Famous Paintings: Portrait of Gertrude Stein

 Pablo Ruiz Picasso (1881-1973) was one of the rare famous painters whose influence on art history was inarguable during his life.

One of his earliest collectors was Gertrude Stein, an American expatriate who studied at Radcliffe and Harvard before becoming an early collector of avant-garde art paintings.  With her brothers, Leo and Michael, Gertrude moved to Paris in 1903; she then managed a contemporary art collection as well as the leading salon for post World War I intellectuals, whom she defined as the “lost generation“.

After meeting Picasso in 1905, she introduced him the next year to Henri Matisse; Picasso saw the Stein’s early and expansive collection of Matisse paintings, including Bonheur de vivre (The Joy of Life). The prior year’s Salone d’ Automne marked the public arrival of Fauvism — and Picasso’s recognition of Matisse as a potential rival.

Left: Portrait of Gertrude Stein. 39 3/8 x 32 in. Bequest of Gertrude Stein, 1946 (47.106). Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Completed in 1906, the Portrait of Gertrude Stein became one the best known Picasso paintings and foreshadowed the creation of Cubism, a movement that arose from collaboration between Picasso and Georges Braque during 1908 to 1912.

Picasso and Georges Braque discarded the Renaissance conception of painting as the translation of three dimensional form onto the flat picture plane of a canvas through perspective and illusionistic drawing.  Instead, the Cubists contended that objects didn’t have any fixed or absolute form, so that every vantage point could be captured in one pictorial whole.

Records indicate that it took ninety sittings for Picasso to complete Portrait of Gertrude Stein.  He portrays her in an untraditional yet confident pose, with her right arm and hand contoured and the left flat and stiff.  Her bulk floods the picture frame, leaving her lifeless and more like a stone statue than human flesh-and-blood.  Her hair seems placed on her head rather than growing there.

Right: Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Oil on canvas, 1907/ 8′ x 7’8″. Acquired through the Lillie P. Bliss Bequest (333.1939). Museum of Modern Art. 

Most significantly, her mask-life face — the hurdle that necessitated repeated sittings — hints at the distortions that hallmark Analytic Cubism.

The black outlines around her eyes, the harsh value contrast at the eyebrows, and the misshapen eyes portend the faces in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (Women of Avignon), arguably the best known of all Picasso paintings. Despite the ninety sittings, Portrait of Gertrude Stein is a hallmark in art history, and especially in the development of modern art.

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By |2018-03-25T17:12:21-04:00July 11th, 2009|Cubism and Futurism paintings|0 Comments

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