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Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories

May 12, 2011–Sep 6, 2011

Drawing upon a wealth of rarely seen artistic and archival materials, Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories illuminates Stein's life and pivotal role in art during the twentieth century. Focusing on Stein's life from the end of World War I through World War II, the exhibition explores her evolving public personae, lifestyle, relationships, landmark 1934–35 tour of the United States, and life in France during WWII.

Through a portrayal of Stein's contributions in her writings, patronage, and lifestyle, the exhibition provides an intimate look at Stein's complex relationship to her identity, culture, and history. Seeing Gertrude Stein also explores the ways in which Stein's life and writings have impressed themselves upon the American artistic imagination and inspired generations of writers, artists, musicians, and performers.

about the exhibition

The first major museum exhibition to fully investigate this fascinating visual legacy and life of Stein, Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories is built upon exciting new scholarship by lead guest curator Professor Wanda M. Corn of Stanford University and associate curator Professor Tirza True Latimer of the California College of Arts and is jointly organized with the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. The exhibition is an art-filled biographical exploration of Stein’s identities as a literary pioneer, transatlantic modernist, Jewish-American expatriate, American celebrity, art collector, and muse to artists of several generations. The exhibition also features Alice B. Toklas (1877-1967), Stein’s life-long partner, and explores the aesthetics of dress, home décor, entertainment, and food that the two women created together.

Featuring more than 100 artifacts and art works by artists from across Europe and the United States, Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories includes paintings, sculpture, photography, drawings, and artist’s gifts to Stein, as well as items from her custom-designed wardrobe, manuscripts, books, periodicals, letters, journals, and personal belongings. The galleries also include media presentations to render a more complete picture of this complex icon of the twentieth-century. One loop presents a montage of photographs from throughout her life; another features footage from her operas and ballet; and one examines Stein’s life during the war. An interactive, custom-made iPad app allows visitors the opportunity to explore images, press, and other material from Stein’s lecture tour across America in 1934-35. On another iPad app, visitors can listen to Stein reading from her work while following along with the text.

gallery photos
about gertrude stein

Gertrude Stein (1874–1946), one of the most influential Americans of the twentieth century, is perhaps most famous as a modern writer and the creator of such oft-repeated phrases as “A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.” But Stein’s reach across the arts was extraordinary, extending well beyond literature to include collaborations in opera, ballet, and more, and her influence as a style-maker, art collector, and networker was considerable. Stein was a literary pioneer, transatlantic modernist, Jewish-American expatriate, American celebrity, art collector, and muse to artists of several generations.

Born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania in 1874 and raised in Oakland, California in an upper middle-class Jewish family, Stein left America for France in 1903 at the age of 29. Like James McNeill Whistler and Henry James, her American predecessors, Stein became an expatriate, living in France until her death in 1946. From 1908 onwards, Stein lived openly with Alice B. Toklas.

Stein was a cultural networker, bringing creative people and friends together—such as Picasso, Matisse and Hemingway, but also key members of a cosmopolitan gay and lesbian elite—at legendary salons held in her homes. Her originality as a thinker, along with her interdisciplinary approach to projects in dance, music, and theater continue to inspire artists today. As an inventor of modernist literature, she wrote novels, poems, journal essays, literary and art theory, opera libretti, plays, memoirs, and word portraits.

image gallery
The Five Stories

The wealth of archival and artistic material in this exhibition illuminates Stein through five distinct stories that offer multiple ways of looking at or “seeing” Stein. Notably, these five stories do not repeat what is well known—Stein’s years as a salonière and collector of Picasso and Matisse in the years before World War I—but instead focus on Stein from 1915-46 when she became recognized as a major writer, collected the works of the neoromantics, and formed a new international circle of young friends that she called her “second family.”

Story One, Picturing Gertrude

Images of Stein changed considerably over the decades, from her Gibson Girl “New Woman” look during her student days, to her reinvention as a Bohemian priestess in Paris at the turn of the century, to her matronly look after World War I and her masculine dress in waistcoats after she cut her hair in 1926. As she transformed herself, she became one of the most painted, sculpted and photographed women of the twentieth-century. The first story presents portraits of Stein from her childhood to maturity and includes works by Felix Vallotton, Man Ray, Cecil Beaton, Carl Van Vechten, Jacques Lipchitz, Jo Davidson and others.

Story Two, Domestic Stein

This section delves into the relationship between Gertrude Stein and her lifelong partner Alice B. Toklas and how they fashioned a distinctive lifestyle and domestic life for themselves in Paris and later at their home in the South of France. Together they shaped an eccentric visual aesthetic as a couple through their home décor, food, and dress. This will be the first exhibition to give Toklas a major place in Stein’s life, demonstrating that there was no Gertrude without Alice and no Alice without Gertrude.

Story Three, The Art of Friendship

The wide circle of visual artists Stein and Toklas befriended included not just famous figures, such as Matisse and Picasso, but also, after World War I, a less well-known international set of younger male artists, writers, and composers—most of them gay—who adopted Stein as a figurehead, mentor, mother, patron, and model. While achieving her own fame, Stein had the talent and instincts to champion others such as Carl Van Vechten, Pavel Tchelitchew, Cecil Beaton, and Francis Rose who made major contributions to American and European culture. 

Story Four, Celebrity Stein

Three events gave Stein a popular name and face in the United States: The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas became a best seller; the opera Four Saints in Three Acts was a Broadway sensation; and, in 1934-35, Stein toured her native United States for seven months of public lectures. It was Stein’s first visit in 30 years and Toklas accompanied her. From the moment the women arrived in New York harbor, the American press followed them every step of the way, yielding far more coverage, headlines, and news photographs that Stein had ever elicited abroad. It was a triumphant homecoming and Stein became America’s most famous expatriate. She no longer spoke “as a ghost” from another country as one journalist put it, “but as a person with a voice.”

A subsection of this story investigates Stein’s relationship to both World Wars. During World War I, when she and Toklas were active patriots, distributing Red Cross supplies throughout France; in World War II, their decision to stay in Nazi-occupied France is more controversial, inextricable from her large ego and her ability to suppress her Jewish identity.

Story Five, Legacies

Gertrude Stein’s afterlife far exceeds the realms of art history and literature. She survives in visual work destined for broad audiences, including caricatures, cartoons, and pop art initiatives that embroider her legend and celebrate her famously magnetic personality. The openness with which she lived as a lesbian and the way her work coupled homoeroticism with modernist aesthetics has made her an icon of queer culture, inspiring tributes by contemporary artists. The fifth story probes the deep influence Stein has had on important American artists after her death and includes works by Andy Warhol, Felix Gonzales-Torres, Red Grooms, Glenn Ligon, Deborah Kass and many others.

exhibition catalog

A fully illustrated and scholarly exhibition catalog by Professor Wanda M. Corn and Dr. Tirza True Latimer published by the University of California Press is available, illuminating the less familiar aspects of Gertrude Stein's life. Focusing on portraits in a range of media, photo essays, press clippings, snapshots, clothing, furniture, and other visual artifacts, this pathbreaking study reveals Stein's sophistication in shaping her public image and cultural legacy.


Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories has been jointly organized by The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco and the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC. Major support for the exhibition, publication, and related programs has been received through a grant from the Terra Foundation for American Art. Additional support for the exhibition national tour has been provided by E*TRADE.

Generous support for the exhibition at The Contemporary Jewish Museum has been provided by an anonymous donor; Osterweis Capital Management; Jim Joseph Foundation; the Leavitt Family; Michael and Sue Steinberg; Randee and Joe Seiger; Joyce Linker; Seisel Maibach; and Dorothy R. Saxe. The Koret and Taube Foundations are the lead supporters of the 2010–11 exhibition season at The CJM.

Image Credit

Header image: Horst P. Horst, Gertrude Stein and Horst with artist Carl Erickson (detail), 1946. Gelatin silver print. Courtesy of the Horst P. Horst Estate. Gallery photos: Installation views of Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories, on view May 12–September 6, 2011 at The Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco. Photos by Ian Reeves.