A painting sits in a heavy golden frame in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it pictures a woman draped in dark clothes and sitting against a sketchy background, her piercing yet ambiguous gaze seeming to look past the audience. Made by Pablo Picasso, ‘Portrait of Gertrude Stein’ makes its presence known just as its subject does. This unknown woman sits in this painting, her presence commanding, severe, and unadulterated. It’s definitely not one of the famed artist’s most well-known paintings, not having yet fully fledged into the cubist style he would later so wholly immerse himself in. It seems a simple painting, no arresting colours, no perplexing shapes, yet it has a certain gravity that makes it strangely irrefutable in its importance.
Gertrude Stein, of whom the painting is made, was an American writer, born into a wealthy and cultured family, and had eventually found herself in Paris at a time where it was the epicentre of the art world; prominent authors and painters seemed to be in abundance there. TS Eliot and Ernest Hemingway could be found at night in the lamplit bars, as Henri Matisse and Salvador Dali would roam the cobblestone streets. Stein, along with her brothers, was very much at the centre of this; they were devout collectors of modernist art and would hold weekly informal dinners that attracted many of these individuals. Among these attendees was Pablo Picasso; he was still unknown when he met Stein, but she quickly took a liking to him and his Avante-Garde vision.
More often than not there were clashes of both their unapologetic and bold personalities, but this only seemed to fuel their friendship and mutual appreciation. It seemed inevitable that Picasso would come to paint Stein. Being such an opinionated woman as she was, she would only trust him in such a task. It is said that she would come to sit a nearly unimaginable 90 times for him. Picasso’s then-girlfriend would recite poetry and the two would bicker over the latest novel, the pose she would have to hold, or a dish from one of her latest dinners. We don’t know for sure all that would happen in these long hours, whether there were heavy lulls in the conversation where all you could hear was the striking of a clock or the occasional creaking of Picasso’s easel, or where it was that Stein would set her heavy gaze.
After months of this, Picasso, overcome with frustration and dissatisfaction, would scrape away at what had been done of her face, declaring he could no longer see her face when he looked at her. So he left the painting unfinished, leaving it for a vacation in Spain. There, he would begin to study more in-depth ancient Iberian artwork, especially the sculptures, which he would become fascinated with. It would be ironic, then, that after all the time studying Stein during these sessions, he would not actually complete the painting with her in front of him. Instead, he implemented the mask-like features and abstraction he had found in much of the ancient, pre-classical artwork.
In the portrait, Stein sits forward, body forming a pyramid and settling much of the weight at the bottom of the canvas. The paint is layered thick around her hands — evidence of Picasso’s struggle and effort. The cutting, seemingly senseless angles of her face, the disjunction between her features paint an intimidating and grave figure. The eyes look like they’re behind the face, peering, not lifelessly nor apathetically, but intensely through a mask. She is, as The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones puts it “neither old nor young, sexual nor submissive – her stone face makes her something new on Earth. She is in command of her identity.”
So many would look at this painting and claim no resemblance, but Picasso was assured in his work. He said “Everybody thinks she is not at all like her portrait. But nevermind, in the end, she will manage to look just like it.” Picasso painted a Gertrude Stein that was separate from the splendour that other artists may have added. There’s something primal and rudimentary about her in this painting, and within that, something more authentic. It calls into question the purpose and function of a portrait. Since the rise of the photograph, there was no longer a need for such a strict emulation of reality; now, artists wanted to capture something beyond what they could simply see. In abstraction, Picasso and many others found a truth that perhaps cannot otherwise be found. Maybe the point of this portrait was not to capture how she looked but how she seemed.
It is a portrait of her presence, a representation of a life independent from the oversimplification of its physical form. Stein said this of the painting: “for me it is I, and it is the only reproduction of me which is always I.” This artwork may leave us blindsided in refusing to give us what paintings usually do. The painting shows us not only how little we know and what we cannot see, but also what a painting can communicate — something pure and unrefined, a presence that words alone cannot describe.