Yesterday, Brigitte Nowakof Cambridge, Ontario, Canada, wrote, “Is there any chance that you might reprint the original letter sent to twenty friends that you mentioned in your book Love Letters to Art?”
Thanks, Brigitte. It was written on a vintage Spanish computer in an Internet café in Galaroza in the Sierra de Aracena, Huelva, Spain. There was no Esoterica, no clickback to follow, and no expectations. The first name on the list was Carolyn Millard. She’s still accepting them. “A Chance of Success” was sent on July 22, 1999.
Over the last while I’ve been re-reading The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas by Gertrude Stein. It’s a good read–a name-dropping eternal Paris dinner party from the turn of the century to the twenties. The Cubists are there, art dealers, all kinds of celebrities.
In 1903 Gertrude Stein commissioned Picasso to paint her portrait. It was during the time when he was still trying to paint in a relatively realistic manner. Gertrude attended no less than 90 sittings. Every afternoon for three months she trotted forth with her little dog and took her position. On what was to be the last sitting, Picasso told her not to come. He scraped away everything he had done on her face and painted from memory. Thus the painting was finished.
Everyone who saw the work didn’t think it looked like Miss Stein. Contemporary photos of her bear little or no resemblance to it. Picasso admitted that it didn’t look like her, “but,” he said, “she will begin to look like it.” About this time Sargent and Whistler were doing portraits of quality, elegance — and with a likeness – -in less than a dozen sittings. One might conclude that Picasso didn’t know what he was doing.
There’s a lesson in all of this. Shortly after the Stein portrait Picasso co-invented Cubism. The rest is history. The Cubist style did not require likeness. It required something else. Something that Picasso had. Picasso’s lesson was to follow a direction that gave him a chance of success.
PS: “Titian, Rembrandt and Goya were the great painters. I am only a public clown.” (Pablo Picasso)
Esoterica: That’s it. What was my motivation? I felt the artists I knew needed straight talk, with realistic and practical information on the real motivation behind the making of art — in a form that was free of “artspeak” and jargon. I still believe this. Being habitually curious about my own art activity and the creativity of others, I felt I was up to the job. I was certainly encouraged by the increasingly mind-bending number of artist friends who find value in some of my ideas. It’s been a great trip. Thanks for the fun. Happy New Year!
Picasso got her right
by Mark Day, Colorado Springs, CO, USA
I’ll have to say, though, that I disagree with your conclusion regarding Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein. Picasso had already amply proven his ability to capture a ‘likeness’ while still in his teens… and in Barcelona as shown through other students and teachers who were in awe of his classical talent. Later, in Paris, Picasso wrestled with painting something new, something never seen before. Like Georgia O’Keeffe, he was of the school of “if someone else can do it, it is not worth doing.” I feel the Stein portrait does depict her overbearing character as described by her contemporaries and later by John Steinbeck.
Applause for Picasso
by Donna Pierce-Clark, Springfield, OH, USA
I believe that Picasso captured Gertrude Stein’s persona. I see many likenesses: one eye larger than the other, the crook of the mouth, her hair, the shape of her head. When I look at his painting of her, I “feel” her; I do not “see” a likeness as much as I see the person of Gertrude Stein. My applause goes to Picasso. Probably one of the nicest things I have seen him do. I never liked the cubist period, but that’s just me.
Memories of good times
by Ellen McCord, Grass Valley, CA, USA
The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas is one of my favorite books. Aside from Ms. Stein’s clever use of Alice to talk about herself and name drop, it captures a time I would have loved to live among Parisians. I’ve often wondered what happened to the needlepoint pieces Alice did with Picasso’s drawings. When I was living in the Virgin Islands, I worked for an artist with formal training who could not find models among the modest islanders. We struck up a deal and I modeled for her in exchange for time using her wind surfboard. It was a great trade. She struggled with her drawings of me and called me her “Gertrude Stein.” When she finally got one she liked, she gifted me with it.
A good likeness
by Nancy Bea Miller, Philadelphia, PA, USA
I enjoyed looking at the Picasso portrait of Miss Stein alongside the contemporary photos of her. I surely cannot be the only one who thinks the portrait is indeed a good likeness? Picasso caught the shape of the hairline, the intensity of the deep set eyes, the form of the nose and even the slightly quirked set of the mouth. Perhaps it was the overall pose (somewhat grim, hunched and downward-gazing) that was uncharacteristic and gave Miss Stein’s contemporaries pause. Of course, too, by now we are used to seeing the flat, abstracted, cubist style. It must have been quite a shock… like an incomprehensible throwback to Giotto… for eyes more accustomed to the work of Bougereau, Zoffanyand Sargent.
An ugly job
by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA
Portrait painters are in the business of pleasing the client and for Sargent this ability came easily. For non-conformists like Whistler and Picasso, this line of work just was not a good fit. Picasso, like Whistler, often used clever words to elevate his art. Whistler is one of the first to eloquently state his goals, theories and ideas about painting in order to persuade a doubting public. This was a very modern idea. Modern artists were soon to be very literary as lampooned by the critic Thomas Wolf in his book The Painted Word. For Wolf, modern painting was like the “Emperor’s new clothes” and, without the words of explanation, amounted to very little.
That criticism applies to Picasso. He was a bit of a “clown,” like he says, but a fantastically talented clown who could draw like Rembrandt as a teenager. He could have gone any direction with his art. He was an astute businessman who wanted to be rich and famous and Cubism filled the bill very nicely for him. Personally, I feel it is a shame he didn’t go in another direction. The Gertrude Stein portrait is an ugly job and without that quote about her “growing to look like the portrait later on” and her famous name in modern art, that painting would be sitting in the back of a museum somewhere.
Impact of Zen on art
by Martina Zahles Pile, Fitts Village, Barbados
Mme Marie-Therese Coullery, curator of the Ariana Museum in Geneva and instructor at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts of Geneva, told us how Zen impacted on art concepts. She told us about a very famous Chinese painter who was known for his art and virtuosity. The painter’s reputation reached the Emperor’s ears who then decided to commission him the painting of a rooster. The painter thanked him and told him to come back in 6 months’ time. Six months later the Emperor came back to collect his painting but was told that his painting wasn’t finished yet and to come back in another 6 months. When he came back, he was told that an additional 3 months would be needed. When the Emperor finally returned and inquired about his painting, the painter replied that the painting was indeed ready. The Artist then grabbed a sheet of paper, an ink pad, a couple of his favorite brushes, and painted with a few strokes a magnificent rooster. This brings us back to Pablo Picasso. Surely there was something very Zen about Picasso’s production of the Stein portrait.
Not a good example
by Claudia Roulier, Idledale, CO, USA
I don’t know if Picasso was a good example. I’ve seen his early work and his portrait drawings are beautiful and very realistic. Cubism wasn’t because he couldn’t paint, but rather a way to include the viewer and make two-dimensional work into three-dimensional. It was so the viewer could stand in one place and see all sides of an object from one viewing point. That was the time of reinventing art in one movement or another. Your point is well taken but the example was not.
No problem with trees
by Brigitte Nowak, Toronto, ON, Canada
In my portraits, I, too, struggle with the balancing act of capturing a physical likeness with trying to capture the essence of the person. At least when one is painting trees, they don’t argue about whether a branch is too long or a leaf is the right colour! And I find it hard to keep the portrait fluid and “alive.” I don’t anticipate founding a new art movement to compensate for my shortcomings, but have occasionally chosen the easy way out, and depicted the person from the rear.
by Joseph Yama
Looking carefully, I may find that Picasso painted his portrait when he was supposed to do otherwise. That same thing happened to Da Vinci in La Giaconda (Mona Lisa) where some suspect it was Da Vinci’s self-portrait. In the same way Rembrandt’s face and his family fill in many of his paintings. The same happened to Édouard Manet — in many of his paintings he painted his own portrait more times than most want to approve.
A slice of the soul
by Patty Cucman, Calgary, AB, Canada
There has been discussion about how that portrait came to be; did he ask, did she ask? No matter. Let us just celebrate that it happened. I have wondered how it could have possibly taken 90 sittings. But he was not painting her portrait, he was painting her soul, her face being the window to that essence of who she was. She is reported to have said, “I was and still am satisfied with my portrait; for me it is I, and it is the only reproduction of me which is always I, for me.” Heady praise. It is also reported that Picasso made her a gift of the portrait as it was a time when “the difference between a gift and a sale was negligible.” It was a monumental gift.
A few years later, when Stein began to write portraits, anyone could be sliced through anywhere and it would be the same – being without time, the life at the core, the core that needs no time as it never changes. It is why, with the exception of The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas, the best way to read Stein is to read aloud a few stanzas or sentences (sometimes pages) and snap the book shut with a satisfied “HA!” and know you have seen the sense of it all as fleeting as it may have been. A piece of soul on a canvas or paper does the same. The artist is a brave soul to bare it for all to see.
Renewed need to learn
by Lorraine Khachatourians, Saskatoon, SK, Canada
Your letter on the Stein portrait reinforces for me what I plan to do this year – read more about the lives of artists. With no background or foundation in the arts, I have reached the point where I want and need to learn about those who came before. I have spent time over the past seven years taking workshops, visiting galleries, and working away at learning how to paint (so much to learn, so little time). Now I need to expand my knowledge even more. I want to know about the thinking and creative processes, about the life situations, about the history of the times.
Enjoy the past comments below for My first letter…
acrylic painting, 33 x 44 inches
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Norman Ridenour of Prague, Czech Republic, who wrote, “Most artists never make the perceptual jump because they never learn that it is all about ‘seeing,’ they are tied to craft and technique or they are scared. Where would Goya have been if he had stayed a nice court painter? When I go to The Prado, it is not the portraits of Goya I run to. It is Witches Sabbath, Saturn Eating his Children, etc. Thank the world for Public Clowns.”
And also Vita of Sutton, QC, Canada who wrote, “It pays to be a clown…”
And also Luann Udell who wrote, “Picasso wasn’t a landscape painter, a realist, or (apparently) truly a portrait painter; he was painting a vision, in a style that was important to him.”
And also Rose Manson who wrote, “Not all portraits are representational — thank goodness.
And also Guillermo Ruizlimon of San Luis Potosi, Mexico who wrote, “Being a painter means to do some painting.”