Portrait of Gertrude Stein (1906) by Pablo Picasso
Meaning and Interpretation of Modern Portrait Painting

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Gertrude Stein
By Pablo Picasso.
Regarded as one of the
greatest portrait paintings
of the early 20th century.

Portrait of Gertrude Stein (1906)


Explanation of other Modern Portraits


Name: Portrait of Gertrude Stein (1906)
Artist: Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)
Medium: Oil painting on canvas
Genre: Portrait art
Movement/Style: Expressionism
Location: Metropolitan Museum of Art

For an interpretation of other pictures from the 19th and 20th centuries, see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).

For analysis of portraits
by Spanish painters
like Picasso, see:
How to Appreciate Paintings.

Analysis of Portrait of Gertrude Stein by Picasso

Portraits by Pablo Picasso are invariably highly innovative and this one is no exception. It was painted around 1906, towards the end of his 'Rose period', after he painted Girl in a Chemise (1905, Tate Collection), and Boy with a Pipe (1905, Private Collection). This was just prior to his brief African phase which led him into Cubism - first Analytical Cubism and then Synthetic Cubism - when he painted the Portrait of Ambroise Vollard (1909, Pushkin Museum, Moscow). See also Woman in White (1923) from his 'neoclassical period'. For more on this, see: Neoclassical Figure Paintings by Picasso (1906-30).

Gertrude Stein met Picasso in Paris in the autumn of 1905, and a close friendship quickly developed between the twenty-four year old Spaniard and this stout, thirty-two year old woman, who was later to become one of America's most prominent literary figures. Gertrude and her elder brother, Leo, had just bought two of Picasso's paintings. Conspicuously dressed in brown corduroy and sandals, the Steins were already known in Paris for their support of avant-garde art and for the weekly gatherings of modern artists that took place in their small house in Montparnasse. Picasso was soon a regular visitor and, within a few months of meeting Gertrude Stein, he had invited her to sit for this portrait.

It was a surprising invitation. Picasso had shown little interest in formal portraits before, although he had painted himself often enough in various melodramatic guises. Looking back on the event, Fernande Olivier, Picasso's mistress at the time, recalled that on first meeting Gertrude Stein, Picasso "was so taken with the woman's physical personality that he suggested doing her portrait before he was actually acquainted with her". Perhaps Picasso was also encouraged by what he saw on his visits to the Steins. They had just bought two remarkable paintings, both portraits: Paul Cezanne's Portrait of Mme Cezanne (1881), a favourite of Gertrude Stein, and Henri Matisse's portrait of his wife in Woman with the Hat (1905), which was a prominent example of Fauvism - the dominant exhibit at the notorious Salon d'Automne of that year, from which Matisse (1869-1954) emerged as the undisputed leader of the Parisian avant-garde. Cezanne (1839-1906) was the only artist Picasso was prepared to idolize and, amongst his contemporaries, Matisse was the only artist he acknowledged as a rival. Model and rival - Picasso confronted them both each Saturday through their two remarkable portraits at the Steins'.

The portrait of Gertrude Stein was begun in the winter of 1905 and dragged on into the spring of 1906. After some eighty or ninety sittings, with Fernande Olivier reading aloud to keep Stein amused, Picasso abruptly painted over the face. "I can't see you any longer when I look", he said irritably, and went home to Spain for the summer holidays. His frustration puzzled Stein, who recalled that the artist had achieved an admirable likeness before scrubbing out the face.



Upon returning to Paris from his holidays, Picasso immediately painted in the face and presented Gertrude Stein with the finished portrait. The new face stands out from the rest of the painting. Unlike the light brush strokes, the scumbled black and russet tones of Stein's clothes and the high-back chair with its traces of patterned upholstery, her face is sharp, sculptural, the colour of clay.

NOTE: Picasso's figure painting ranged from abstract to expressionist to classical naturalism. For his most famous neoclassical works, see: Two Nudes (1906, MOMA, New York); Seated Woman (Picasso) (1920, Paris); Large Bather (1921, Musee de l'Orangerie, Paris); and Two Women Running on the Beach (The Race) (1922, Musee Picasso, Paris).

The portrait at once reveals a dramatic change in Picasso's style, and the stages that led to this change. From the outset Picasso wanted to make Gertrude Stein look imposing. She was a large woman, and the artist cleverly exploited her size by leaning her forward, so that she actively dominates the space of the painting. Against the sweep of the back of the chair and the suggestion of shadow in the corner of the room behind her, Stein's rounded shoulders hold the painting steady as a rock. Cezanne had used exactly the same means, a curved-back chair and a corner, to establish the axis in his Portrait of Mme Cezanne, and this was clearly Picasso's point of departure.

Compare the timidity of Casagemas in La Vie (Life) (1903, Cleveland Museum of Art), with Stein's imposing presence.

But Picasso went beyond his self-appointed teacher in his treatment of Gertrude Stein's face. Without consulting her appearance again, he reconstructed Stein's physiognomy in smooth planes and strong, simple features, even borrowing some conventions - such as the heavy-lidded, almost lozenge-shaped, eyes - from the archaic Iberian sculpture he had seen exhibited at the Louvre. The formal strength he had admired in Cezanne gives way to the power he now recognized in this so-called primitive art. Although Stein's features are mask-like, the weight of her presence, the sense of mind metamorphosed as form, is formidable. This was the first occasion in any of his portrait paintings that Picasso allowed the expressive power of form to trespass on normal appearances, and it opened the way for his startling attack on the propriety of appearances in the painting Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907, Museum of Modern Art, New York), which he began soon after, as well as his late Cubist work Weeping Woman (1937, Tate Modern, London).

Gertrude Stein liked her portrait. To those who protested at her mask-like features, Picasso replied, "everybody thinks that she is not at all like her portrait but never mind, in the end she will manage to look just like it". And apparently she did. Stein kept the portrait with her throughout her life, and it was the only painting from her extensive collection which she bequeathed to a museum, and quite specifically to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Perhaps she felt that the Metropolitan guaranteed a measure of immortality; it certainly guaranteed that the portrait would take its place in the context of fifty centuries of art history. That context may well have made the Metropolitan attractive to a courageous collector like Gertrude Stein, who had fought so hard for the acceptance of modern art.

Explanation of other Modern Portraits

Young Italian Woman Leaning on her Elbow (1900) by Cezanne.
Wonderful classical style painting bought by Matisse.

Portrait of Juan Gris (1915) by Modigliani.
Typical Modigliani genius.

Portrait of Jeanne Hebuterne (1918) by Modigliani.
A painting of the artist's muse and the tragic mother of his child.

Portrait of Madeleine Castaing (1928) by Chaim Soutine.
A painting of the artist's leading supporter.


• For the meaning of other works by Spanish painters, see: Homepage.

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