Charmed Circle: Gertrude Stein and Company

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9780380002573: Charmed Circle: Gertrude Stein and Company

Views Gertrude Stein's life, close relationship with Alice B. Toklas, and the friends and acquaintances who visited at the house at 27, rue de Fleurus

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About the Author:

James R. Mellow was the author of two other highly acclaimed biographies, Nathaniel Hawthorne and His Times, which won the American Book Award for biography in 1983, and Invented Lives: F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, as well as Walker Evans, an unfinished biography that was published posthumously. A regular reviewer for The New York Times, he died in 1997.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Charmed Circle
BOOK I27, rue de Fleurus"You must understand that we lived in an atmosphere of euphoria, youth and enthusiasm that can hardly be imagined today."--D.-H. KAHNWEILER, My Galleries and PaintersCHAPTER ONEThe Atmosphere of PropagandaIA visitor to the studio at 27, rue de Fleurus in the early years of the twentieth century might well have believed he had been admitted to an entirely new form of institution--a ministry of propaganda for modern art. His knock upon the large double door that was secured by the only Yale lock in Paris's sixth arrondissement would have brought his hostess, a stout, impressive woman in her thirties, a woman with an imperturbable expression, a pair of frankly curious brown eyes, and a remarkable air of self-possession. Her customary response, if the visitor was not a familiar member of her circle of friends and acquaintances, would be a lax "De la part de qui venez-vous?" delivered in a contralto voice, the French tinged with a refined American accent.Because anyone was admitted to the weekly at homes at the rue de Fleurus, the question was a mere formality. As likely as not, however, the guest might be forced to stammer, "But by yours, Madame." For Gertrude Stein, the hostess of these Saturday evenings, which combined excited talk with an extraordinary glimpse of the most outrageous modern paintings, was frequently in the habit of meeting interesting people, inviting them to her home--and promptly forgetting that she had.The Yale lock was not for security. Although the whitewashed walls of the studio room were lined with paintings from eye level to the high ceiling--lined, tier upon tier, with stunning Cézanne oils and watercolors, with the brilliant smears of Matisse's Fauve landscapes, with the somber, brooding nudes and acrobats of Picasso's Blue and Rose Period paintings--the pictures had not acquired the astronomical values they were to have in later years. The Yale lock was a concession to Gertrude Stein's ingrained American sense of convenience. She found French keys a nuisance--too large and bothersome. The small key to her Yale lock could be dropped conveniently into her purse when she left the atelier for her usual afternoon walks. Or, it could be slipped into her pocket when she stepped out of the pavillon--the adjacent two-story apartment where she lived with her brother Leo--to open the studio doors for their arriving Saturday-evening guests.The paintings were the principal attraction of the Steins' at homes. In the decade before World War I, few places in Paris could provide a similar glimpse of such modern audacities. For their services in exposing modern art to a continuous stream of international visitors--eager young German students, visiting Swedes and Hungarians, wealthy American tourists--the Steins could easily have claimed the distinction of having instituted the first museum of modern art. Within a few years of their arrival in the French capital, they had put together an astounding collection of everything the tradition-bound Parisian art world considered outrageous and revolutionary--and, more often than not, hoaxes of the most deliberate kind. Among the French it was considered sport to visit the Steins at least once, just to see the incredible trash the two gullible Americans had hung on their walls.Moreover, the Steins themselves were an attraction. Open-minded, hospitable, they were both inveterate and enthusiastic talkers. Leo Stein discoursed on any subject from Picasso's painting style to the latest theories on diet, bringing to his discussion an amazing fund of odd information and queer observations. Gertrude, in those early years beginning to take herself seriously as a writer, was content to leave the aesthetic discussions to her brother Leo. She nonetheless admitted that argument was the very air she breathed. Among the assembled guests and, usually, at the center of a heated discussion, Leo cut an odd figure. He was taller and thinner than Gertrude, and his sharp profile, his straggly reddish beard and slightly balding head gave him a rabbinical appearance. He was a man of intense and antic gestures; in the middle of a conversation he would suddenly sit down and rest his feet on a bookcase, several inches above the level of his head, explaining that this was necessary for his cranky digestion.Gertrude was formidable in appearance. On Saturday evenings her ample body was usually encased in a loose-fitting hostess gown. She looked monumental; the rounded, firm volumes of her head, her massivebody seemed as if carved from stone. Even those who disliked her were struck by Gertrude's impressive bearing. Seated in one of the high-backed Renaissance chairs in the studio, her legs tucked under her Buddha-like, she gave the impression of an irresistible force disguised as an immovable object.Dressed in brother-and-sister outfits of practical brown corduroy and wearing comfortable but unconventional sandals, the Steins were familiar figures on the streets of Paris and in the city's art galleries. On many occasions, they could be found in the tiny bric-a-brac shop where Mademoiselle Berthe Weill showed young and undiscovered artists, or in the little gallery on the rue Lafitte run by the ex-clown Clovis Sagot. More often they could be seen in another rue Lafitte establishment, picking their way through the disorderly stacks of canvases in the gallery run by the wily and unctuous Ambroise Vollard. Vollard, it was rumored, kept his better things hidden away in back rooms, waiting for prices to rise--among them a superb cache of Cézanne paintings he had been shrewd enough to acquire before the artist died. If one found a painting and took it to him to ask the price, the dealer was apt to put on a look of surprise, then baldly state that he had sold that picture just last month but had been unable to find it--meanwhile hurrying the canvas out of sight.But Vollard sold regularly to the Steins, whom he professed to like. The Steins, he maintained, were less disposed to haggle over the price of a picture than were his richer clients. And the Steins paid promptly. As Vollard once confided to Leo, the rich paid only when they happened to think about it; their thoughts mostly ran to other matters. Among the patrons of the Parisian cafés, the Steins were considered to be wealthy American eccentrics. Leo, in fact, was referred to as an American Maecenas. But boulevard appraisals carried little weight with Vollard. He made it his business to know the precise financial situations of his customers. He had learned that the Steins' modest but comfortable income from San Francisco properties did not place them in the same category as his millionaire clients, such as the H. O. Have-meyers and Charles Loeser, who also bought Cézannes. But Vollard maintained that he liked dealing with Leo and his sister. They were the only clients, he said, who bought pictures "not because they were rich, but despite the fact that they weren't."Gertrude and Leo Stein were not the only members of the family addicted to modern art. Their elder brother Michael and his wife, Sarah, were avid collectors, too. The Michael Steins maintained an apartment on the nearby rue Madame, having moved there from San Francisco with their young son Allan shortly after Leo and Gertrude had settled in Paris in 1903. Its walls were also studded with modern paintings, most of them handsome early works by Matisse. Michael Stein--a paunchy, dapper man with fastidiously trimmed mustache andbeard--was the conservative, business-minded member of the family. With hard work and the shrewd sale of his father's railroad interests, Michael had turned the family holdings to sufficient account to endow each member with a comfortable income. It was Michael who kept a watchful eye on Gertrude and Leo's joint finances, cautioning them about their overdrawn accounts, advising fiscal responsibility. But it was Michael who advanced the necessary sums when Leo and Gertrude found themselves lacking the funds to buy a particularly tempting pair of Gauguins. His wife, Sarah--Sally to her friends--was a sweet, motherly-looking woman. An aspiring artist, she was one of the first and most dedicated students in the painting classes that Matisse conducted early in his career.Disgruntled conservative artists whose works never entered the Stein collections referred to the family as the "Stein Corporation," as if it were an aesthetic cartel. Among such artists there was speculation as to whether the Steins bought their peculiar paintings because they liked them or whether they liked them because they had bought them. So familiar was the association of the Steins with everything radical in Parisian art that French art critics--horrified by the so-called infantile smears of Matisse's paintings and casting about for explanations-claimed that such work was clearly intended only for gullible and benighted Americans. The French, quite obviously, were not to be taken in by the crude hoaxes hanging on the walls of an upstart American salon. 
 
The marvel was that the studio room at 27, rue de Fleurus--large by ordinary domestic standards but small for such a public function--should have held so many paintings, so many people. The Steins had set about collecting so industriously that the three available walls of the studio--the fourth was cut by the double door and oddly shaped windows that let in the northern light--were crammed with pictures hung row above row. In the dim and fluttering gaslight, only the lower ranges of art were clearly visible. Visitors had to shade their eyes from the glare of the low-hanging fixtures in order to pierce the gloom in which many of the pictures hung tantalizingly above.But, even at the lower levels, there was enough to take in. Closely packed along one wall were a row of Cézanne watercolors, their exacting brushstrokes sketching out woodland glades and the rising fronts of austere mountains. Above them the brilliant fireworks of Matisse's Fauve pictures jostled Picasso's sober green-and-tan Spanish landscapes --pictures that carried in them the first hints of Cubist rectitude. A huge Picasso of a nude youth leading a horse, a painting from the artist's Rose Period, crowned the space above a cumbersome Henri IVbuffet. Across the room the Picasso's scale was more than matched by Matisse's pastorale Joy of Life, a landscape idyll of frenziedly dancing figures and entwined nudes. On another wall a nude by Felix Vallotton --an attempt by a lesser man to recapture the shock of Manet's famous Olympia--sprawled out clinically on a crisp white sheet. Her quixotic expression and relaxed arm seemed to call attention to the small, precious Maurice Denis of a nursing mother and child hanging directly below it.The pictures seemed like a seraglio--viewed in the modern manner. Nudes proliferated everywhere: in the awkward nakedness of Cézanne's Bathers, in the amiable roughhousing of Renoir's plump and gamboling females, in a Bonnard girl lying in suggestive exhaustion on a rumpled bed. There was Picasso's nude nymphet, wise beyond her years, holding a basket of flowers. It was this frankness of subject matter, this unembarrassed display of the Steins' sensual tastes, as much as the audacity of the painting styles that produced the expected shock for visitors who had come to be astounded.The room was a jumble of furniture as well, crowding guests into a sense of intimacy. A long, sturdy Florentine table surrounded by Renaissance chairs was drawn close to the cast-iron stove at the back of the room. There were sideboards and buffets and bulky chests and little tables settled along walls and in corners. Each supported its full weight of accumulated objects: bronze Buddhas and fragments of bas-reliefs, a plaster head by Picasso, a coy modern Venus by Elie Nadelman, Matisse's early bronze The Slave. There were cheap porcelain figurines, costly Renaissance plates, tiny alabaster urns with alabaster doves balancing at the rims--objects Gertrude bought when she visited curio shops. Leaning against the walls were large portfolios of Japanese prints and Picasso drawings.In time, the art burst out of the confines of this public room and was given refuge in the adjacent pavilion. There, Picasso and Matisse drawings were tacked to the double doors that led to the cramped dining room. In the dining room itself there were no pictures. The walls were lined with Gertrude and Leo's collection of books: college texts, books on psychology, philosophy, and history (Leo's amorphous territory); assorted volumes of English and American writers--cheap and expensive editions alike of Shakespeare, Trollope, and the English poets (Gertrude's special interest). But there were other spaces in the pavilion that could accommodate the overflow of their expanding art collection. Paintings that could not sustain their impact amid the exacting standards of the studio were transferred to Leo's small ground-floor study, which came to be known as the salon des refusés. Or they were lodged in the second-floor bedrooms. In one of these, Gertrude hung on the ceiling above her bed the testimonial of her enduring friendship with Picasso, the painter's little Homage to Gertrude--a picture atonce intimate and extravagant in its pleasures, the canvas crowded with big-breasted angels accompanying a woman modestly bearing a plate of fruit.IIIf there had been such a thing as an international conspiracy to promote modern art in the early years of this century, 27, rue de Fleurus would have been close to the heart of it. "The place was charged with the atmosphere of propaganda," Leo remembered. The Steins, however, did not have sole custody of the modern movement. Many of the guests who crowded their Saturday evenings had come to the new art on their own. But the Steins had so placed themselves at the center of the network of journalists, publicists, advocates, and collectors who were spreading the gospel of modernism that, sooner or later, anyone interested in modern art would find his way to the rue de Fleurus. There he could assure himself of the continuing vitality of Matisse's and Picasso's stylistic ventures, and catch up with the latest cultural gossip.Among the guests at 27, rue de Fleurus, there was an improbable mixture of types and nationalities: impoverished art students and wealthy collectors, ardent Swedish followers of the moderne, gregarious Americans looking for fun, irritating Germans who wanted to be shown things that had been placed out of reach. It did not escape Gertrude's attention that there was an unusually constant flow of Hungarians. She accounted for it as best she could. "It happened," she said, "that some hungarian had once been brought and the word had spread from him throughout all Hungary, any village where there was a young man who had ambitions heard of 27 rue de Fleurus and then he lived but to get there and a great many did get there ... , all sizes and shapes, all degrees of wealth and poverty, some very charming, some simply rough and every now and then a very beautiful young peasant."Inevitably, the tourists came because it was the thing to do when one was in Paris. A few went away converted, spreading the gospel of modernism among the heathen, sending fresh troops for later visits. Others came to scoff at the pictures, barely able to conceal their laughter before the doors closed behind them. Some came purposely to bait the artists. For on Saturday evenings, the perpetrators of thes...

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James R. Mellow
Published by Avon Books (1982)
ISBN 10: 0380002574 ISBN 13: 9780380002573
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