Expat Gertrude Stein

Gertrude Stein-996e11046cc60620a5e89c3a4491d5222249be35-s6-c30






I discovered Gertrude Stein my senior year in high school when I was taking an Art History class. I was told to write a paper on something to do with art and I couldn’t think of anything so my teacher gave me a book called “Matisse, Picasso and Gertrude Stein with Two Shorter Stories” by Gertrude Stein. I think I wrote my paper on Picasso but what grabbed my interest was Gertrude. I was hooked. I had never read anything like it. I asked my teacher why they didn’t tell us about her in English class. I was informed not everybody appreciated Gertrude.


Pablo Picasso, Portrait of Gertrude Stein, 1906, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. When someone commented that Stein didn’t look like her portrait, Picasso replied, “She will.” Stein wrote “If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso” in response to the painting.

Gertrude was born 140 years ago on February 3, in Allegheny, Pennsylvania. Her father and her uncle owned a textile business with stores in Pittsburgh and Baltimore, Maryland. The brothers did not get along so in 1875 her father took the family to live in Vienna, Austria. Thus began Gertrude’s travels. Three years later they moved to Paris and lived there for five years. They spent 1879 with relatives in Baltimore where Gertrude learned English after speaking first German and then French.

The family moved to Oakland, California in 1880. Gertrude’s mother, Amelia died eight years later of cancer. Gertrude was 14. Two years later her father died and she returned to Baltimore to live with an aunt. She went on to study philosophy and English at Radcliff College and ended up back in Baltimore studying medicine at Johns Hopkins. She spent her summers traveling around Europe with her brother, Leo. By 1903, she was failing her classes and her scandalous lesbian love affair ended badly. She moved to Paris and did not return to America for 30 years.

Gertrude and Leo collected art and became friends with many artists of the day. Leo started to paint and Gertrude wrote. They held Saturday night salons in their home to meet and promote artists and writers. In 1906 Picasso painted her portrait and gave it to her. Her portrait of Picasso was published about twenty years later.


She wrote The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas in 1933. This was her first “mainstream” piece and it was a bestseller. She was fifty-nine years old. Enjoying her new-found fame, she embarked on a lecture series across America, her first time back since moving to France.

“When I was in America for the first time travelled pretty much all the time in an airplane and when I looked at the earth I saw all the lines of cubism made at a time when not any painter had ever gone up in an airplane. I saw there on the earth the mingling lines of Picasso, coming and going, developing and destroying themselves. I saw the simple solution of Braque, I saw the wandering lines of Masson, yes I saw and once more I knew that a creator is contemporary, he understands what is contemporary when the contemporaries do not yet know it…” –Picasso

I admit it can be difficult to read some of her work. She writes long sentences without any punctuation and repeats herself endlessly. In Lectures in America she writes:

I began to get enormously interested in hearing how everybody said the same thing over and over again with infinite variations but over and over again until finally if you listened with great intensity you could hear it rise and fall and tell all that there was inside them, not so much by the actual words they said or the thoughts they had but the movement of their thoughts and words endlessly the same and endlessly different.  – Lectures in America

She returned to France and moved to the country during World War II living a low profile simple life. In 1946 she was diagnosed with colon cancer and died on the operating table. She left her writings to Yale University, her Picasso portrait to the New York Metropolitan Museum, and everything else to her lifelong companion, Alice B Toklas. She was buried at Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris with a tombstone designed by Francis Rose. Her birthplace was misspelled “Allfghany” and her date of death was two days off.

I think her writings are wonderful pieces of art and I enjoy reading them albeit in short bursts. She had a wonderful sense of humor, said what she thought and lived life to the fullest.


In an essay for Life Magazine in 1945 she wrote:

When General Osborne came to see me just after the victory, he asked me what I thought should be done to educate the Germans. I said there is only one thing to be done and that is to teach them disobedience, as long as they are obedient so long sooner or later they will be ordered about by a bad man and there will be trouble. Teach them disobedience, I said, make every German child know that it is its duty at least once a day to do its good deed and not believe something its father or its teacher tells them, confuse their minds, get their minds confused and perhaps then they will be disobedient and the world will be at peace. The obedient peoples go to war, disobedient people like peace, that is the reason that Italy did not really become a good Axis, the people were not obedient enough, …

General Osborn shook his head sadly, you’ll never make the heads of an army understand that.

– Off We All Went to See Germany

You can listen to Gertrude Stein reading from her work online.


– Original post at: Baltimore Post Examiner

A trip to the museum


The Washington Monument is now draped in scaffolding. We had an earthquake several months ago and the monument was damaged. It looks like and interesting art object.


On my way to the museum I passed by a street filled with food vendors.  They were selling kabob, falafel, hot dogs, hamburgers, chicken, Italian sandwiches, frozen yogurt, ice cream. People were spread out on the lawn picnicking.















I went to see “Edvard Munch: A 150th Anniversary Tribute” at the National Gallery of Art. It was one room of drawings and etchings. It took me 15 minutes to see it all. The only one I really liked was the Madonna.


I wandered around a bit after that and stumbled upon “Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, 1909–1929: When Art Danced with Music”. It was a large exhibit with costumes, set designs, and film. I am a big fan of ballet and I was easily sucked in.

I discovered Sergei Diaghilev was an expat. He was born into nobility. His family owned an estate outside of Perm, Russia, and had the monopoly on distilling vodka in the region. He grew up and was edcuated in St. Petersburg. When he was 18 his father went bankrupt and Sergei was forced to earn his living. He was heavily involved in the arts and put on an exhibit of paintings and portraits in 1905, sponsored by Tsar Nicholas II.  In 1907 he took an exhibit of Russian art to Paris and in 1908 he introduced Paris to several Russian operas. He was invited to return the following year and added ballet to the performances. When in 1909 the Tsar withdrew his financial support, Diaghilev carried on but dropped the operas. Ballet was much cheaper. Things were heating up in Russia and the future was uncertain. By 1911 Diaghilev had formed his own dance company drawing from dancers in exile. He returned to Russia briefly in 1914 but it was the last time he set foot in his homeland. Paris was his new home.

In Paris he formed the Ballet Russes.  It was to become the most influnial ballet company in the West. He gathered around him the most talented and avant garde artists he could find. His set designers included Picasso and Matisse.  Picasso married one of the Ballet Russe dancers, Olga Khokhlova.

His choreographers started with Vaslav Nijinsky and ended with George Balanchine.  Diaghilev was in love with Nijinsky and they were involved until Nijinsky shocked everybody by getting married while on tour in South America. Diaghilev was very hurt and fired him on the spot. Nijinsky was later diagnosed with schitzophrenia thus ending his career.  Balanchine was working at the Marinsky Theater in 1924 when he defected while on a tour of Germany with the Soviet State Dancers. Diaghilev invited him to join the Ballet Russes as a choreographer. He later became one the greatest American choreographers.

Igor Stravinsky was hired to compose music for the ballets.  He composed the music for The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Right of Spring.  In the last one the rhythm was revolutionary and it caused a riotous reaction from the audience when it was first performed in Paris in 1913.











In 1924, Coco Chanel desgined the clothes for the ballet “Blue Train”, which was all about frolicking on the French Riviera. The backdrop on the set was Picasso’s painting of two voluptuous women running, creating a contrast to the adrogenous women dancing in Chanel outfits.

Diaghilev’s life was cut short by diabetes.  He died at the age of 57 in Venice. The Paris, London, and New York ballet companies all emerged from the Ballet Russe dancers and choreographers. Some believe these ballet companies never would have existed if it weren’t for Diaghilev.

Most of the items in the exhibit live at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London but can be seen in Washington, DC until September 2.