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Gertrude Stein

Gertrude Stein

An art lover in its true sense, Gertrude Stein was an American writer, poet and art collector. Her well known books, The Making of Americans (1925) and The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933) earned her prominence. People who knew her describe her a blend of literary and artistic hues. Stein was born on February 3, 1874 in Allegheny, Pennsylvania. Her parents Daniel and Amelia were immigrants of a German-Jewish descent. Gertrude’s family moved to France when she was 3 but came back to America in 1878 and settled in Oakland, California where Stein spent her childhood. Stein attended Radcliffe College to study psychology under the expert supervision of noted psychologist William James and then went on to John Hopkins medical School for further studies. However, she left both institutions without attaining a formal degree.

In 1903, Stein was compelled to move to France due to differences she encountered with her country on art and ideologies. She took along Alice B. Toklas, her friend who would turn into a lifelong companion. They lived as a couple in France and did not return to America for more than 30 years.

Stein was a keen admirer and supporter of cubism and was amongst the first collectors of cubist paintings and work by other experimental contemporary artists of the time along with her brother Leo. Some of her favorite artists include Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Ezra Pound, Max Jacob and Georges Braque who also became her friends. Her apartment 27 rue de Fleurus soon became a meeting point for her artistic and literary friends. Stein and Leo later turned it into a private art gallery. But Stein’s immense support for Cubism and ahead of its time writing caused the brother sister duo to split in 1913.

Stein published her first book titled Three Lives in 1909. Three Lives was well liked by critics and referred to as a minor masterpiece. Stein’s love of art and specifically modern art was evident in her writing. Tender Buttons (1914), her next published work was a collection of short prose poems. The arrangement of pictures and sentences reflected cubist paintings. Stein wrote a number of other thought provoking books such as How to Write (1931) and Stanzas in Meditation and Other Poems [1929-1933] (1956). It was in 1933 that Stein wrote her most famous work, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933). In this book Stein narrated the feelings of her companion Alice. Some say it is an autobiography of Stein herself. In 1934, Virgil Thomson made Stein’s Four Saints in Three Acts into an opera. Her second Opera The Mother of Us All also played on the music by Virgil Thomson. In Brewsie and Willie (1946), Stein wrote about the young American servicemen she met during the German occupation of France.

Most of Gertrude Stein’s work did not reach a mass audience because she never meant to be a commercial writer. Her deep black eyes and solemn face reveal her sturdy character while her work is a reflection of her personality, profoundly deep with an ironic sense of humor. Stein died of Cancer at the American Hospital in Neuilly on July 27, 1946.

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