Gertrude Stein: A Modern Woman

Gertrude Stein was born on February 3rd, 1874 in Allegheny, Pennsylvania. Born to Daniel and Amelia Stein, Gertrude was the youngest member among her five siblings. The Stein family lived in Vienna and Paris over the course of a year, but returned to America in 1878 where they moved to Oakland, California. It was here that Gertrude began to attend school at the First Hebrew Congregation of Oakland Sabbath school. For four years the family lived in California until her mother and fathers unfortunate death in 1888. After her parents death her oldest brother Micael took over the family business and sent Gertrude and her sister Bertha to Baltimore, where they lived with their uncle David Bachrach.

Gertrude Stein, pictured here in 1935, wrote another children's book titled To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays.

Photo: Waldina

During 1893 to 1897 Gertrude Stein received an education at Radcliffe College where she studied psychology under William James. Stein focused on experiments surrounding the phenomenon of normal motor automatism. After practicing these experiments William James was impressed with Stein’s dedication and intelligence in her field of study and encouraged her to pursue a career in medicine. This encouragement helped Gertrude make the decision to enroll in John Hopkins School of Medicine in 1897. Her interest in medicine was was fleeting and during her fourth year of medical school she failed a very important course, instead of retaking the course Stein left.

Many have said that medical school was the place where Gertrude Stein had a sexual awakening.  Stein became infatuated with a woman named Mary Bookstaver, but Bookstaver was already involved with another woman. Stein has openly talked about her time spent at John Hopkins stating that she became depressed while she struggled to find an identity and fit into the lifestyle at John Hopkins. Many of these factors helped Stein decide to leave John Hopkins to pursue an alternative career. In 1902 Stein followed her brother  Leo to Paris where he hoped to pursue a career as an artist.

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Gertrud’s famous Salon in Paris. Photo: Gertrude Blog

Stein and her brother Leo lived together from their arrival in Paris in 1903 to 1914. Their two story apartment was located in Luxembourg Garden in Paris located at 27 rue de Fleurus, which would become the location for her famous salon. Over the years they accumulated many beautiful works of art that would eventually define this historical salon. Some of the famous works to adorn the walls of the salon are Cézanne’s Portrait of Mme Cézanne, Matisse’s Woman with a Hat, and Picasso’s Young Girl with Basket of Flowers. 

For many years the duo featured many now very influential artists in their Salon, but Matisse and Picasso’s work dominated the surrounding walls. In 1914 Leo decided to move to Settignano, Italy and they divided their collection allowing Leo to take some of the work with him to Italy. Leo took sixteen Renoirs, but left all of the Picasso and Matisse paintings for Gertrude.

The Stein Salon also became a very popular place for some of the most famous writers in the 20’s to visit. Popular writers that frequented the salon included Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound and many more. Gertrude and Alice Toklas, Stein’s partner since 1907, hosted many gatherings to these aspiring artists over the years. Saturday evenings became the official night for these artists to gather at the salon. During this time Gertrude also explored her own writing and literary style. In 1911 her first popular novel, Three Lives, was published. This was not Stein’s first novel, but the first one to receive positive reviews and generally was her most popular novel up until this point.

The first novel that Gertrude completed was titled Q.E.D. which is considered one of the first “coming out” stories. The novel focused on the romantic interests that Stein had with various women while attending John Hopkins. A year later Stein began to write her second novel Fernhurst, about an affair between three people. While working on these pieces Gertrude had another side project titled The Making of Americans. Biographers have said that Gertrude started this novel as early as 1902 and continued working on it until 1911. The first publication of the novel was in Camera Work in 1912 and critics were not appealed by this particular piece that Stein wrote. The rest of her manuscript was kept from the public until 1924 when Hemingway and Madox Ford urged her to publish it in the Transatlantic Review. The novel was then published a year later with a company in Paris called Contact Press, the company published a very limited amount of 500 copies. It wasn’t until 1966 that the full unabridged version of the novel was picked up again by Something Else Press.

On July 27th 1946 Gertrude Stein passed away at the age of 72. Stein had been suffering from stomach cancer and was taken in for surgery to combat this cancer. Before her death Stein had assigned Carl Van Vechten to be her literary executer, allowing him to publish all that remained of Stein’s unpublished work. Gertrude Stein is regarded as one of the founders of modernism. Her works throughout her life were loved by many and hated by others. Gertrude Stein was largely regarded as an influential woman to many artists during her time, and this reputation has lived on. Whether you love her work or hate it, she has influenced many famous artists and has become a historical figure over time. Her memory will live on through her work as well as the dedication that she had to her friends at the time.