My first letter


Dear Artist,

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.

Dear Carolyn,

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.

Best regards,


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


“Ram’s Head White Hollyhock and Little Hills”
oil painting
by Georgia O’Keeffe (1935)

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


“Hampton Poppies”
watercolour painting
by Donna Pierce-Clark

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


Sally’s drawing, mixed media

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


“Yellow rose”
oil painting, 12 x 16 inches
by Nancy Bea Miller

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


“Trip With Tom #2”
pastel painting, 8 x 10 inches
by Paul deMarrais

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


“Run rabbit run”
mixed media work
by Claudia Roulier

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


“Canoe at Dusk”
Egg tempera, 12 x 15 inches
by Brigitte Nowak

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.





Picasso self-portrait?
by Joseph Yama


Photograph of Gertrude Stein with portrait

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


“Juicy Bloom”
oil painting, 10 x 10 inches
by Lorraine Khachatourians

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.



Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for My first letter



From: Liz — Dec 29, 2007

I like your idea of confabulation added to our visual perception of life as we paint. Just a realistic rendition can be boring, but add the magic of imagination and loosen up. I resolve to go beyond painting what I see before me and maybe get into a stream of consciousness – take a wrong turn and just keep going to quote the bard Bruce. As I sit with my mother who is sliding into dementia I find I’m suggesting ideas, verbally sketching landscapes, evoking moods and times – trying with my words to jog her memory and pull a series of thoughts from her. Talk about stream of consciousness! It’s amazing the way the human brain works, even as it slows down. I find I’m going way back to her schooldays in Ballarat, speaking of the bush poets. Books have become too complex for her to follow, but poetry can evoke emotions and spark ideas briefly, connecting to other ideas. Since we’ve both read Robert Hughes and Tim Winton it’s easier to bring in scenes and ideas from their books. This is how my art should become, simple and allusive, not so literal. Realism should be the springboard to something else, to take what you know and recognize and somehow transpose it into wild flights of imagination? I know I should spend more time calling art galleries and less time lost in my painting, but still….

From: Eleanor Lipkins-Steffen — Jan 01, 2008

As my life continues with each year and season so does my artistic creativity. Today, at age 70, it feels like a snowball getting larger and larger and stronger and more fun as well as admired but with the knowledge that one day it will melt into memories. I am happy with that and feel blessed for my artist muscles.

From: Gail Harper — Jan 01, 2008

Your letters are truly nurturing to kindred spirits far and wide. So glad you listened to your inner voice and proceeded to follow your inclination in 1999… continued HAPPY TRAILS to you Robert and THANK YOU.

From: Lorrie Williamson — Jan 01, 2008

January 1, 2008, brings a feeling of renewal and it is hard to explain why, other than I started this day reading your letter, which is not how my day normally begins. Your letters always set the mood for the need and desire to paint which I will be doing very soon. First I want to say “Thank You” for giving so much of yourself to us, and especially for your new book, “Love Letters to Art.” I received mine a couple of days ago, and I truly love it. With that I close by saying that you are the one: the counselor, the teacher, and the artist, who keeps the inspiration alive to continue my artistic endeavors. Happy New Year to you, Robert, and all who make your efforts possible.

From: Lyn Cherry — Jan 01, 2008

Robert, your letters are still “a pane in the window to the world” and I have grown as a person, if not as an artist, by reading them over the last few years. Thank you for sharing your life and your thoughts with us.

From: Paula Solimene — Jan 01, 2008

Dear Robert, I think that it is so absolutely awesome that in less than 10 years you have been so instrumental in connecting the art community world wide. You should just give yourself a well deserved pat on the back from all of us who so appreciate your taking the time to share your experience and wisdom with us.

From: Rick Rotante — Jan 03, 2008

Whether you appreciate him, revile him, think him a genius or a “public clown,” Picasso achieved what every artist wants, riches, fame, and the freedom to paint what you want. I personally believe that Picasso had artistic talent, though not for the realistic even though some of his early “realistic” pieces are superb. If Picasso had anything he had the gift of “Innovation”. He had the ability, showmanship, to move art in a new direction with verve and enthusiasm. He also moved in the right circles and had influential friends and Art was in the public eye. The Nuevo riche wanted art and any artist with a flare had their attention. Picasso fit the bill to a “T”. Americans (European immigrants) wanted their own art, American art and the times were right. There was new money and upper crust of the day at that time wanted the latest, most expensive things money could buy. Picasso was the P.T. Barnum of the art world and everyone wanted to attach themselves to him. They may not have understood his work, but they wanted to own it. It’s the theory I read that “…exposure and attention makes a work famous -the more you talk about it, the more attention it gets, the more validity it achieves.” (Andy Warhol) Picasso really hit his stride with cubism (though there were other artists at that time experimenting with the same thing. He is not the sole inventor of this style). Here he had complete freedom to do what he wanted. From there on he was a self-made man and could do as he pleased. I believe this freedom made Picasso a better artist and allowed him to force art into areas that few have seen before or since. Picasso always wanted to unlearn all he knew about technique and method and just paint his feelings much like a child. That might just explain the style in which he lived. Everything he touched he would turn into art. Bicycle parts. His dinner. He would press the bones of the fish he just ate into clay and create a design for plates. This may seem mundane or foolish, but the result, in his hands, was innovative and artistic. Everything was potentially art material for him. Herein may lay his true genius. He made us re-think what art was. Viva Picasso.

From: Jan Verhulst — Jan 04, 2008

I only can think of one reason why Picasso needed 90 sittings to paint Gertrude Stein: he liked her company.

From: Meg Koziar — Jan 04, 2008

Joseph Yama wrote about Picasso, and other artists who put their own likenesses into portraits of others. I’ve noticed that this is a common phenomenon. In a portrait class, with all using the same model, I can tell who has painted which one because the portrait has some of their own characteristics. For example, I have a short chin, so my mouth is exactly half-way between my nose and tip of my chin, and I have a tendency to paint the model that way.

From: Jill Paris Rody — Jan 04, 2008

To put a bit of ourselves into a portrait is without a doubt the easiest thing to do: we see ourselves in the mirror every day, and it’s this face we know the best. Picasso’s portrait of Ms. Stein may have taken 90 sittings to get his own facial vision out of his mind. Who knows that he might have become a little more like her, with her face looking back at him for so long!!

From: M. A. Clayton — Jan 04, 2008

Reading your letters has been very helpful to me as I find that working alone in my studio does not give me the opportunity to develop new ideas and ways of looking at things that would come through interaction with others who are going on the same journey. What you are sharing with us stimulates our creative juices. Thank you so much and know that your efforts are greatly appreciated.

From: Marie Pinschmidt — Jan 04, 2008

After enjoying your letters for a year, I feel compelled to thank you for the pleasure you bring others through this site. We are blessed that you are a writer as well as painter. For me, painting has made me a better writer and writing has improved my painting and made the process more rewarding. Writing about the life of an artist has forced me to reasses the many rules of painting learned long ago. One art form feeds off another. I wish you continued success in the new year.

From: Sarah Wood — Jan 05, 2008

Your original letter referring to Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein was fascinating. 6 years ago my husband and I visited the Picasso Portrait exhibit at MOMA, and came away with a strong impression of the quite savage dislike Picasso had towards almost all of the women he painted. You could observe the more gentle representation of his lovers in the first blush of his love for them, followed by the increasingly vicious renderings as his “love” faded. The meanness of spirit towards these women was consistent. Interestingly, his self-portrait was flattering and rather conventional. We left with awe at his artistic talent, but uncomfortable with the rather nasty personality that emerged from the entire collection.

From: Sheila Minifie — Jan 07, 2008

I’d like to add my very great thanks to you for the emails that you send. And too, it’s always a pleasant slight shock – it might sound silly – when it starts with my name – even though I know it is an automatic email device – it still feels personal. I must be very sad! :)

From: Bob Ragland — Jan 14, 2008

Right on ! Rick Rotante! Well said. Picasso knew what he was doing and he did it very well. I just saw over three hundred works by the artist in a Las Vegas gallery. I dig Picasso’s work ethic. The man was a fount of art making. My art life has been steady because of my studies on Picasso. VIVA PICASSO! indeed.

From: Monty Ousley Weddell — Jan 24, 2008

Picasso! Another “driven” artist, who in many contemporary circles, would be considered an “obsessive” personality. Like many artists, including myself, I have a compulsion to create works, however, it is now expensive. I like 4′ X 6′ canvases, and where do I store them? I opened Thee Art Gallery on the Internet with a web site- – with some patronage and following. My sales would never compare with the voluminous sales productions of Picasso, but it does set a goal to aim for. Enjoy artists articles – keep up the good work. Monty Ousley Weddell, TX







Fire Within

acrylic painting, 33 x 44 inches
by Terry Greenhough, Salmon Arm, BC, Canada


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.”




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