Gertrude Stein: Biography, Influence, and Legacy

Photo of Gertrude Stein at her salon, 1920, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Estate

Gertrude Stein was an American modernist and a revolutionary character in the Parisian salon era of the early twentieth century. She defied societal norms of femininity while embarking on a literary career and becoming a prolific art collector. Stein fraternized with Ernest Hemingway, Sherwood Anderson, and Ezra Pound, who together defined a generation of literature.

In honor of her birthday, we explore the legacy Gertrude Stein left behind.

Early Life

Stein was born to a wealthy merchant family in Allegheny, Pennsylvania on February 3, 1874. The family spent her early and most influential years in Europe. When Stein was three years old they moved to Vienna; later, the family settled in Paris. This early exposure was intended to inspire a love of culture and history in the children.

After a long sojourn abroad, the family returned to the U.S. and settled in Oakland, California. When Stein was 14 her mother passed away, followed by her father just three years later. Throughout her youth, and certainly after the death of her parents, Gertrude Stein grew close to her brother Leo.

As a teenager, Stein and her sister were sent to live with her aunt and uncle in Baltimore. Her aunt hosted Saturday evening salons, which consisted of sophisticated conversations about politics and art that Stein would later emulate in Paris.

Stein graduated from Radcliffe College with a bachelor’s degree after studying psychology under William James, whose ideas continued to have an impact on her for years to come. Stein went on to study medicine at the prestigious Johns Hopkins Medical School but abandoned that career path in her fourth year. Stein’s writings from medical school depict a depressed and anxious young woman living in a culture dominated by men. An excerpt from Things As They Are, written in 1903, reveals a young woman grappling with the unwanted role of mother and wife that is expected of her.

After her disappointing experience in medical school, Stein moved to Paris, where her brother Leo was pursuing his own artistic career.

Plaque Gertrude Stein, 27 rue de Fleurus, Paris, by Mu in the Wikimedia Commons

The Role of the Stein Family

Gertrude and her brother Leo lived together on the Left Bank of Paris in a large apartment with an accompanying studio to which they would often invite visitors. They amassed a dazzling art collection featuring Cézanne, Renoir, and Delacroix, among others. As early supporters of the Cubist movement, their collection also included works from Picasso, Matisse, and Braque.

Early on, Gertrude and Leo could afford only small works from established painters like Renoir and Cézanne. They began to support lesser-known artists like Matisse and Picasso, eventually facilitating the artists’ burgeoning celebrity status.

Henri Mattisse, “Woman With a Hat,” oil on canvas, 1905. In the collection of San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, bequest of Elise S. Haas.

As her collection grew, Stein became close friends with many of the artists whose works she purchased. A well-known expatriate, Stein created a community of American writers and European artists in Paris. In the center of this circle was Stein, her work and opinions revered.

The confluence of great artistic minds led to a diaspora of ideas that influenced modernism in both art and literature. Creatives flocked to the Stein household every Saturday to see what the family would display, most of which was considered too avant-garde for the Paris museums. Not only were the Stein siblings trend-spotting art patrons, but they also shaped the course of the Modernist movement.

Artistic Career

While serving as the matriarch of the Salon scene, Stein wrote short stories, plays, poems, and even speeches. She felt liberated from the constraints of American society. In Paris, she was no longer an outcast.

In 1907, Alice Toklas arrived in Paris and entered Stein’s life. Toklas become her partner and eventually moved into her apartment when her brother moved out. Toklas encouraged Stein’s writing much more than her brother, leading to a renewed confidence that allowed the exploration of different literary styles.

A notable example of these experiments are Stein’s rhythmical, stream-of-consciousness essays, considered the literary response to Cubism. Tender Buttons belonged to this group of works and was well-received among avant-garde critics, who interpreted it as a feminist reworking of the patriarchal language of society.

Stein mostly used the present progressive tense, writing in a continuous present with no reference to the past or future. Her writings, “Sentences and Paragraphs” (1930) and What Are Masterpieces and Why Are There So Few of Them (1935), are a great introduction for new readers. They explain the complicated intellectual reasoning behind Stein’s writings.

In the 1930s, Stein published a witty memoir titled Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, which led to the acclaim she had been seeking. Stein and Toklas arrived in the U.S. for a lecture tour that ended in a book deal with Random House.

Stein questioned whether fame altered her artistic output, but went on to write Everybody’s Autobiography (1937) (a sequel to The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas), Paris, France (1940), an homage to her adopted city, and Brewsie and Willie (1945), an affectionate tribute to the American soldiers who fought in World War II.

Stein never confined herself to one genre, but stuck to an avant-garde writing style. She had a profound impact not just through her personal writings, but through the opinions she shared and the community she created.

After surviving World War II in France, Stein was diagnosed with stomach cancer and passed away in July of 1946.

Gertrude Stein as A Feminist

Stein rejected the role of wife, mother, caregiver, preferring to reside among the men. Part of the reason she fled the U.S. as a young woman was to escape the traditional gender roles she dreaded. She saw Paris as a place where she could be free of heteronormativity.

Pablo Picasso, “Portrait of Gertrude Stein,” oil on canvas, 1905-6. In the collection of Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.

In some way, Stein did fulfill a motherly role, but she did it on her own terms. She supported fledgling artists and welcomed American expatriates who resided in Paris.

Gertrude Stein was an example of a woman who survived and thrived on her own, without the support of a husband. She also wrote about her sexuality and openly adored her partner and muse, Alice Toklas. Stein showed that women are individuals who can occupy many different roles.

Gertrude Stein Quotes

“Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.”

“One must dare to be happy.”

“Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense.”

“I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. It’s better to be rich.”

“If you can’t say anything nice about anyone else, come sit next to me.”

“A very important thing is not to make up your mind that you are any one thing.”

“It is funny that men who are supposed to be scientific cannot get themselves to realise the basic principle of physics, that action and reaction are equal and opposite, that when you persecute people you always rouse them to be strong and stronger.”

Sources: The New York Times | | JWA | Poetry Foundation