History of Gertrude Stein

Gertrude Stein was an American writer and poet famed for her salons in Paris during the 1920s, which attracted the cultural elite of the time.

Born in 1874 into the family of a wealthy merchant in Pennsylvania, Gertrude Stein spent her youth in Europe before her family settled in Oakland California. Stein attended Radcliffe College where she studied under William James who offered the first course in psychology in America. Stein would become heavily influenced by his research into ‘streams of consciousness,’ which is evident in her later writing. After graduating, Stein continued her education by enrolling in the Johns Hopkins Medical School but she did not complete her studies.

William James

William James. Courtesy of Counter Currents

Towards the end of her medical studies, Stein embarked on an emotionally draining affair with fellow student May Bookstaver and decided to flee America and join her brother Leo in London. During her time in the city Stein studied Elizabethan prose residing at 20 Bloomsbury Square.

In 1903 Stein followed Leo to Paris where they began to assemble a collection of modern art. Their first joint purchases were Gauguin’s Sunflowers and Three Tahitians as well as paintings by Cezanne and Renoir, which they acquired from Ambroise Vollard, Picasso’s Parisian art dealer. As their collection grew, Stein was introduced to Picasso who would go on to paint her portrait, the first he had completed in some time. When asked about the primitive style of the portrait, Picasso famously answered that if it didn’t look like the subject it would eventually.

Gertrude Stein

Gertrude Stein. Courtesy of Wikipedia

The residence of the Steins attracted many visitors due to its growing art collection and eventually, the siblings played host to weekly salons which attracted writers, artists and philosophers who were influenced by modernism.

Gertrude Stein Residence

Gertrude Stein Residence. Courtesy of Library of Congress

While living in Paris, Stein began submitting her writing for publication. Her first critically acclaimed publication was Three Lives, three short stories about a working-class woman living in Baltimore. During this time Stein met her lifelong partner and lover Alice B. Toklas who began by assisting Stein with the typing of her prose.

Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas

Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Courtesy of The Red List

During the First World War, the gallery where Stein purchased her artworks had its stock seized and her collecting came to a halt. She sold one of her Matisse paintings to travel to Spain but later returned to Paris to assist with the war effort by driving supplies to hospitals. Stein is credited with coining the phrase the Lost Generation and her salons continued after the war, attracting guests including The Great Gatsby author F Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.

Gertrude Stein Art Collection

Gertrude Stein Art Collection. Courtesy of The Red List

Stein and Toklas spent the first years of the 1930s touring America hosting lectures. They would return to Paris, later to be Sheltered from Jewish persecution by Nazi collaborator Bernard Fay. Stein and Toklas would raise money to have their friend removed from his detention after the war.

Gertrude Stein died from complications to her cancer of the stomach in 1946 and was buried in Pere Lachaise.

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