The Geniuses, Gertrude Stein, Picasso and Matisse

27 rue de Fleurus, Paris

American patron of the arts and memoirist Mabel Dodge describes her friend Gertrude Stein’s unique approach to writing which she developed while living in Paris, where she befriended the great artists and writers of her time.

In a large studio in Paris, hung with paintings by Renoir, Matisse and Picasso, Gertrude Stein is doing with words what Picasso is doing with paint. She is impelling language to induce new states of consciousness, and in doing so language becomes with her a creative art rather than a mirror of history.

After failing medical school in 1903, twenty-eight-year-old Gertrude Stein fled America and joined her adored older brother Leo, an art connoisseur and aspiring painter, in Paris. She arrived just as modern art was emerging, and following his lead, she developed a passion for it. Soon they were buying the most shocking paintings and meeting the most unshockable people, counting the two geniuses of modern art, Picasso and Matisse, among their friends. Their patronage sparked a rivalry between both artists that egged them on to greater and greater artistic heights, in turn sparking Gertrude’s own creative impulse.


Gertrude had been emotionally bruised from an all-consuming passion she developed for a more experienced graduate student, May Bookstaver. May’s responses had been ambiguous so that Gertrude could never be sure whether her love was reciprocated. It made her conscious that for all her study of psychology (at one stage under the tutelage of Henry James’s brilliant brother William) she was unable to understand one other person. Overwhelmed by a maelstrom of emotions, she failed her final year at Johns Hopkins medical school. It was one of the rare occasions in her life when her feelings conquered her will. She announced her intention to become a writer instead.

Leo had leased an apartment in Paris with a studio on the Left Bank at 27 rue de Fleurus. It was a stone’s throw from the Luxembourg Gardens and the studios and cafes of bohemian Montparnasse. Initially, Gertrude felt uncomfortable there as he made it clear that he did not approve of her writing. His responses to extracts of her first piece, Q.E.D., a thinly veiled account of her doomed affair, were cutting. To avoid his unwanted advice, she began writing late at night. At a Florentine table lit overhead by gas lamps, her spidery script filled piles of school exercise books.

Her notes from around this time reveal that she viewed herself on the margins of life, observing her friends as they moved into marriage and a middle-class existence. What happens to ‘passionate women?’ she asks. Her answer: ‘More often their marriage is a failure and then they rush about miserable seeking to escape.’ She was homesick for America, craving cornbread with molasses, and apple pie with cheese and sought comfort in food, as if to fill an emotional void.

Pouring all her energies into her writing rendered her usually outgoing personality less visible to others. Alfred Stieglitz said she was the most silent person he had ever met. From an early age she had been ambitious for fame and recognition, confiding in her friend Mabel Dodge of her lust for ‘glory’. But for now, she was content to tag along with Leo as his sidekick, as she had done since she was little.

An Art Collection Begins

The siblings were precociously bright and had always been close. They had been raised in San Francisco, the youngest of five children born to German Jewish immigrants. After the early death of their parents they received a modest inheritance and shortly after Gertrude’s arrival in Paris, they began to acquire art. They collected artists they could afford, those who were yet to make their reputation. A small landscape of Aix-en-Provence by Cézanne, was one of their first acquisitions. It was followed by a Toulouse-Lautrec, then a Delacroix, two Gaugins, ‘rather awful but…we liked them’. Before long, the walls of the apartment were crowded with paintings.

Gertrude accompanied Leo on collecting ventures to dealers and the studios of semi destitute artists, in and around Montmartre. It was a distraction from her painful evening writing sessions. They pooled their money, but it was Leo who made the final decisions about what to buy.

In order to blend in with the bohemian counter-culture, Gertrude had thrown out the corsets and dresses from her American wardrobe and adopted a new look. She and Leo took to wearing Grecian sandals designed by the brother of Isadora Duncan, with matching bright brown corduroy suits. They were a strange but familiar sight around Paris: Leo tall and thin, his face ‘long and ram-like’ and Gertrude, short, stout and genial. As they approached one Montparnasse café, a disdainful waiter appraised their outfits and said if they could not afford proper shoes, they surely could not afford the drinks.

Meeting Picasso

In 1905 a dealer showed Leo some canvases by an unknown Spanish artist, Pablo Picasso, saying he was ‘the real thing’. Leo was drawn to a late example from Picasso’s Rose or Harlequin period, a traditional portrait of a girl selling flowers outside the Moulin Rouge: ‘The Young Girl with a Basket of Flowers’ (1905). He brought Gertrude to see it, but although she quite liked the upper part of the figure, she said:

I found something rather appalling in the drawing of the legs and feet. Something that repelled and shocked me.

The dealer suggested they could cut off the feet, but they eventually all agreed this would be no solution.

Gertrude was eating dinner one evening when Leo told her that, despite her reservations, he had bought the picture. She threw down her knife and fork, saying, ‘Well, you’ve ruined my appetite.’ But from that unpromising start grew a long association with Picasso; the Steins were to be his principal patrons for the next nine years.

Leo’s first meeting with the stocky, silent Spaniard left ‘an indelible impression’. Picasso struck him as ‘more real than most people while doing nothing about it.’ But Picasso was far more interested in Gertrude than in Leo. They began a complicated friendship which, despite their outsized egos and political disagreements, lasted for decades. He called her ‘pard’, in the cowboy slang he picked up from an American comic strip.

Recalling in her memoir the first time Picasso came to dinner at 27 rue de Fleurus, Gertrude described him as a ‘good looking bootblack. He was thin, dark, alive with big pools of eyes and a violent but not rough way.’ He was accompanied by his first muse, Fernande Olivier. She was ‘very beautiful’ but her two subjects, hats and perfume, made her company a ‘little heavy and monotonous’. As she became better acquainted with the couple, Gertrude was to observe Picasso’s ill treatment of Fernande with distaste.

At that first dinner, he snatched a piece of bread from Gertrude and she laughed, making him look sheepish. This broke the ice and was the beginning of an intimacy between them.


The same year they met Picasso, in 1905, Leo and Gertrude saw Henri Matisse’s submission for the Paris Salon d’Automne. ‘Woman with a Hat’, a portrait of his wife Amélie, was the scandalous painting of the show (there was always one). In response, someone had put a sign on the front door: ‘Gallery of dangerous lunatics – enter at your own risk’. In ‘Woman with a Hat’, the bold, unruly colours and loosely applied paint of the new modernist landscapes were being applied to portraiture for the first time. To see a woman in a traditional pose with a green face was truly shocking, like a crude piece of graffiti. As writer and onlooker Francis Carco put it,

Nothing about it was physically human. You had the impression that the artist had been much more preoccupied by his own personality than he was with the model’s…

So controversial was the work that the critic Louis Vauxcelles described Matisse and others in his circle as the ‘fauves’ (wild beasts), unwittingly naming the first modernist avant-garde art movement of the twentieth century.

Like the rest of the crowd, Leo found the painting confronting but he and Gertrude returned to the exhibition several times to view it. Visually, Leo had been self-taught, beginning in Italy, where he was drawn to the primitive church painters of the fourteenth century. Their formality and severity gave him a taste for Cézanne, which now led him in turn to Matisse.

It was what I was unknowingly waiting for, and I would have snatched it at once, if I had not needed a few days to get over the unpleasantness of the putting on of paint.

On the last day of the exhibition, he offered Matisse a discounted sum for the work but Amélie told her husband to hold out for the full amount. It was duly offered by Leo and accepted.

A Salon Begins

As soon as the painting arrived at the Steins’ people wanted to come to see it. Matisse brought friends and prospective buyers; then as Gertrude said, ‘everybody brought somebody and they came at any time and it began to be a nuisance and it was in this way that Saturday evenings began.’

The apartment at rue de Fleurus became the nexus for a dialogue about modern art. If you were interested in the latest developments, this was the place to come. And come they did, for the next twenty-seven years: Picasso, Matisse, Andrè Derain, Apollinaire, Georges Braque, Juan Gris in the early days. And after the First World War: Man Ray, Jacques Lipchitz, TS Eliot, Cecil Beaton, Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, Thornton Wilder, Scott F. Fitzgerald, Natalie Clifford Barney and Djuna Barnes. Rue de Fleurus became an important destination for culture-seeking Americans and Europeans passing through Paris. Its open-door policy lent the evenings a distinctly democratic, if chaotic atmosphere.

In her memoir The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933) Gertrude describes one such salon evening. They would start with dinner, most often featuring their cook Hélène’s famous soufflé. On this occasion Picasso and Fernande were running late; after the first course, a quick patter of steps in the courtyard signalled their arrival and Picasso entered,

small, quick moving but not restless, his eyes having a strange faculty of opening wide and drinking in what he wished to see. He had the isolation and movement of the head of a bull-fighter at the head of their procession.

Fernande followed, in an extravagant hat. They were on edge and Picasso made an elaborate apology for his rare lateness. It took him some time to calm down.

By nine in the evening, people were arriving at the atelier next door. It was a big room containing several pieces of heavy Florentine furniture against a wall, with a cast iron stove at one end and a large table at the other. The paintings completely covered the white-washed walls up to the very high ceiling. Enormous works of Picasso from his Harlequin period; two rows of Matisses; several Cèzanne watercolours and one of his large portraits; some Renoirs, a Manet, a Daumier and even a Greco were hung, three to five deep up the walls.

The almost overwhelming sight of this emerging modernism could be difficult for people to take in. Leo would lay half reclining on an armchair, feet perched on a bookshelf, in a position he considered ‘excellent for the digestion’. He lectured to anyone who would listen, sometimes until dawn. Gertrude sat in the high-backed renaissance chair by the stove and observed the crowd, according to one artist:

like a Cambodian caryatid, wearing a smile of patience, looking as if she knew something that nobody else did.

Now and then she would answer a knock on the door, always asking ‘Who is your introducer?’ But this was a mere formality as, really, anybody could come. The salon was to evolve over the years, especially when Leo moved out and Gertrude took over. But for now, the unscripted nature of these evenings, with strangers and disparate groups of people wandering in and out, often led to crowded confusion. Gertrude may have been quiet at first but she possessed an ease and facility with people, whereas Leo was less approachable and more severe. One Parisian quipped, ‘Perhaps his favourite drink was water?’ Gertrude’s warmth came as a relief: an admirer said ‘she had a laugh like a beefsteak’.

Painting Gertrude

When Matisse’s ‘Woman with a Hat’ was hung on the wall of the Stein’s near his sentimental ‘Girl with Flowers’, Picasso possibly felt it as a rebuke. It made his painting appear wan and outdated. Attracted by Gertrude’s physical and intellectual presence, and wanting to come up with a distinctive answer of his own, he offered to paint her portrait.

During the winter of 1905-1906 Gertrude sat for him at his studio – eighty to ninety times, or so she said. Three times a week she made the four-mile trek across Paris by foot or omnibus, through cobbled streets and narrow flights of steps to one of a cluster of wooden studios on the eastern side of the Montmartre hill, just below the Sacré Coeur Basilica. Nicknamed Bateau-Lavoir, or the laundry boat, the studio’s interior was cold and squalid, with no electricity or running water. Picasso worked and lived here with Fernande, his dog and his pet mouse, amongst a clutter of easels and canvases. The Steins were his first Parisian conquest; at his most charming, he would usher Gertrude to the lopsided armchair in the centre of the room.

While Gertrude posed, Fernande sometimes read aloud to her, reciting fables by La Fontaine in her rich, musical voice. In her memoir, Fernande described her as ‘perceptive and witty’:

Fat, short, massive, a fine head with noble features, clear-cut and regular, the eyes amused and intelligent. The mind clear and lucid. Masculine in her voice and her entire bearing.

Gertrude used some of the time to think through her latest stories for her novella Three Lives (1909). It was to be her first attempt to move from nineteenth to twentieth century literature. Some incidents were inspired by scenes she witnessed on her walks to and from Picasso’s studio.

Picasso struggled to capture in paint the enigmatic woman before him, finding his style inadequate to express the mental image he had of her. He sat hunched and close to the canvas, working from a limited palette of greys and browns. In frustration one day, he painted out her head. ‘I can’t see you any longer when I look’, he said irritably. So the painting stayed like that until later that year.

Two Geniuses

In autumn 1906 the Steins introduced Picasso to Henri Matisse, the man he came to consider his equal and only true rival. Gertrude wrote that Picasso and Matisse became friends and enemies at the same time. Barely able to speak French when they first met, Picasso tended to agree with whatever the older artist said at first, explaining to Leo: ‘Matisse talks and talks. I can’t talk, so I just said ‘oui, oui, oui…”

Matisse was in his mid-thirties, eleven years Picasso’s senior. He had become for a brief moment the enfant terrible of the art world. His work was exhibited in the Independen Salon and the Salon d’Automne and he was attracting a considerable following. Picasso on the other hand, had yet to find a dealer and the only way to see his paintings was on the walls of the rue de Fleurus. To Picasso, Matisse seemed fluent and polished, ‘the image of an established master.’

Temperamentally they were chalk and cheese. Matisse, wary and bearded, from a dismal part of Northern France, put everything into his work. The man who created such joyful paintings, some imbued with a spirituality that was rare in modernist works, served art as a priest serves God. He lived to work and his wife and children fitted their lives around his arduous routines. His work caused him constant anguish, with panic attacks and periodic breakdowns that made him almost impossible to live with. He once recalled a time in Spain in 1910 when: ‘My bed shook, and from my throat came a little high-pitched cry that I could not stop.’

Both artists required from their women total dedication and self-sacrifice. But Picasso, the Spanish man of the sun and the south, was mentally stronger. He was as gregarious as Matisse was solitary, as wild and charismatic as Matisse was tame and fatherly. Ultimately, Picasso was able to strike a better balance, rewarding his own hard work as he went along with erotic play and stimulating intellectual company.

At their first meeting Matisse brought with him a little Congolese Vili figure that would powerfully influence both men. He had found it in a shop specialising in African carvings. Picasso was fascinated by it and kept it by his side all evening while dining with the Steins and Matisses. The next morning his friend Max Jacob found him at the Bateau Lavoir, not having slept a wink, surrounded by drawings of one-eyed monsters. The little statue had planted the seed for what was to come: a new, unearthly, primal vision to unseat the old artistic forms.

Meanwhile, it solved Picasso’s problem with his portrait of Gertrude. Without further reference to her face at all, he gave her the heavily lidded eyes and mask-like features of the sculpture. He focused on the way the light strikes her hands and the geometric planes of her face, and emphasised her bulk in a simple, monumental mass that foreshadowed Cubism.

When people complained to Picasso that Gertrude looked nothing like her portrait he famously insisted: ‘She will.’ For hundreds of years portraiture had been all about likeness, but Picasso’s portrait has more to do with Gertrude’s powerful androgynous presence. His break with tradition was to become a habit.

Gertrude said the painting was a truer representation than any of the long line of portraits that came afterwards, and it became her most prized possession. In her memoir Picasso (1938) she wrote:

I was and still am satisfied with my portrait, for me, it is I, and it is the only reproduction of me which is always I, for me.

Picasso must have been satisfied too, when it was hung in the salon directly above the painting he had so much admired and wished to answer: Matisse’s ‘Woman with a Hat’. And it was at this point that two of the greatest painters of the twentieth century began their ‘boxing match’, as Matisse later described it. Each new work from one would provoke a response from the other, in a dialogue that was to be lifelong.

The rush to compose a new modern vision involved a great deal of one-upmanship and sniping. In 1907 the Steins bought Matisse’s tribute to Cézanne, ‘Blue Nude’ which Picasso met with derision. He was discomfited by the way Matisse had incorporated design elements in a painterly rendering of a sinuous, big-hipped nude.

If he wants to make a woman, let him make a woman. If he wants to make a design, let him make a design. This is between the two.

By the spring of 1908, Matisse was viewing Picasso’s dramatic, geometric response: ‘Nude with Drapery’ 1907,which was hung in the same room as ‘Blue Nude’ at rue de Fleurus. One of the earliest examples of Cubism, the painting made Matisse feel that his own ideas were being copied and distorted. Picasso wrote:

Poor, patient Matisse…He may say, perhaps: “To my mind, the equilateral triangle is a symbol and manifestation of the absolute. If one could get that absolute quality into a painting, it would be a work of art.” Whereat, little madcap Picasso, keen as a whip, spirited as a devil, mad as a hatter, runs to his studio and contrives a huge nude woman composed entirely of triangles and presents it in triumph.

The Third Genius

Gertrude was growing restless and her dormant ambition, the lust for ‘glory’, began to stir. Standing on the sidelines watching the seismic pictorial upheavals wreaked by her new friends, made her hungry for a slice of the action. ‘Pablo & Matisse have a maleness that belongs to genius’, she scrawled in her notebook. She began to think it possible that she, too, had the makings of a genius; that she could attempt in words what her friends were achieving with paint. As for the maleness that seemed to accompany their genius, well, ‘moi aussie perhaps’, she added. This identification with maleness was part of her secret inner life.

The seed for it had begun in a childhood made unendurable by a cold and domineering father and a mother who was too ineffectual to counter his damaging effects. After Gertrude’s mother became ill with abdominal cancer, she had wasted away to a wraith-like figure who was barely visible to her family until her death. In her sprawling, modernist novel, The Making of Americans, completed in 1911, Gertrude wrote about this loss:

She had never been really important to any of them…Mostly for them she had no existence in her and then she died away and the gentle scared little woman was all that they ever after remembered of her.

But her notebooks tell it differently: ‘All stopped after death of mother,’ she wrote. Her eighteen-year-old sister Bertha struggled to keep the family together and provide them with some mothering, but her efforts were rejected by a young Gertrude who was doubtless full of grief and rage. In her notebook for The Making of Americans, Gertrude described her sister as disgusting: ‘pure female, sloppy, oozy female…good, superior, maternal.’ Alone and ignored, Gertrude descended into what she described as her ‘dark and dreadful’ days. She consumed books and food with a vengeance, gulping them down as a way back to childhood, to ‘the full satisfied sense of being stuffed up with eating’.

At Johns Hopkins medical school, Gertrude had planned to study the female affliction of hysteria, wishing on some level to comprehend and cure the feminine infirmity that had failed her in childhood. She came into contact with the prevailing theory of the day: that genius was rare in ‘the more emotional’ sex, and to aspire to it was to be less female. It is no small irony then that her final year was disrupted by her passionate feelings for another woman.

Gertrude’s outpouring in the novella Q.E.D. about the love that tore her apart was a type of exorcism, at once self-revelatory and full of shrewd psychological portrayals. Yet the narrator speaks of a ‘puritanical horror’ of passion. Her lover is admonished: ‘You meant to me a turgid and complex world’. This territory proved too painful for Gertrude to revisit. Never again would she produce such a revealing and emotional piece of writing. After that she aspired to a Buddha-like serenity, an ‘obvious, superficial, clean simplicity’.

This is what she was cultivating at the salon in rue de Fleurus. Cézanne’s dealer Ambrose Vollard, who was enchanted by Gertrude in the early days, detected in her an underlying subversiveness but was unable to determine whether it was conscious or not, overridden as it was by the ‘robe of coarse cotton cord’, the ‘leather-strap sandals and general air of being slightly simple-minded’.

It was not until she was sitting for her portrait with Picasso that Gertrude conceived of a way to make this simplicity manifest in her writing. Inspired by Flaubert’s understated A Simple Heart, and watching the simplification of her form take place in paint before her eyes, Gertrude traced the inner states of three women in a small American city in Three Lives. This time her writing is pared back, childish and repetitive, while still touching on the themes that had preoccupied her to that point: her domineering father, her disappearing mother, the harrowing love affair. She was obliged to publish the book herself in 1909, yet the response was astonishing: ‘A very masterpiece of realism’ was typical of the critical acclaim it received. But as Claudia Roth Pierpont observes in her exploration of Stein’s literary achievements:

the narrative voice is so apathetic and the emotional temperature so low that it’s no wonder the characters seem half-unconscious. The cause is not their social downtroddenness but the fact that Three Lives catches Stein in the very act of administering the emotional anaesthesia, that marked her style forever after.

When Picasso showed Gertrude his first Cubist paintings, with their picture planes fractured into geometric shapes, she saw that she could apply this approach to writing, fracturing her sentences similarly to shake them free from traditional meaning and convert them into sounds. Certainly, as Roth Pierpont observes, Cubism gave her a rationale for keeping everything on the surface: ‘Facet it, mirror it, spin it around, and repeat it ad infinitum, but never go back underneath.’

Picassoites and Matisseites

Picasso was the essence of courtesy to Matisse at first, happy to play the keen and willing follower, but soon he was poking fun at his rival. As was the custom among artists they exchanged paintings, with the idea of choosing from the other the piece that most excited their interest. The painting Picasso picked was Matisse’s child-like portrait of his daughter Margeurite, as its flat planes and expressive force inspired him. Yet this did not deter him, and his bande of thuggish acolytes, from using the painting as target practice for darts in his studio. ‘One in the eye for Margeurite,’ they’d cry.

They played practical jokes on Matisse, from a ‘respectful distance’. Picasso’s friend Apollinaire started scrawling his name on government health warnings plastered near their Montmartre local bar, the Agile Lapin: ‘Matisse is more dangerous than alcohol’; ‘Matisse has done more harm than war.’ Matisse was not one for jokes. In any case, he could see right through Picasso, who had adopted clowning as a cover for his own insecurities.

The two artists had completely different goals. Matisse’s overriding concern was for clarity and calm. These qualities were oddly at variance from his personal experience, as the critic Michel Puy observed: ‘Nothing is stranger, in an artist so impassioned, so vehement and so tormented, than this longing for tranquility.’ Feeling himself misunderstood, Matisse published a pamphlet in 1908:

What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter…a soothing, calming influence on the mind, rather like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.

This only added fuel to the charge from Picasso’s quarters that Matisse was stuffy and bourgeois. One can imagine the sniggers at his armchair metaphor.

Picasso wanted to find new language for art based on disruption and disintegration. His group of leering, splintered prostitutes, ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’ (1907), baffled and horrified Matisse. Ironically, it had been Picasso’s visual response to Matisse’s Arcadian vision: ‘Le Bonheur de Vivre (1905). Both paintings became early pillars of Modern Art.

Increasingly, young Parisian artists became drawn to Picasso’s air of danger and risk-taking and in no time, he supplanted Matisse as the new enfant terrible. Once he moved into Cubism (a term that was coined by Matisse), Matisse’s fellow Fauves André Derain and Georges Braque switched allegiances.

Gertrude also sided with Picasso. She had hoped Matisse would offer to paint her portrait, but the invitation never came. He had caught her out in the private games she liked to play, manipulating others, and that made her uncomfortable. She was also displeased by his increasingly close friendship with her sister-in-law Sarah, who had opened her own salon at nearby rue Madame, and was furiously promoting his work. Gertrude began to speak of two separate camps: the Picassoites and the Matisseites.

In her memoir, she took pleasure in having a dig at Matisse, recounting how her French cook Hélène disliked him because he used to ask her what was for dinner, and if the answer appealed, he would unexpectedly ask to stay. Hélène said this was unforgivable behaviour. She took revenge by serving ‘M. Matisse fried eggs for dinner instead of an omelette because, as a Frenchman, he would understand that it showed less respect.’ Hélène adored Picasso, of course.

The break with Gertrude, while it may have hurt his feelings, did Matisse no real harm. By then he was established on his own solitary artistic path, and would never again be as financially insecure as he had been before meeting the Steins. Critically, his duelling rivalry and friendship with the Spaniard endured and they grew closer with age. In 1930, when Matisse had reached an impasse with his painting, he visited Picasso. Their conversation revived him, and afterwards he was able to forge a new direction with his art.

The salon at Rue de Fleurus had been a crucible. The Steins’ patronage of these two artists, opposite in character and artistic aims, incited a rivalry that became one of the richest and most productive in the history of Western art. The two never stopped looking at what the other was doing, critiquing and responding with their own unique artistic visions.

As for Gertrude, the love of her life was about to enter the scene and she would be changed forever. We will take up her story again soon.


Au Lapin Agile: Le doyen des cabarets de Montmartre, Cassita

I know nothing about this song except that it was composed and sung by Cassita, who was a performer at the old Montmartre haunt of Picasso’s, Au Lapin Agile.


I admit to being a Matisseite. I do like Picasso, but not as much. A recent visit to the ‘Matisse: Life and Spirit’ exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW only confirmed my bias. I’m filled with delight by those singing colours and his facility with line that appears effortless, but which he laboured over, searching for its ‘desire, where it wishes to enter, where to die away’. As the journalist Peter Schjeldahl says of his art: ‘Anyone who doesn’t love it must have a low opinion of joy.’

I felt for Matisse as I unearthed more about his early struggles, and read how he was abandoned by his fellow Fauves, poked fun at, became the less favoured one. It seems as if he often had to play second fiddle to the Spanish he man. And it reminded me of my study of fine art in the mid-eighties. The department at the time used a Marxist political lens to examine the history of twentieth century art over the course of a year. They had plenty to say about Picasso, but Matisse never rated a mention. It seemed preposterous to me then and it still does.

The apartment at 27 rue de Fleurus is still there, although it is privately owned. A resident swept out while I was lurking outside. I hoped he would keep the front door open for a few seconds longer, so I could get a shot of the interior courtyard, but it was not to be.

I’ve been lucky enough to visit Montmartre a few times, always armed with a photographic ‘to do list’. But each time I became lost in its back streets, falling into a reverie. There is still the odd battered-looking atelier to be found and the street art is plentiful and often laugh-aloud funny. The quote on the wall from the Russian anarchist philosopher Mikhail Bakunin: ‘The urge to destroy is a creative act’ was later appropriated by Picasso, and more recently by Banksy, when the shredder he secretly built into a painting was activated after it had been sold at auction.

The Lapin Agile still has a lively cabaret in the evenings. Picasso and his friends, the writers and poets Guillaume Apollinaire, André Salmon and Max Jacob used to hang out there. One of Picasso’s acquaintances, the writer Roland Dorgeles, used to be appalled by the art the painters (especially Picasso) were churning out at the Bateau-Lavoir, and in 1910 he came up with a novel idea to send them up. Tying a paintbrush to the tail of the cabaret owner’s donkey Lolo, he let it splash paint of different colours across a canvas. He called the result ‘And the Sun Went Down over the Adriatic’ and submitted it to the Indepéndent Salon as a futurist work, where it received favourable reviews and sold for four hundred francs.

I had met the bearded man who waves in the photograph a year before, when he was busking further up the Montmartre hill and I’d chimed in at the chorus of ‘Country Road’. I’ve noticed before that the French have a fascination for cowboys and American country music. In her memoir, Gertrude Stein talks of Picasso and Fernande’s obsession with the cowboy cartoons featured in one of her American subscriptions; when the couple separated it was tricky as they both continued to badger her for them. Jean Paul Sartre was equally fascinated. And the interest doesn’t seem to have faded. I was walking through a village in Provence some years ago when a man dressed in full cowboy gear sauntered past me on a palomino. He avoided my astonished gaze, and appeared to be taking himself very seriously.


The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde’, is a wonderful series of lectures produced by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, examining the many aspects of the Steins’ vibrant Parisian lives.

While Picasso and Matisse were revolutionising the genre of portraiture, Gertrude was trying to do the same with dozens of word portraits of her friends, many whom were artists, such as this portrait of Picasso ‘If I Told Him’, which she reads, here.

Art as Life: The Matisse we never knew’ is Peter Schjeldahl’s extended review of Hilary Spurling’s unputdownable two-part biography of Matisse.

A fascinating short film of Picasso creating a painting from scratch.

A Self-guided tour of Montmartre with map.


Burke, David. Writers in Paris: Literary Lives in the City of Light, Second Ed, Paris Writers Press, 2016

Dodge, Luhan, Mabel. Movers and Shakers, Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1936

Giroud, Vincent. Picasso and Gertrude Stein, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2007

Pierpoint, Claudi Roth. Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World, Scribe, 2000

Schjeldahl, Peter. ‘Art as Life: The Matisse we never knew’, The New Yorker, August 21, 2005

Spurling, Hilary. The Unknown Matisse, Penguin, 1998

Stein, Gertrude. Picasso, Dover, 1984

Stein, Gertrude. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Random House, 1961

The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde’, Lecture Series, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012

Wagner-Martin, Linda. Favored Strangers: Gertrude Stein and her Family, Rutgers University Press, 1995

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