Gertrude Stein: Pittsburgh to Paris

May 9, 2012

850 Beech Avenue, Allegheny West.   A two-story house, 5 windows on its front facade, 3 on the second floor, 2 on the first.  A modest house, middle-class, no more.

I remember this, of course, from The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (“Gertrude Stein was born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania…  She used to say if she had been really born in California as I wanted her to have been she would never have had the pleasure of seeing the various French officials try to write , Allegheny, Pennsylvania”).

Seeing the house now – Allegheny West is now part of Pittsburgh – I was reminded of the “Steins Collect” show I had just seen at the Met.  The show is as much about Leo and Michael as about Gertrude: all three of them bought pictures, all three had some idea of what they wanted, but it was always a bit of a struggle, a wobbly path between what they could afford and what the artists were capable of producing.   Matisse’s La Femme au Chapeau is here, a picture mocked and jeered at when it was first exhibited, the first important painting bought by Leo and Gertrude.  (They tried to bargain it down to 400 francs from the asking price of 500, but didn’t succeed.)  All the different Picasso styles are also here: the blue period, the rose period, the African-mask period, Cubism, as well as the earliest works, which didn’t look like “Picassos” at all.  The artists didn’t always know what they were doing or where they were headed; neither did the Steins.

A bit later, when Matisse and Picasso became famous, Leo and Michael and Gertrude would no longer be able to buy the paintings.  It’s a little sad, not overly so, though.   This is as it should be:  a story about beginnings, about the uncertainty of things, told when that uncertainty had vanished.

About wcd2

Professor of English and American Studies
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