers of her patrons. The sales income undoubtedly helped the artists involved, but more importantly the "exhibition" of the purchased work in the Steins' apartment brought them fresh attention from the many visitors who would then themselves often become patrons. Moreover, artists who visited the apartment were able to take inspiration from the likes of Europeans Juan Gris, Marie Laurencin and Francis Picabia and Americans including Marsden Hartley, Alfred Maurer, and Morgan Russell .

The lifelong friendship between Stein and Pablo Picasso began in 1905. Stein was not at all taken with the first paintings Leo purchased, one of which was the Spaniard's Young Girl with a Flower Basket (1905). Indeed, when Leo boasted to his sister of his new acquisition over dinner, she told him he had "spoiled her appetite". Her attitude changed quickly however and Stein took an instant liking to Picasso when he had joined her for dinner at the apartment. According to Hobhouse, Stein "found his brilliant black eyes, his handsome, compact appearance [and] his rough manner, all engaging".

Picasso introduced Stein to a new circle of friends including the poets Guillaume Apollinaire and Max Jacob. In 1906, he asked Stein if he might paint her portrait and Hobhouse describes how, "over the months that Gertrude came to pose for him at his studio - some ninety sittings in all - their friendship was formed". Both in possession of strong personalities, Picasso and Stein would, during the early years of their friendship, have arguments that lead to periods of estrangement. But, as Hobhouse records, the artist remained "both morally and financially supported by the Stein family". It was also through the Steins that Picasso became acquainted with Matisse. It was in Matisse's studio, indeed, that Picasso first encountered African sculptures, thereby influencing Picasso's transition from his Rose and Blue periods to his Cubist phase.

Picasso introduced Stein to Cubism and she, in turn, played a key role in furthering the movement through her writing. While many were critical of his early experiments, Stein grasped the significance of what Picasso was on the cusp to achieving. For instance, while there was near universal criticism of his "ugly" prototype Cubist work Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907), Stein offered support: "in the effort to create the intensity and the struggle to create this intensity, the result always produces a certain ugliness, those who follow can make of this thing a beautiful thing because they know what they are doing, the thing having already been invented, but the inventor because he does not know what he is going to invent inevitably the thing he makes must have its ugliness". Not known for her modesty, Stein later told Picasso that "there are two geniuses in art today, you in painting and I in literature".

Picasso's experiments in Cubism would mark the point at which sister and brother parted ways. Leo could never fully endorse the Cubist style and he became more and more disinterested in modern art. As Hobhouse noted, "the advent of Cubism marked the end of Leo's career as a crusader for the avant-garde in painting", while for Stein it marked her independence as a major player in the art world. Indeed, Hobhouse argued that "For years she had sat patiently taking a secondary role in the goings-on at the rue de Fleurus. Now she began to tire of his leadership [. ] Cubism was a game she could play without her brother".

A major event in Stein's life occurred in the fall of 1907 when her sister-in-law Sally brought Alice Toklas, a woman she had met while on a recent trip to San Francisco, to visit the apartment. The two took an immediate liking to each other and began a romantic relationship that would last the rest of their lives. Moving in a year later, Toklas supported Stein by transcribing and editing her writing.

As her role as a major influencer of modern art was being cemented, Stein's creative writing began to gather momentum with her first, and many believe to be her most important, novel Three Lives published in 1909. Three Lives comprised of three short stories exploring the essence of human relationships (of which "Melanctha", the story of a young mulatto girl who engages in a doomed affair with a black doctor was singled out for special recommendation by the likes of the famous Harlem Renaissance writer and critic Carl Van Vechten). Combining both her passions (writing and art), a selection of her writings were focused on artists and the art world, the earliest being her series of brief summaries on the life of some of her artist friends which she aptly called "portraits". Taken with her growing reputation, the art dealer and photographer Alfred Stieglitz featured images from her art collection, accompanied by her written "portraits" of Matisse and Picasso, in a 1912 edition of his Camera Work magazine. Another of her American advocates was the art patron Mabel Dodge. To coincide with New York's first Armory Show in February 1913, Dodge arranged for an article on Stein to feature in Arts and Decoration magazine. At the same time, Dodge praised Stein in an interview with reporter Carl Van Vechten (a future friend and champion of Stein) for the New York Times. Stein's "portraits" had brought her a certain mystique and, for Americans, the excitement and controversy the Armory Show evoked saw the name of Gertrude Stein inextricably linked with the avant-garde and making her the person to meet when in Paris.

Stein was at the very center of the rise of modernity in both art and literature but her new status also brought personal trials. Her relationship with Leo, which had started to disintegrate following her relationship Toklas, was only exacerbated by her love of Cubism, and Leo's dislike of her experimental writing style. Their relationship came to a permanent end in 1913 when he moved out of the apartment after dividing up their art collection (with Gertrude of course taking the Picassos).

During the First World War, Stein worked for the American Fund for French Wounded. Knowing she could best serve as a supplies driver, in 1917 she purchased a car which she named "Auntie" (after her Aunt Pauline, because, as Stein reasoned, "[Pauline] always behaved admirably in emergencies and behaved fairly well most times if she was properly flattered"). According to Hobhouse, Stein made friends with many of the wounded soldiers and she shared a particular affinity with the American GIs. She also did all she could to support her artist friends financially and by helping to arrange the sale of Cubist paintings by Auguste Herbin and Juan Gris (who was experiencing acute financial hardship and ill health).

Following the war, Stein's circle of friends had disintegrated and Cubism had begun to fall out of fashion ("it was a changed Paris. Guillaume Apollinaire was dead" bemoaned Stein). It proved a very difficult period for Stein who did not take to the avant-garde's move towards abstraction, declaring, "the minute painting gets abstract it gets pornographic". Stein had an intense aversion to the Surrealists and the Futurists of whom she wrote, "the surréalistes are the vulgarisation of Picabia as Delaunay and his followers the futurists were a vulgarisation of Picasso". Stein did find some appeal in Neo-Romanticism, however, and though she soon lost interest in the movement, two of the artists she had supported, Eugène Berman and Pavel Tcheltichew, created portrait sketches of Stein as a gesture of appreciation for her support.

After the war, Stein's reputation as a writer continued to grow. Still the person to be seen with in Paris, she began friendships with two icons of American literature, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. As with Picasso, however, Stein and Hemmingway were of such strong personalities they would often argue, though, according to Hobhouse, Stein, "gave Hemingway enormous confidence in himself as a writer". While she was happy to nurture rising literary figures, Stein also possessed a fierce jealousy of others specifically James Joyce. According to Hemingway, "if you brought up Joyce twice, you would not be invited back. It was like mentioning one general favourably to another general".

True literary success came to Stein in 1932 when she published her book, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Written as if it was Toklas's own story, the book was in fact Stein's autobiography. The impressive book sales meant that for the first time Stein had real money to spend: "first I bought myself a new eight cylinder Ford car, and the most expensive coat made to order by Hermes and fitted by the man who makes coats for race horses for Basket [her dog] and two collars studded for Basket. I had never made any money before in my life and I was most excited".

Despite its popularity, the publication of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas caused bad blood between Stein and several of her friends and acquaintances. In February 1935 Georges Braque, Eugene Jolas, Maria Jolas, Henri Matisse, André Salmon and Tristan Tzara responded by jointly publishing a pamphlet entitled Testimony Against Gertrude Stein in which the contributors offered a detailed list of rebuttals of Stein's memoirs. Introducing the article, Eugene Jolas wrote "Her participation in the genesis and development of such movements a Fauvism, Cubism, Dada, Surrealism, Transition etc. was never ideologically intimate and, as M. Matisse states, she has presented the epoch "without taste and without relation to reality". Stein had, for example, dismissed Braque as "a facile [. ] Picasso" to which Braque responded by stating that "Miss Stein obviously saw everything from the outside and never the real struggle we [Braque and Picasso] were engaged in". He concluded that for "one who poses as an authority on the epoch it is safe to say that she never went beyond the stage of tourist". The book caused the loss of friendships within her literary circle too. She had described Hemingway as "fragile" and "yellow" to which, with a caustic pun on Stein's most quoted line of literature, "Rose is a rose is a rose", he responded by sending her a copy of his treatise on bullfighting, Death in the Afternoon, with a handwritten inscription that read "Bitch is a Bitch is a Bitch is a Bitch".

Notwithstanding its' personal costs, the book's commercial success allowed Stein to undertake (with Toklas) a lecture tour of some thirty American universities between October 1934 and May 1935. Drawing heavy press attention - who routinely referred to Stein by her preferred pseudonym "Sybil of Montparnasse" - the tour allowed her to socialize with many important figures including Frank Lloyd Wright (in Wisconsin), Charlie Chaplin (in Hollywood) and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt who invited Stein to tea at the White House.

Later Period

When Stein returned to Paris in the summer of 1935 her life had changed significantly. While many of her friendships had been lost with the publication of her biography, she was more troubled by the change in Picasso who had aligned himself with the Surrealists and had, for the most part, given up painting to pursue poetry. Perhaps angered (or jealous) that he was encroaching on her territory, she refused to offer her opinion after he gave a personal reading at her apartment. Picasso later sent his friend Salvador Dalí to meet her in the hope that she might share her opinion with a third party on his poetry. She told Dalí, "I was bored with the hopelessness of painters and poetry. That in a way was the trouble with the painters they did not know what poetry was". Angered by her lack of support, Picasso did not speak to Stein again for several months until they made up over a chance meeting at an art gallery. Not long after, in 1938, Stein wrote Picasso, her biography of the artist.

The outbreak of World War Two caused Stein to leave her Paris apartment for the small town of Bilignin near the French/Swiss border. Stein did what she could to help American GIs with her friend Virgil Thomson recalling how, "Every day, as she walked her dog [she] asked them questions, took them home [and] fed them cake and whiskey". According to Hobhouse the soldiers were equally taken with Stein: "they called her Getty and spoke freely to her, some as to a celebrity of whom they had known ten years ago, some as to an extraordinarily wise (and sometimes slightly dotty) old lady".

As an American Jew living in occupied France this was a precarious time for Stein. While the Bilignin townspeople liked her and helped hide her identity, it is believed her friend, the historian and member of the Vichy government, Bernard Fäy, was most instrumental in protecting her from the Germans. Their friendship would prove controversial however when he was later found guilty and imprisoned for being a Nazi collaborator. Additionally, her support for French leader Philippe Pétain and his Vichy government would temporarily damage her reputation after the war. Of particular concern was a 1942 undertaking in which she began to translate into English the leader's speeches, which, according to Mellows, she did out of "her need to justify Pétain's decision to surrender to the Germans". Though she did not finish the project, the fact that she accepted the work at all suggested an ideological affinity with a leader who had kowtowed to the Nazis.

As the war reached its end, Stein returned to Paris to find her apartment had been raided by the Nazis but her paintings had been thankfully spared (something again believed to have been an intervention by Fäy). Trying to return to something like a normal life, she set about reuniting with old friends, including Picasso. She also captured something of her experiences of the occupation in a book, Wars I Have Seen which was published in America in the spring of 1945 and, in 1946, Brewsie and Willie, which sought to capture the war experiences of American servicemen through spoken word.

While giving a lecture to the US army still stationed in Brussels in November of 1945, Stein became sick with abdominal pains. Doctors diagnosed it as stomach cancer. Months later, back home in Paris, she grew sick again and was rushed to hospital. The doctors thought it too dangerous to operate but Stein insisted they proceed. She died on the operating table on July 27, 1946 aged seventy-two. Her last recorded words were spoken to Toklas as she was being taken into surgery. She asked Toklas: "What is the answer?" Upon receiving no response she added: "In that case What is the question?"

The Legacy of Gertrude Stein

Stein's experimental writings are now generally considered "interesting" rather than important, though her non-linear, Cubist-inspired, style certainly attracted the attentions to some of the most important literary figures of the period, who actively sought out her company. But if her legacy has seen her assigned a supporting role in the history of modernist literature, her influence as a personality and influencer on the "New Moderns" is unequivocal. An imposing, eccentric, figure, Stein was possessed of an unwavering self-belief that allowed her to become a champion for some the most important artists of the time. According to author and critic James R. Mellow, "for their services in exposing modern art to a continuous stream of international visitors - eager young German students, visiting Swedes and Hungarians, wealthy American tourists - the Steins could easily have claimed the distinction of having instituted the first museum of modern art".

In her native America ("America is my country and Paris is my hometown", she once declared) Stein emerged as a champion of the Cubism movement, supporting the works of Pablo Picasso long before most Americans had come to grips this revolutionary ideas. In this respect she was one of the key players in introducing America to European modern painting. She has also become an icon within the gay/queer community on account of her 40-year, documented love affair with Alice Toklas. In the 1980s Yale University made public some 300 love letters between the two women (published later under the title: Baby Precious Always Shines: Selected Love Notes between Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas). Most of the notes were written by Stein (referred to by Toklas as "Mr. Cuddle-Wuddle") for Toklas (referred to by Stein as "Baby Precious") and they are testament to the view, put by Toklas, that "notes are a very beautiful form of literature, personal, provocative, and tender".


Gertrude Stein

Gertrude Stein was born on February 3, 1874, in Allegheny, Pennsylvania. At the age of three, her family moved first to Vienna and then to Paris. Although Stein’s parents belonged to a synagogue, they did not raise their children to be practicing Jews. She returned to America with her family in 1878, settling in Oakland, California. Stein attended Radcliffe College and studied under the psychologist William James, graduating in 1897.

In 1902, Stein moved to France during the height of artistic creativity gathering in Montparnasse. From 1903 to 1912 she lived in Paris with her brother Leo and lover Alice B. Toklas. She and her brother compiled one of the first collections of Cubist and modern art.

Stein began to write in earnest: novels, plays, stories, and poems. Some of her early works include Things as They Are (completed in 1903, but not published until after her death), Three Lives (1909), and The Making of Americans (completed in 1911, but not published until 1966). Her work was rarely published, however. Many of her experiment works such as Tender Buttons (1914) have since been interpreted by critics as a feminist reworking of patriarchal language. The biggest visual or painterly influence on Stein’s work is that of Cezann, specifically in her idea of equality. In addition Stein’s work is funny and multilayered, allowing a variety of interpretations and engagements.

Stein wrote in long hand, typically about half an hour per day. Toklas would collect the pages, type them up and deal with the publishing and was generally supportive. Toklas even founded the publisher “Plain Editions” to distribute Stein’s work. In 1932, she wrote The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas the book would become her first best-seller. Despite the title, it was really her own autobiography. Her other popular works include Four Saints in Three Acts (1934), an opera with music by Virgil Thomson, Everybody’s Autobiography (1937), Paris, France (1940), and Brewise and Willie (1945).

By the 1920s her salon in France, attracted many of the great artists and writers including Ernest Hemingway, Henri Matisse, and Thornton Wilder. She coined the term “Lost Generation” for some of these expatriate American writers. Her judgements in literature and art were highly influential.

With the outbreak of World War II, Stein and Toklas moved to a country home in Bilignin, Ain, in the Rhone-Alpes region. Stein died on July 27, 1946, at the age of 72, from stomach cancer.

Sources: "Gertrude Stein (1874 - 1946)." American Jewish Historical Society, American Jewish Desk Reference, (NY: Random House, 1999). pg. 561-2, Wikipedia

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3 - Gertrude Stein

‘It is necessary that there is stock taking. If there is such necessity, can we critically abandon individualism. One cannot critically abandon individualism. One cannot critically realise men and women.’

Though all literary criticism may be read as implicit commentary on the writer's own practice, Gertrude Stein's is especially self-regarding, always explicitly about her compositional practices. Even the pleasure she takes in viewing paintings, the subject of the least ostensibly literary of her Lectures in America (1935), proves inseparable from her writing. Paradoxically, this is because the two complementary forms of experience do not over lap every one, Stein declares at once grandly and tentatively, ‘is almost sure to really like something outside of their real occupation’, and in her case ‘looking at pictures’ is ‘the only thing’, apart from her ‘real’ occupation, writing, which she ‘never get[s] tired of doing’. Such self-reflexivity, typical of modernist poetry and fiction yet fairly exceptional in twentieth-century criticism, should not be dismissed as a sign of self-indulgence. Instead, Stein's multiple accounts of herself writing, and of her writing self, form a trenchant critique of the idealist assumptions which continued to operate in the critical writing of her modernist contemporaries, despite being called into question by their creative work.

Hence, when her concerns become expressly literary near the end of ‘Pictures’, the contrast she makes between the ‘literary ideas’ of painters and those of writers directly leads to a dismissal of that staple of literary criticism, ‘the writer's idea’: ‘Of course the best writers that is the writers who feel writing the most as well as the best painters that is the painters who feel painting the most do not have literary ideas.’ Accordingly, such writing can not properly be understood in terms of the writer's – or in deed any – organising idea, any ‘central thing which has to move’ even if ‘everything else can be quiet’.


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