Portrait of a Lady

A new show provides insight into the life of art collector and poet Gertrude Stein

October 19, 2011

Man Ray’s 1927 portrait of Gertrude Stein shows Stein’s trademark bohemian style.

Gertrude Stein never fit the model for American celebrity: Her modernist writing was brilliant but opaque. Her masculine style was way outside gender norms. In 1903, she ditched the U.S. completely for Paris, where she collected art by Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse and hosted a revolving cast of burgeoning artists. But after the 1933 release of her best-selling book “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas,” Stein was welcomed back to the U.S. for a wildly popular lecture tour with stories in the pages of Time, Life and Vogue.

“Gertrude was one of the more self-promoting artists of the early 20th century,” says Wanda M. Corn, a Stanford University professor and associate guest curator of the National Portrait Gallery’s new “Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories,” on view through Jan. 22. “She did consider herself a 20th-century genius.”

The show looks at Stein’s life and influence from five angles, beginning with portraits from her late-1800s childhood and ending with modern works inspired by Stein.

A collection of artifacts from Stein’s Paris home with lifelong partner Toklas — including portraits by Picasso and Man Ray and clothing Toklas made for Stein — offers rare glimpses into her domestic life. “This part of the story rarely gets told through material representation,” Corn says.

Another section features works by artists Stein supported during the ’30s and ’40s, many of whom depicted Stein in portraits as stern and judgmental. “They cast her as an arbiter in the art world,” Corn says. “These works show her as someone they saw holding tremendous power.”

The show touches on the World War II years that Stein and Toklas spent in Vichy France. As Jews, it was dangerous for the couple to stay during the German occupation, but Stein refused to leave. Recent scholarship revealed that their friend Bernard Fay, who had connections to the Gestapo, ensured the couple’s safety.

The show’s most striking arrangement places a 1922 bust of Stein by American sculptor Jo Davidson between walls bearing text from Stein’s poems as her recorded voice recites them in a loop. The combination reveals an unexpected accessibility to Stein’s work, which Corn says was part of the reason her live lectures were so popular.

“She would say, ‘I write in my language, which is art,” Corn says. “‘But I talk so you can understand.”

National Portrait Gallery, 8th and F streets NW; through Jan. 22, free; 202-633-8300. (Gallery Place)
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Jennifer Barger · October 19, 2011