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Gertrude Stein Hated This Painting. And Yet...

A painting by Picasso from 1905 has just sold at auction for one hundred and fifteen million dollars -- what ArtNews calls "a rare nine figure purchase." The painting, from Picasso's so-called Rose period, is "Girl with Basket of Flowers":

I am in the camp that thinks the reasons why Picasso's Rose period work sells for more than his Cubist work are precisely the reasons why I don't like the paintings that much. That is, they are anachronistic pastiches of late nineteenth century Symbolist painting, their mythological content replaced instead with sentimental idealisations of family pastoral. However, there's no questioning the skill and sensitivity of Picasso's brushwork, particularly in the face of this girl.

The first owners of the painting were Gertrude and Leo Stein, the rich Americans who moved to Paris in the early 1900s and set themselves up as patrons to the avant garde (though their taste didn't extend to Picasso's Cubist work). Gertrude Stein held a long-running salon at her apartment on the Rue de Fleurus in Montparnasse, and in photographs from the time, you can see "Girl with a Basket of Flowers" hanging on the wall to the left of the stove:


Side note: each January I go to Paris with a group of American students, and on one of our "culture walks" we stop at the Rue de Fleurus building and talk about its history. Here is a photo I took of the front of the building. Stein's apartment was I believe on the ground or first floor. The salon space was a single storey building in the courtyard, which is visible through the iron gate in this photo:


Back to the painting. There is an interesting story about how the Steins purchased it. In 1905, Picasso was selling his paintings through a number of dealers, most of whom ripped him off and treated him quite badly. "Girl with a Basket of Flowers" was hanging in the establishment of Clovis Sagot, who was more of an antiques dealer than a gallerist. A few days after buying a different Picasso painting, Leo took Gertrude back to Sagot to see "Girl...", but Gertrude hated the picture, writing about it later in the following manner (it's in the third person, from The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, but Stein is referring to herself):
She found something rather appalling in the drawing of the legs and feet, something that repelled and shocked her. She and her brother almost quarreled about this picture. He wanted it and she did not want it in the house. Sagot gathering a little of the discussion said, but that is alright if you do not like the legs and feet it is very easy to guillotine her and only take the head. No that would not do, everybody agreed, and nothing was decided.
Nevertheless, a few days later, Leo bought the painting anyway for 150 francs. A lot less than $115 million, but --  and let this sink in for a second -- twice as much as Sagot had paid Picasso. In one of his letters, Leo talks about what happened when he told Gertrude:
That day I came home late to dinner, and Gertrude was already eating. When I told her I had bought the picture she threw down her knife and fork and said, 'Now you've spoiled my appetite. I hated that picture with feet like a monkey's.'
Of course, she must have warmed to the painting, as it stayed on the walls of her salon room for decades, and she resisted later offers to buy it. The reason Gertrude changed her mind is that she met Picasso soon after "Girl..." came into her possession, but even that part of the story is complicated, as discussed by John Richardson in Volume 1 of his biography of Picasso.

Leo had become friends with a journalist called Henri Pierre Roché (who wrote Jules et Jim). Roché was a fixer who knew everyone in the Paris art world as well as everyone in the American expat community, and he enjoyed making introductions and no doubt getting a little cut of the proceeds every now and then. Roché was a regular at the Montparnasse bar La Closerie des Lilas, which is not too far from the Steins' apartment on Rue de Fleurus. Here are a couple of photos I took there when I popped in for a drink last January:



Picasso would often walk all the way from his studio in Montmartre to La Closerie to hang out with his writer friends. Shortly after the Steins bought Picasso's paintings, Picasso met Roché at La Closerie and asked him to make an introduction. Again, Gertrude resisted, but ultimately she did meet Picasso, became entranced by him, and became one of his strongest allies and friends over the next fifteen years.

So, then, to the anonymous billionaire who bought this 1905 painting by Picasso, I say: I hope you enjoy your purchase, not just because it's a pretty picture, but for the cultural and artistic histories that weave around it like incense around an icon.

Comments

  1. This line, "cultural and artistic histories that weave around it like incense around an icon." Yes, you can write. And doesn't it make you wonder about that moment when they meet? Thanks for the moment of imagining.

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