Who Was Gertrude Stein?

Ahead of the March 2 opening of Ricky Ian Gordon’s 27, we take a look at the story behind the story. Learn about the famous 1920s artist salon of Gertrude Stein, and make sure to see 27, March 2-3 at the Arthur Miller Theatre in Ann Arbor and March 10-11 at the Macomb Center for the Performing Arts.

Who Was Gertrude Stein?

Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, Henri Matisse, F. Scott Fitzgerald – these painters and authors have become household names as leaders in their art. But perhaps less well-known is the woman who bound these men together: Gertrude Stein, writer, art patron and a central figure in American and European Modernism.

Born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania in 1874, Stein was a Jewish-American woman raised in Oakland, California in a wealthy family. After her parents’ passing as a teenager, she was sent to live with relatives in Baltimore, where she met sisters Claribel and Etta Cone who incorporated Stein into their regular artist salons and further developed her appreciation for art.

After graduating with a degree in psychology from Radcliffe College and dropping out of medical school at Johns Hopkins, Stein decided to follow her brother, Leo, to Paris where he was pursuing his art studies. From 1903 to 1914 the two lived at the now-famous address of 27 rue de Fleurus in Paris, where they began an extensive art collection, including works by Matisse, Cezanne, Picasso and Renoir. In 1907, Stein met Alice B. Toklas, a woman who would eventually move into the Steins’ Paris apartment and become Gertrude Stein’s lifelong partner.

As the Steins’ art collection grew, so did her group of friends, who would come to see her collection and bring friends of their own. These visits eventually turned into weekly salon gatherings, where modern artists including Picasso, Hemingway, Matisse and Fitzgerald would congregate to discuss their works and others.

Stein, an author in her own right, had created the organized weekly salons to avoid disruption of her own work from drop-in guests. Her writing was structured in an experimental literary style of Picasso’s cubism that challenged traditional methods of storytelling and explored themes of the female experience, lesbian sexuality, identity and conformity. Her most famous works include Three Lives, Tender Buttons, and The Making of Americans. She was also an opera librettist and wrote Four Saints in Three Acts and Mother of Us All with composer Virgil Thompson. Her memoir, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, led her to literary success and fame.

Stein and Toklas, also a Jewish woman, mostly remained in Europe throughout World Wars I and II, including Nazi-occupied France. It is believed the two were forced to sell paintings and rely on the protection of friends to survive. Stein died of stomach cancer in 1946 in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France. Her legacy continues to live on as a central influencer in American and European Modernism.