She was a trust fund kid who moved to Paris in 1903 and made some very successful bets early in her career as an art collector and wannabe writer. Gertrude Stein, whose family prospered in the San Francisco real estate market and streetcar business late in the 19th century, used her money to buy paintings by Matisse and Picasso long before they became world-famous. She latched onto artists, celebrated their work, associated her name with them and, especially in the case of Picasso, used them to establish her own reputation as an astute connoisseur and observer of modern art.
And then she began perpetrating one of the longest and most successful literary frauds in cultural history. As an author, she wrote reams of gibberish, either in a singsong style that one critic aptly described as “literary baby talk” or in a hermetically sealed private language that she absurdly considered an analog of cubism. As an art collector, she often showed remarkably bad taste, especially after the early years of her alliance with Picasso. Her theater work, either unintelligible or profoundly cliched, survives because other people set it to music or choreographed it. Even her moral reputation — courageously living with her female partner, Alice B. Toklas, championing a woman’s right to be eccentric — has been sullied by recent scholarship showing that she while she rode out World War II in a French country house, she was protected by a particularly unsavory and anti-Semitic official of the collaborationist Vichy government.
But Stein was convinced she was a genius, and she was a savvy manipulator of the fame machine. The National Portrait Gallery’s fascinating exhibition “Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories” uses photographs, art, film and memorabilia to demonstrate how she did it: strategic friending, careful self-invention and always collaborating with people who were not only more talented, but happy to do all the work. (“Five Stories” refers to the five divisions in the show: Stein in photos and paintings; as literary celebrity; as domestic partner; as arts networker, and as muse to artists of several generations.)
aspects of the It boils down to a simple formula that served her well for a half century: It’s all about me.
Stein arrived in Paris after failing Latin at Radcliffe and flunking out of Johns Hopkins medical school. She and her brother Leo Stein, who had a similarly distinguished academic career, lived together and pooled their money to shop for art. They weren’t out-of-sight rich, like the Philadelphia collector Albert Barnes, who, Stein said contemptuously, “looks like a Jew.” But the Jewish Stein family, which included another brother, Michael, and his wife, Sarah (Matisse considered her the brains of the outfit), had enough money to hoover up paintings by the younger generation of modern artists. The results of their collecting, gathered in an exhibition, The Steins Collect (seen in San Francisco last summer, and arriving at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in February), is astonishing, a wall-to-wall greatest hits of the years between the turn of the century and World War I.