Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881–1973)
Oil on canvas
39 3/8 x 32 in. (100 x 81.3 cm)
Bequest of Gertrude Stein, 1946 (47.106)
© 2011 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Pablo Picasso was born in 1881 in Malaga, Spain, and grew up in Barcelona, where he associated with a large group of artists and writers that gathered at the Quatre Gats café. In 1904, Picasso settled in Paris and became friendly with artist Georges Braque, with whom he developed Cubism, and writers Max Jacob and Guillaume Apollinaire. Picasso's painting style changed many times throughout his career, and he produced a range of images, from classical figures to radical abstractions. He exhibited widely and is considered one of the most important and influential figures in twentieth-century art. Besides being a prolific painter and draftsman, he was also an accomplished sculptor and printmaker and produced ceramics and theatrical designs.
Along with her brother Leo, Gertrude Stein was among the first Americans to respond with enthusiasm to the artistic revolution in Europe in the early years of the twentieth century. The weekly salons she held in her Paris apartment became a magnet for European and American artists and writers alike, and her support of Matisse, Braque, Gris, and Picasso was evident in her many acquisitions of their work. For Picasso, this early patronage and friendship was of major importance.
Picasso's portrait of the expatriate writer was begun in 1905, at the end of his Harlequin Period and before he took up Cubism. Stein is shown seated in a large armchair, wearing her favorite brown velvet coat and skirt. Her impressive demeanor and massive body are aptly suggested by the monumental depiction.
In her book The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1932), Stein described the making of this picture: "Picasso had never had anybody pose for him since he was sixteen years old. He was then twenty-four and Gertrude had never thought of having her portrait painted, and they do not know either of them how it came about. Anyway, it did, and she posed for this portrait ninety times. There was a large broken armchair where Gertrude Stein posed. There was a couch where everybody sat and slept. There was a little kitchen chair where Picasso sat to paint. There was a large easel and there were many canvases. She took her pose, Picasso sat very tight in his chair and very close to his canvas and on a very small palette, which was of a brown gray color, mixed some more brown gray and the painting began. All of a sudden one day Picasso painted out the whole head. I can't see you anymore when I look, he said irritably, and so the picture was left like that."
Picasso actually completed the head after a trip to Spain in fall 1906. His reduction of the figure to simple masses and the face to a mask with heavy lidded eyes reflects his recent encounter with African, Roman, and Iberian sculpture and foreshadows his adoption of Cubism. He painted the head, which differs in style from the body and hands, without the sitter, testimony to the fact that it was his personal vision, rather than empirical reality, that guided his work. When someone commented that Stein did not look like her portrait, Picasso replied, "She will."