Gertrude Stein

The Opportunities of Montparnasse

Playwright, novelist, poet and art collector, Gertrude Stein embodied many roles during her life. One of the only female members of the Lost Generation, she had an extensive influence on the artists and writers living in Montparnasse during the Interwar period. By looking at her life in Paris, one can see in detail the unique opportunity this bohemian neighborhood offered a woman interested in art and culture.

Born in 1874 in Allegheny, Pennsylvania to wealthy Jewish parents, Gertrude Stein moved to Vienna and then Paris with her family at a very young age. Her parents encouraged their children to absorb European culture, an experience that would have a deep influence on Stein’s latter life. After spending a year abroad, the Stein family relocated to Oakland, California where Stein quickly became bored with the Hebrew Sabbath School she attended and immersed herself in Shakespeare, Fielding, and Wordsworth, developing a love for literature and culture that would have a huge impact on her life. Left an orphan after her parents’ death, young Stein moved to Baltimore to live with her uncle. Here she met the Cone sisters, art collectors and world travelers whose evening salon gatherings Stein would later imitate in Paris.

After attending Radcliffe College, Stein enrolled in medical school at Johns Hopkins University, only to drop out a few years later. This was partly because she had little to no interest in the practice of medicine, but also because of the intense male-dominated nature of the field. Stein despised the constraints placed upon her by such a strict, paternalistic culture and longer to find freedom somewhere else. This somewhere else proves to be Paris, a place where she would be able to embrace a role in cultural and artistic life that would have been impossible in the United States. France also offered her the chance to embrace her sexuality, a taboo in the restrictive, conservative nature of American society between the World Wars. In 1907, she began a romantic relationship with Alice Babette Toklas which lasted until Stein’s death in 1947.

After moving to Paris in 1903, Stein and her brother Leo settled in Montparnasse where they gathered an art collection that would become distinguished, including works from Cezanne, Renoir, Delacroix, Matisse, Picasso, and Gaugin. Stein had a unique ability to detect talent; as Henry McBride, a well-known art critic put it, “she collected geniuses, not just masterpieces.” As a result, both of the Stein siblings quickly became prominent in the art world.

But art was not the only part of Parisian culture with which Stein became involved. Her apartment became famous for its salons, gatherings that brought together confluences of talent and thinking that would help define modernism in literature and art. Salons had a long history in Paris’ intellectual culture. These gatherings first became popular during the 17th and 18th century as a product of the French Enlightenment movement. They provided a place for scholarly discourse on philosophical and artistic topics. Historically, women were included in these spaces as hostesses, often serving to regulate the conversation and agenda of subjects discussed. Men allowed this female governance in the salons of Paris because they believed that a so-called ‘feminine touch’ would create both harmony and order. This in turn reduced the marginalization of women in the public sphere of male-dominated France, while also encouraging intellectual conversation in which women could take part. By hosting salons, Stein became part of a long tradition that had provided Parisian women before her the opportunity to join artistic and philosophical discourse.

These salons first began as a result of her art collection: people would come to her apartment unannounced to see artworks by Henri Matisse and Paul Cezanne; after reaching her wits end with these impromptu visitors, Stein set Saturday evening as the fixed time for these gatherings so she could continue her own writing without being constantly interrupted by unannounced guests. Frequent attendees at the Saturday night events included Sinclair Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso, Ezra Pound, Henri Matisse, and Earnest Hemingway, whom Stein mentored. These congregations could be seen as the epicenter for the Lost Generation, a place where artistic and literary ideas germinated and disseminated.

Montparnasse offered Stein the chance to embrace a life that would have been almost inconceivable in the Unites States. It was here that she first published her writings, where she was allowed her to be her true self, where she was able to influence the artistic world in countless, far-reaching ways.