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  • Writer's pictureAndrew McIlroy

'Buy clothes or buy pictures': Gertrude Stein's timeless advice on collecting ‘accrochable' art

Ernest Hemingway and his wife Hadley, befriended Gertrude Stein and her companion, Alice Toklas, often visiting at the Paris studio apartment where they lived at 27 Rue de Fleurus. Hemingway, then a talented young writer grew to like Stein and was keen to return the hospitality, inviting them to their small apartment.

Here Hemingway recalls Stein sat on the bed that was on the floor, which seemed to draw them all closer, and asked to see the stories he had written. She said that she liked them, except one called ‘Up in Michigan’, finding the sexuality within offensive.

“It’s good”, she said. “That’s not the question at all. But it is inaccrochable. That is, it’s like a picture that a painter paints, and then he cannot hang it when he has a show and nobody will buy it because they cannot hang it either … You mustn’t write anything that is inaccrochable. There is no point in it. It’s wrong and it’s silly ... That afternoon too, she told us, how to buy pictures.”

Gertrude Stein in 1920 Photo: Invaluable

“You can either buy clothes or buy pictures”, she said.

“It’s that simple. No one who is not very rich can do both. Pay no attention to your clothes and no attention at all to the mode, and buy your clothes for comfort and durability, and you will have the clothes money to buy pictures.”

“But even if I never bought any clothing ever,’ (Hemingway) said, ‘I wouldn’t have enough money to buy the Picassos that I want.”

“No. He’s out of your range. You have to buy the people of your own age – of your own military service group. You’ll know them. You’ll meet them around the quarter. There are always good new serious painters.“ (Ernest Hemingway, ‘A Moveable Feast’, 1936)

Ernest Hemingway (1920) Photo: The New Yorker

Years earlier, when Gertrude was informed that she and her older brother Leo were due an unexpected windfall of 8,000 francs, they knew what to do. They would buy art at Monsieur Vollard’s crowded art rooms. Established first-class artists like Delacroix, Daumier and Manet were so expensive that the budding collectors could only afford lesser pictures by them. But they were able to buy six small paintings: two each by Cézanne, Renoir and Gauguin. A few months later, Leo and Gertrude returned to Vollard’s and purchased 'Madame Cézanne with a Fan', for 8,000 francs.

In two months, they had spent some 18,000 francs (equivalent to about $80,000 today). Vollard would often say approvingly that the Steins were his only clients who collected paintings “not because they were rich, but despite the fact that they weren’t.”

Leo understood Cézanne’s importance very early, and spoke powerfully about it.But Cézanne was too expensive to collect, so the Steins sought out emerging artists. In 1905, Leo stumbled upon Picasso’s work, which was being exhibited at group shows, including one in a furniture store.

Paul Cézanne, 'Madame Cézanne with a Fan' (1878/88) Photo: Emil Buhrle Collection

Leo bought a large gouache by the then unknown 24-year-old artist, 'The Acrobat Family'. He next purchased a Picasso oil, 'Girl with a Basket of Flowers', even though Gertrude found it repulsive. When he told her at dinner he had bought the picture, she reportedly threw down her cutlery. “Now you’ve spoiled my appetite,” she declared. Her opinion changed, however. Years later, she would turn down “an absurd sum” from a would-be buyer of 'Girl with a Basket of Flowers'.

At the same time, Leo and Gertrude were warming to Matisse’s more perplexing compositions. When the two bought 'Woman with a Hat' at the 1905 Autumn Salon, they became the only collectors who had acquired works by both Picasso and Matisse.

Picasso it was said recognised that the Steins could be useful, and he began to cultivate them, dining at the Rue de Fleurus flat and producing flattering gouaches of the pair, and ultimately his 'Portrait of Gertrude Stein'.

Picasso'sFillette à la corbeille fleurie‘ (’Young Girl with a Flower Basket’)in 1905 Photo: Christies

A young Pablo Picasso in Paris (1905) Photo: Hemingway's Paris

Pablo Picasso, 'Portrait of Gertrude Stein' (1905-06) Photo: The Met

Gertrude delighted in the outcome, writing some years later “for me, it is I, and it is the only reproduction of me which is always I, for me.” When people told Picasso that Gertrude did not resemble her portrait, he would reply, “She will”.

It was early 1906 when Picasso and Matisse first met at the Steins. Gertrude said they exchanged paintings, each choosing the other’s weakest effort. They would see each other at the Saturday evening salons initiated by Gertrude and Leo. At these organised viewings, the pictures were tiered three or four high, above heavy wooden Italian furniture. The curious flocked.

Picasso took many of his artist friends there, including Braque and Derain, and the poet Apollinaire. By 1908, the crowds in the small studio apartment grew quite ‘pressing’.

From here Picasso came to compete directly with his rival, Matisse, often developing upon the older artist's painting concepts and imagery. According to Matisse, Picasso became smitten with African sculpture after Matisse, on his way to the Steins, picked up a small African head in an antiques shop and, upon arriving, showed it to Picasso, who was “astonished” by it.

Henri Matisse Photo: Baltimore Magazine

Henri Matisse, 'Woman with a Hat' ('Femme au chapeau') (1905) Photo: Henri Matisse Organisation

André Derain, 1903 Photo: Southeby's

Gertrude’s love of art informed her work as a writer. In a 1934 lecture, she remarked that a Cézanne painting “always was what it looked like the very essence of an oil painting because everything was always there, really there.” She built up her own sentences by using words in the deliberate, repetitive, blocky way in which Cézanne employed small planes of colour to render mass on a two-dimensional canvas.

Gertrude’s artistic choices grew bolder. As Picasso staked out increasingly adventurous territory, many of his patrons grumbled and refused to follow. Leo, for one, derided 'Demoiselles' as a “horrible mess.” But Gertrude applauded the landscapes that Picasso painted in Horta de Ebro, Spain, in the summer of 1909, which marked a crucial stage in his transition from Cézanne’s Post-Impressionism into the new territory of Cubism. ('Picasso and the Spanish Civil War', The New Yorker, 2008)

Over the next few years, his Analytical Cubist still life, which fragmented the picture into visual shards, alienated people still more. Picasso deeply appreciated Gertrude’s purchase of some of these difficult paintings. The first work she bought without Leo was 'The Architect’s Table', a somber-coloured, oval Analytical Cubist painting of 1912. Later that year she bought two more Cubist still life paintings.

Pablo Picasso, 'Les Demoiselles d'Avignon' (1907) Photo: Musée Picasso-Paris

Pablo Picasso, 'The Architect's Table' (1912) Analytical Cubist Photo: New York University

At the same time, Gertrude was losing interest in Matisse. Picasso, she said, “was the only one in painting who saw the twentieth century with his eyes and saw its reality and consequently his struggle was terrifying.” She felt a particular kinship with him because she was engaged in the same struggle in literature. They were geniuses together.

With a few bumps along the way, Gertrude maintained her friendship with Picasso, and she continued to collect his art until her death in 1946, at age 72. However, the rise in Picasso’s prices after World War I led her to younger artists: among them, Juan Gris, André Masson, Francis Picabia and Sir Francis Rose. On her death, Gertrude owned up to 100 Rose works.

Today, Gertrude's advice to a young Hemingway holds true. Would-be collectors would do well to remember to ask on buying art, 'Is it accrochable?' To buy art within your range. To buy art of the people of your own age. To nurture those relationships to sustain the life of the artist and to inspire your own along the way. There is no point in it, otherwise.


Gertrude Stein in her Salon with her companion and muse, Alice Toklas

Gertrude Stein's Paris apartment today Photos: Author

Main Photo: Leo, Gertrude and Michael Stein at 27 Rue de Fleurus (1907) Photo: The Smithsonian

Andrew McIlroy is a visual artist and arts writer, living and working in Melbourne, Australia


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