Gertrude Stein was an American writer and early important collector of avant-garde art who was based in Paris. She is recognized as one of the earliest champions of Cubism.
Raised and educated in Europe and the United States, Gertrude graduated from Radcliff College in 1897 and attended John Hopkins University from 1897 to 1901. She permanently moved to Paris in the fall of 1903, where she joined her brother Leo, who is credited with introducing his sister to modern art.
As a writer, Stein published the novel The Making of Americans (1924); the libretto for Virgil Thomson’s opera Four Saints in Three Acts (1933); and the autobiographical publications The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933), Everybody’s Autobiography (1937), and Wars I Have Seen (1945). She also wrote short stories, essays, plays, poetry, and literary portraiture, in which she wrote about the artists that she collected (Portraits and Prayers, 1934).
From the outset, Gertrude and Leo frequented galleries, museums, and salon exhibitions (Salon des Indépendants and Salon d’Automne), making joint acquisitions of works by emerging artists, as well as an occasional late-nineteenth-century work. By 1914 they had amassed a substantial collection of works by Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso, artists whose work formed the core of their holdings. They also owned paintings and works on paper by Honoré Daumier, Eugéne Delacroix, Maurice Denis, Édouard Manet, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Félix Vallotton. Beginning in 1906, the Steins hosted a weekly Saturday evening salon at their joint residence at 27 rue de Fleurus. The event became one of the most important gathering spots for international group of artists, writers, collectors, and dealers who were living in or visiting Paris.
Four years after her move to Paris, Gertrude met Alice B. Toklas, an American from San Francisco who would become her lifelong companion and assistant. From 1910 until Stein’s death in 1946, the two women lived together. Unfortunately, by the early 1910s, the relationship between Leo and Gertrude had begun to deteriorate due to their increasingly divergent views about the art world, particularly Cubism. Leo’s homophobic attitude toward his sister and Toklas was also a factor. Around 1913–14, Leo and Gertrude divided their collection and parted ways.
Within the Cubist movement, Gertrude had supported the artistic endeavors of Picasso and Juan Gris, and she had developed close relationships with both artists. Thus, in the divide, Gertrude retained the Picassos from the joint collection. She continued to collect until the 1920s.
Stein championed Cubism, famously arguing for its Spanish origins. She collected Cubist art by Picasso and Gris, wrote on Cubism and its practitioners, and assured the movement’s sustained exposure among local artistic circles by making her collection widely accessible. Gertrude and Leo began purchasing Picasso’s work soon after Gertrude met the artist in 1905. They acquired work directly from the artist or from the dealers Clovis Sagot and Ambroise Vollard. Picasso’s famous 1906 proto-Cubist portrait of Gertrude (The Metropolitan Museum of Art) exemplifies the close and lasting relationship between the artist and his patron. Over the years, Gertrude reciprocated the gesture in the form of three literary portraits of Picasso (1909, 1923, and 1938). Early works by Picasso in the siblings’ collection document the artist’s transition from Symbolism to Cubism. In 1906 they acquired studies for the painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907; Museum of Modern Art, New York), and their first substantial joint purchase of the earliest Cubist canvases took place directly from Picasso in 1909. Included in those acquisitions was the landscape The Reservoir, Horta de Ebro (1909; Promised gift of Mr. and Mrs. David Rockefeller to the Museum of Modern Art, New York, ). Gertrude’s first solo purchase of the artist’s work took place in 1912 with The Architect’s Table (1912; Museum of Modern Art, New York), a Cubist Analytic painting that features a detail of the writer’s calling card. In addition to paintings and works on paper, Gertrude also owned Picasso’s cardboard constructions. She acquired her last Picasso, a still life painting, in 1922.
Stein met Gris six years after she met Picasso, around 1910. Four years later she purchased one painting and three collages by the artist from the Cubist dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, two of the latter are now part of the Leonard A. Lauder Cubist Collection. The friendship between Stein and Gris was particularly close in the 1920s, the period of additional purchases of Gris’s works from Kahnweiler’s post–World War I Galerie Simon. In 1924 Stein published an essay on Gris’s work and a year later, the artist sketched textile designs for upholstery, which were subsequently executed in needlepoint by Toklas. In response to the artist’s death in 1927, Stein wrote a memorial literary portrait of the artist titled The Life and Death of Juan Gris. Although she is not known for her support of other key Cubist figures, Stein owned three works by Georges Braque.
During her lifetime, Stein sold and exchanged many works from her collection. This practice began as early as 1913 when the Stein siblings carried out a transaction for multiple paintings with Kahnweiler. At the time of her death in 1946, Stein bequeathed her estate, including the art collection, to her nephew, Allen, the only son of her oldest brother, Michael, and his wife, Sarah, (née Samuels). Toklas was to keep and manage Stein’s estate, including art, until her own death. During her stewardship of the collection, Toklas sold several works. Allen died prior to Toklas in January 1951, and the collection subsequently passed to his three children from two marriages: Daniel, Michael, and Gabrielle. When Toklas died in March 1967, Allen’s heirs became sole keepers of the art. By then, the collection counted 38 works by Picasso and Gris, which the heirs sold the following year to the Museum of Modern Art Syndicate organized by David Rockefeller and comprised of fellow trustees and friends of the Museum of Modern Art, New York William S. Paley, Nelson Rockefeller, and John Hay Whitney. The sole purpose of the syndicate was to purchase the Stein estate. The members pledged to donate a portion of the acquired works to public institutions, for example, MoMA. A handful of works that were not purchased by the members were sold through art dealers, among them Eugene V. Thaw. Stein bequeathed her archives to the Yale University Library, presently housed in the Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscripts Library. The archives were augmented with subsequent gifts made by Toklas, from 1946 to 1961. Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers 1837–1961 include selected manuscripts, letters, photographs, printed materials, and personal papers.