Portrait of Gertrude Stein…by Pablo Picasso

“Nothing is really so very frightening when everything is so very dangerous.” (Gertrude Stein, American author and Ex-Patriot)

In 1905, Pablo Picasso was commissioned by Gertrude Stein to do a portrait of the avant-garde American author and Ex-Patriot. At that time, Picasso was struggling with trying to understand his inner self. The artist gratefully accepted the opportunity to “capture a resemblance” of Ms. Stein. Stein was a large figure who commanded space with her physical presence but also with her mind. Stein had an intimidating way of seeing the world around her and many of the avant-garde artists in the Montmartre district of Paris were uncomfortable around Stein. Not Picasso. The Catalan artist was moving away from representation—in a rather stealth fashion—and the Stein portrait helped this Spanish artist resolve the inner struggle he was facing as he approached the canvas. Picasso spent a number of drawing sessions in Stein’s apartment during the summer of 1905. Photographing the canvas decades after Picasso finished painting it, researchers have found that the artist successfully blocked in the powerful physical presence of Stein with relative ease. But the photographic x-rays indicated the artist seemed to vanquish over the face/head of Stein. Picasso left Paris toward the end of that summer for some reflection time in Barcelona. When the artist returned to Paris, he was able to “finish” the portrait. The issues with the head and face had been resolved.

Resolved for the artist! Resolved for Gertrude Stein as well! But visitors to the Stein apartment were questioning the face, the likeness, the essence of resemblance! Hearing the protestations to his “interpretation” of Stein, Picasso famously said, “Everybody says that she does not look like it but that does not make any difference, she will,” which was quoted by Stein in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Stein said later, “I was and still am satisfied with my portrait, for me it is I, and it is the only reproduction of me which is always I, for me.” The completion of the portrait marks the beginning of Stein’s interest in portraiture and “resemblance,” concepts that would come to influence her writing nearly as much as Picasso’s Cubist philosophies.

This decision by Picasso to “fracture” Stein’s face into many planes of perception, was a monumental revelation! Picasso had found, this this portrait, an understanding of his inner struggle. The artist would not look back but continue to move forward. Within the year of completing his Portrait of Gertrude Stein, Picasso painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907 and Cubism was born!

What are your thoughts on those in Paris during the first decade of the 20th century, surrounded by an incredible creative energy for change and expressive freedom, being so resistant to the very early manifestation of a shift in the visual arts?

Cover Photograph of Gertrude Stein seated on the couch and her “famous” portrait on the wall over her left shoulder
Pablo Picasso, Portrait of Gertrude Stein, 1907

Published by: roberttracyphd

Academic professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. I teach theory courses in Art and Architecture History. In addition, I also curate exhibitions on campus as well as in other venues nationally and internationally.

30 Comments

30 thoughts on “Portrait of Gertrude Stein…by Pablo Picasso”

  1. People having a hard time accepting change is what I instantly thought. As always in history, people rather look at the same things. They rather deal with the same ideas instead of understanding that there can be a change. Art changes, art develops and art is creative. When Picasso said, “Everybody says that she does not look like it but that does not make any difference, she will”. I took it as everyone says the painting doesn’t resemble Gertrude but “she will” as in once you understand my way of art you will start to see how they do look similar. When you continously stare at it and look at Gertrude ( well for me anyways) I can see it.

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  2. Humanity always resists change. That’s just a part of the human psyche. It is much easier to comprehend things that you are familiar with and see on a day-to-day basis. It’s more comforting and causes no confusion. People who challenge that monotony usually have a hard time gaining traction because of this natural way of thinking. Picasso challenged these same ways, introducing his style of art where an art style of likeness and realism were highly sought after. Of course people would be so hesitant in seeing Picasso’s avant-garde leanings in Cubism. But like you said, “The artist would not look back but continue to move forward.” And look where that brought us today.

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  3. Change is scary. It is sometimes hard to tell what change can bring about in our lives. It could be for the better, or it could be for worse. Humans fear the unknown factor that change brings about. They are normally comfortable and content with the “norm” of their daily lives and change disrupts it. That is why humanity often resists change. As the world continues to move on and change, so must we, lest we suffer the consequences of falling behind. I was very intrigued by what Picasso said regarding the people’s thoughts and views of his portrait. “Everybody says that she does not look like it but that does not make any difference, she will.” Dawn’s post has a great interpretation of what the quote could mean and I do agree with it. I do also interpret the quote to mean that Gertrude Stein will be the one to help bring about change. Not only because of the way she presents herself by commanding the space around her with her presence and mind, but also because she recognizes when change must happen and embraces it with open arms.

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  4. Whenever there is a shakeup to the norm there is bound to be resistance. This happens whenever there is something introduced that goes against societal norms and pushes against the boundaries of what is acceptable. The resistance against the change in visual arts is a little different, since it is something that can be seen, a physical presence. More traditional styles of art also have a cultural history behind them that people take pride in, the shift to experimental and abstract styles is offensive. The influence of Greco-Roman art and the famous “masters” in painting is not to be understated, these styles have created a strong impact in visual art. The celebration and admiration for these works of art has continued throughout the centuries in Western culture, this in turn creates a bias in the art world. Picasso and Gertrude Stein challenged this bias and leaning towards traditional norms in art with the creation of her powerful portrait.

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  5. I think Braque’s quote in the PowerPoint speaks to how Pairs’s art world was. “Progress in art does not consist in expansion, but in an awareness of limits.” This is a very true sentence that struck me because Cubism pushed the limits of art, and in return, ” a new visual language was born.” However, Picasso could not finish the portrait until after he went to Barcelona and refreshed himself in new experiences. Although I am sure, Paris’s creative energy helped cultivate and grow much of his Cubism from 1907 and on. I think it would be interesting to investigate how his original ideas may have originated in a different culture. Perhaps the explosive and creative energy of Pairs was too much pressure or noise for Picasso to finish the portrait.

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  6. The first thing that come to mind is the idea of the fear of the unknown. This has seemed to play a big part whenever there is pushback in the art world. Specifically as we have time and time again in class, with new art movements. With past art movements I feel as though there was push back because you had a lot of elitists, if you will, in the sense of art is supposed to look and be done this way and that is that. When it came to movements like expressionism, impressionism, and cubism the script was completely being flipped, specifically with cubism. To any average viewer, it was a whole new way of painting all together, something that was unlike anything they may have seen before.

    Furthermore, a lot of this pushback can be related to the fact that not only are Picasso (and Braque) presenting a whole new style, but more than that, they are making the viewer think harder about what it is they’re seeing. Before cubism, for most, art was something that you viewed, interpreted, and moved on. Now with cubism, you really have to sit with the piece to fully understand it; understand why it’s painted the way it is, the underlying themes, and the sort of all around vision.

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  7. I think one of the biggest flaws with humans is that we become accustomed to repetition and routine. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but when change is forced upon people, it can make it hard to accept what is to come. Painters during this creative time period most have been really overwhelmed with all of the creative change. However, without change, more so creative change, we would never progress as humanity. We would stay stagnant with nothing to do or nowhere to go. This sounds scary, but in my opinion, taking the leap of change into new creative boundaries had to be done. Even Pablo Picasso, who always struggled with finding himself, took a small step in the right direction that eventually lead to massive creative change overtime!

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  8. I believe that changes allow painters and photographers to develop new techniques to have different perceptions of the subject. I find painting portraits as one of the most challenging things that an artist can do on canvas for my personal experience. Picasso had a particular perception about Stein’s personality and her physical features, Picasso was the only one that adapted some changes into new techniques that were going to be accepted by people later on(Cubism). What mattered the most was that Picasso liked the painting, and Steined ended up loving it. Sometimes a masterpiece requires a long time to be entirely done. I like Picasso’s cubist paintings. They are one of my favorite paintings because he replaces organic shapes by using squares and straight lines, but as a viewer, I can have a clear view of what it is. I think that changes are acceptable as long as I know what I am looking at and I understand the meaning of the portrait.

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  9. During this time, various shifts in culture and society took place, and the appreciation and evolution of the visual arts was no different. Previously they had great artists in France, now they had the visionary Spaniard calling the shots in France. In helping conceive the idea of cubism, Picasso was the popular name that put this genre of art into the forefront. I liked how he unintentionally used the passage of time and trial and error to reach this idea through his portrait painting of Gertrude Stein. I do not know if it is a coincidence but ancient African art and cubism have some similarities. I do not know if the ideas of cubism are adapted though. Regardless, the eras of painting from the transience of impression to the ideas of cubism I believe were collected and popularized to push the boundaries of viewing art.

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  10. I think the start of impressionism was a great step forward towards changing the way people see art. Art is universal and can be interpreted in so many ways. Art in any period will get good and bad criticism. I think people who are not familiar with art will criticize a piece by how realistic it looks to the subject. I think people do that a lot but some people can see paintings in a different perspective and appreciate the style . I see Gertrude Stein in the picture and just because it is flat and not true in proportion does not mean it doesn’t look like her. It isn’t as stylized as Picasso’s other work. It is like a caricature. People in Paris were being introduced to this visual style so I would imagine there would be a lot of confusion and criticism. Picasso was also influenced by African art and I think culture had some influence on artists. Art had to break some boundaries at some point. Slowly after that breakthrough it led to a new exploration of space and color. It was a break away from making things look realistic and I think post impressionism was one of the first steps to that direction. Art was meant to be diverse.

    El Greco for example is one of my favorite artists because he played with space and over stylized his art during the Renaissance period when everything was supposed to look realistic. I’d like to think El Greco was the first to experiment with shape and style but I think it had a big influence on Picasso as well.

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  11. Like back then as it is now, people are always slow when it comes to accepting change. Whether it is music, sports, art, and society, many people who often live comfortable lives tend to favor things that they already know and can understand, rather than favor things that might change up the status quo. Art is something that cannot stay the same though. Ever since humans began creating art, we have only gone and further our styles and abilities when it came to art. Art is something that should not stay as one sole style. It should have the abilities to advance and evolve just as humans are doing as time goes on.

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  12. I think this is an incredible chapter of art history, no other revolutions of art can compare with this period. It opens up the door for expression. Artists not longer limited by the surface of reality, but also the inner part that captures the essence. The story between Stein and Picasso introduced the patrons to my understanding. There are people who valued all these rebellious ideas, that is why it can influence a generation.

    “Rules are meant for breaking,” Fauvism and Cubsim certainly live up to the expectation. There are still countless lessons of what we can learn from this time in the art history.

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  13. It is no new that people are resistant to change. What is new and unknown is frightening for human beings, and if something presents to themselves as Stein was presenting her way, it is understandable. However, it is in a case like this when the changes go beyond the expected, and unexplored ways to represent the world are born. As a result, Picasso introduced Cubism, which certainly was a point of view that many people struggled to deal with at the beginning. It so amazing how he could hear his call but couldn’t figure it out until the right opportunity came to him. I compared the painting’s face to Gertrude’s face in a photo and indeed there is no total likeness, but, from what I read about her, I totally get her personality out of Picasso’s painting, and it makes sense that both artist and patron are satisfied with the depiction.

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  14. Humans are creatures of routine and, for the most part, crave stability. This, however, creates a problem not only in the art world but in the world generally. Things are always pushing forward, pushing further, and as much as humans resist change, our surroundings will continue to change and be changed. Art especially must always push boundaries and bring forth new ideas; there is no innovation without change, and Picasso was a pioneer of the movement due to his bravery in facing resistance. Picasso was a master of capturing essence, feeling, and energy through his relatively abstracted pieces, which is exactly what he did for Stein. Although he may not have represented her face as realistically as one would expect for the time, he was able to create a portrait that reflected her as a person and embodied her.

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  15. People never understand. It is so much easier to shut out everything instead of letting in new ideas, stimuli, and ways to view the world. They are concerned with what the right way to view the world is, or what the most significant trends are, when the answer is, there is no right or wrong! There is just the way that you see the world and the way that you connect with stimuli. Picasso and Stein must have connected with one another about the way they viewed the world and that is how they both came to be satisfied with this portrait, Meanwhile, the rest of Paris just did not understand– until Picasso became more relevant and there was a reason to.

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  16. Lizbeth Ramirez | Art 473

    My thoughts on those in Paris during the first decade of the 20th century, is that they were blinded by tradition. Being able to be surrounded by an incredible creative energy for change in expressive freedom is such a beautiful thing that society couldn’t see. They had their traditional way of doing portraits and that’s how they wanted to keep it. This situation reminds me of Gustav Klimt’s painting of Friederike Beer and how it moves away from the traditional portrait but it helps capture a whole new perspective of the subject. Not everyone will see it right away but with time they can begin to appreciate this new style.

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  17. Seeing the resistance of those in Paris during the first decade of the 20th century does not surprise me, since every time a new art movement appears in history it was almost always met with criticism and dislike. For the longest time, only skills and art similar to what they taught professionally at academies were considered real pieces of art despite there being no real definition as to what art can and cannot be. People fear change, and often disregard the pivotal works that lead into a new era of art because of how unconventional the piece may be.

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  18. I personally respect the change that has made in the 20th Century; I believe it has broken the boundary of how portraits should be illustrated. I believe that anyone can copy and draw on the canvas of how something looks like in real life, but I think portrait should go beyond on how it looks in the world and focus on representing the person himself, both outer and inner self. Paradoxically, although humans consistently shout out for expressive freedom, when people hear the word “change,” most people fear because they think important things that they accomplished will somehow disappear. However, I want to look at the change in optimism in that it has the potential to result in an incredible artwork. As mentioned in the text, if Picasso did not make the change to explore Stein’s world, which was different and feared by others, then it may have hard to see the birth of Cubism.

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  19. I think there is nothing more to art than the artist liking their own art and creation. I think creative places such as Paris will always have critics. So many of art lovers and admirers will always have something to say. There is something elevated and more alluring to stick with the old traditions; of course it is more “elite”. Newer art or anything new has not been proven that they’ll survive the time. So a lot of those art critics would be afraid to support something new that they will be seen with something that failed. Taking chances with something new is always a risk, but in the case of Picasso, I think Gertrude made the right call.

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  20. The people in Paris in the 20th century must have felt the same way we do nowadays. It is exactly the same because as time goes by, things always change and people always try to resist them. This does not apply only to art, but to everything that surrounds us like technology. If it is not known as “the norm” at that time, there is bound to be some sort of resistance to the idea of change. The change in the visual arts had a huge impact on how art is portrayed and respected now. As we look at art through the ages, we learn to love every era for its own beauty. Beyond art, change is always somewhat frightening, but since we’re all human, we have to learn to adapt to the times.

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  21. It feels like they just had a hard time accepting change. Its always uncomfortable ti have to do new things. Change happens regardless of whether you want it to or not. Whether it social change or societal or technology, people usually tend to think the worst case scenario when it comes to things they don’t know about. The art world tends to accept change a little more but there is still resistance. And this case feels like that.

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  22. No matter what, most people will be resistant or hesitant to change or a shift in anything. Change can be terrifying which is why many people are reluctant. But these transition periods are so fascinating to witness when looking back in history. When you start to see the elements of the next era manifest in people’s work of the previous, it creates such pieces. Honestly this is a lovely portrait of Gertrude Stein, and I think seeing the photo of her sitting on the couch next to it helps show her likeness. People were saying it did not look like her because of this style shift, but at the end of the day Stein was satisfied with the commission and that is all that matters.

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  23. When thinking of those living in Paris during the first decade of the twentieth century, I can only imagine the awe and astonishment that must have swept through the minds of those both in favor of and against such a stark shift in the style of art being produced. I’d give anything to be alive during such a historical and revolutionary movement, where the tradition that had long dominated the visual arts was suddenly turned upside-down and repurposed to breathe life into something utterly unique. It goes without saying that Cubism was not well-received by everyone during its initial inception, which unequivocally speaks to human nature and our resistance to substantial change, but change also represents a critical component of nature. To the birth of Cubism, I say that such a shift in the artistic tone of the day was a necessary path to attaining true creative freedom.

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  24. I think that those resistant to change only do so because they find more comfort and familiarity with consistency and precedent. If you are used to routine, habits, and procedures, breaking away and trying something new can be challenging and disorienting. In art, when you find work that is inspiring and captivating, it’s usually human nature to want more of it, which is why we uphold and revere artists throughout all their work and not just focus on singular pieces of art. So when artists deviate and their art diverges from their own style to try something new, their admirers sometimes find fault in their newer work because it’s so different from the older work they had so much appreciation for.
    I think this kind of thing can stifle creativity and makes artists question their work when they really shouldn’t be. Art is a form of creative self-expression, and the ways artists use that creativity to make art is subject to change for any number of reasons. Those in the first decade of the 20th century were facing something similar; rejecting the new despite its revolutionary approaches to creativity and self-expression, in favor of comparing it to the old. It is artists like Picasso, who stand by their work when it is questioned that shows us it should be artists who dictate their own self-expression, rather than anyone else

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  25. While the 20th century witnessed the First World War, the art environment was naturally affected by these developments. This century, which is an age of development and progress in all aspects, has led artists to different searches. Artists now want to get rid of traditional and academic rules and draw their direction. This situation made the artist and art more active, and the technology and machine world played an important role in art. Many artists have begun to express their feelings and opinions easily; some have taken a revolutionary approach, while others have approached events with a critical approach. All feelings and thoughts are transferred to the painting with brand new and different movements.
    Cubism emerges in Paris after World War I ends. After the war, the whole world was torn, and it was time for art. Cubism is the question of the sense of identity of the human soul with the rapidly developing industrialization and breaking away from nature in the 20th century. After the significant changes that took place after the war, I think the locals have had a problem making a dramatic change in traditional art, especially for cubism. As Heraclitus said, “The only thing that is constant is change.”

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    1. It’s interesting how you draw the parallel between the war ending and the Parisians having a hard time accepting change in art. I can’t believe I didn’t immediately think of that. It makes so much sense that after your whole world is upended that you would take solace in something comforting and familiar. You can also think about it from the opposite perspective and how they could have viewed Cubism as proof that the world is still going. That the world didn’t end even if it felt that way. I really liked your response! It made me think about the situation differently.

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  26. Change is a scary thing, and it seems almost doubly so in the art world at times. Change in the art world is to change how you view the world. I know from experience that that is a terrifying thing. I grew up only really experiencing realism in any art that I was taught as good. Once I started college and started learning to appreciate different art movements and started to learn to view the world differently I became terrified. After approaching art in one way for so long, it’s hard to wrap your mind around different forms of visual art. Honestly, cubism was always a hard one for me. Now that I know more about the technicalities in art I appreciate it a bit more, but my first thought when I see a piece is, “Uhhhh… where is the (whatever title is)?” It’s interesting to view Cubism now and think about how the artist viewed a piece and how Picasso talked about there being more than one truth. It’s interesting when art movements focus so much more on a feeling behind a subject than depicting the subject exactly how it is seen. It makes for pieces of art that you can look at for hours and find new truths.

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  27. Change has always been a hard concept for humans to grasp. Which is what makes Picasso and his work revolutionary. A lot of times art styles were how people saw the world. That sense of always the same form and technique blinds people in a way. So when something new like Picasso work comes out its to overwhelming. But weird has always been the definition of art I believe. We have gone thru so many periods of human evolution with art change and development that it honestly shouldn’t be a fear to see a new style of art develop.

    In Picasso portrait of Gertude stein I do feel there is a resemblance to her but not just by her look but by the power she emits in her photos and in the painting. It is more than just a portrait painting it is the emotion and the energy she envelopes in her stance.

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  28. The people of Paris not really accepting this change of the visual arts is very telling of just how we as humans are. Change scares us greatly and sometimes we turn it down all together cause we don’t know the effects and the fallout that could possibly happen to the scene. Though with art it isn’t as devastating of effects but Pablo was changing things for these people in a revolutionary way. It is wonderful that eventually the people did come around to the art he produced.

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  29. Arron Adams
    Art 473-1001
    I don’t feel like it is entirely fair to say that everyone was being resistant purely because they didn’t like change. Different people respond to different art in different ways, and different people have different tastes as well. Were some people just being resistant to change because it was different? Undoubtedly. But I feel like some just didn’t like the new styles, it just didn’t connect to them. If, say, a new restaurant moved into town, with a completely different menu from anything else in town, not everyone is going to want to eat there, and I feel like that’s okay.

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