Pablo Picasso’s Portrait of Gertude Stein has a fascinating history and so I was delighted to come across it at the recent Cubism exhibition at the Pompidou Centre in Paris, where it is on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of New York. Picasso first met Gertrude Stein in the early years of the twentieth century when he was still an ambitious but struggling young artist. Stein, for her part, was an American who had inherited enough money to allow her settle in Paris where she became, along with her brother Leo, an avid art collector as well as a writer. The Steins were not afraid to purchase the most daring works of art and the collection they amassed represented the cream of avant grade art emerging in Paris. The paintings lined the walls of their apartment at 27 Rue du Fleurus where Gertrude Stein’s legendary weekly salon attracted the good and the great of both the literary and artistic worlds and so acted like a showcase for the artists. Gertrude and Picasso developed a strong friendship and Stein became invaluable to Picasso not only for her financial aid but also for her belief in what he was doing.
Gertrude Stein was a larger than life character with a physical appearance to match. According to John Richardson in his Life of Picasso, Picasso was so fascinated by her appearance and personality that he asked to paint her portrait. However, after more than 90 sittings he was dissatisfied with the result and painted out her head saying ‘I can’t see you any longer”. He put the painting aside in May 1906 when he left Paris to spend the summer in Gosol, a remote village in the Catalan Pyrenees. Here Picasso’s style went under a radical change. On his return from Gosol, it is said that he finished the portrait in one afternoon painting Stein’s face with mask like features suggesting an influence from Iberian sculptor. One wonders if his earlier frustrations with the portrait were bound up with an attempt to shake off his old style of painting in order to achieve a fresh pictorial vision. He certainly brought about a new vision in his art and Gertrude Stein’s painting, according to the exhibition ‘marked the end of the artist’s Rose Period and announced the advent of Cubism’.
Standing in front of the painting, the indomitable spirit of Gertrude Stein is tangible. Her image fills the canvas and she leans forward as if to draw you in to her presence. The painting is remarkable and when it was commented that Stein didn’t look like her portrait, Picasso allegedly stated, “Never mind, in the end she will manage to look just like it”. Apparently she did with Gertrude herself stating “For me, it is I.”