Stein Holds Her First Paris Salons Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Expatriate American writer Gertrude Stein and her brothers established Paris salons at which innovative artists, writers, and musicians gathered and exchanged ideas.

Summary of Event

Gertrude Stein is known less for her own work as an author than for her association with the writers and artists of whom she said, according to Ernest Hemingway’s epigraph to The Sun Also Rises (1926), “You are all a lost generation.” Lost generation Although her innovative style of writing has prompted numerous critical studies, her manner of living remains more intriguing, and her influence on many major figures of her era is inarguable. The salons that Stein, her brothers, and her sister-in-law established were the center of artistic fusion and fission. The assemblage of the era’s most avant-garde writers, artists, and musicians, and their sharing of theory and practice, was an important force in the formation of modernism. Literary salons [kw]Stein Holds Her First Paris Salons (Fall, 1905) [kw]First Paris Salons, Stein Holds Her (Fall, 1905) [kw]Paris Salons, Stein Holds Her First (Fall, 1905) [kw]Salons, Stein Holds Her First Paris (Fall, 1905) Literary salons [g]France;Fall, 1905: Stein Holds Her First Paris Salons[01370] [c]Arts;Fall, 1905: Stein Holds Her First Paris Salons[01370] [c]Literature;Fall, 1905: Stein Holds Her First Paris Salons[01370] Stein, Gertrude Stein, Leo Stein, Michael Stein, Sarah Samuels Toklas, Alice B.

It was Leo Stein, Gertrude’s closest brother in age, who leased the apartment-studio at 27, rue de Fleurus in Paris that would become the center of so much activity. Gertrude joined him there in 1903 after failing four courses at The Johns Hopkins University and being denied her degree in medicine. Their eldest brother, Michael Stein, and his wife, Sarah, also moved to Paris in 1903, renting an apartment at 58, rue Madame, near Gertrude and Leo. Later, the group was completed by Alice B. Toklas, who came to Paris in 1907 but did not move in with Gertrude and Leo until 1910.

Upon settling in at 27, rue de Fleurus, Gertrude Stein at once began the two activities that would determine the rest of her life: art collecting and writing. Over the many years of the Stein tenancy, the walls of the apartment displayed the works of Paul Cézanne, Cézanne, Paul Pablo Picasso, Picasso, Pablo Henri Matisse, Matisse, Henri Georges Rouault, Georges Braque, and other contemporary artists, as well as paintings by Pierre Renoir, Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, and most of the other recognized Impressionists. At the same time, Gertrude began writing, at first in a relatively conventional although naturalistic style (perhaps she was still looking through the would-be doctor’s eye) and then working toward the controversial, fragmented, repetitious narrative style she eventually developed.

Collecting paintings of current artists naturally brought the Steins into contact with the many artists based in Paris. Paris, of course, was already a center for artistic license. The Paris Salon d’Automne Salon d’Automne[Salon dautomne] in October, 1905, displayed a controversial Matisse painting, Woman with the Hat, Woman with the Hat (Matisse) that was criticized by the conservative art establishment for its brashness. Gertrude and Leo’s purchase of this canvas both made their reputation as art collectors and gained them the friendship of Matisse, who began visiting them at their home. Other artists came with him. The Steins followed the French custom of receiving guests on a specified day, and their Saturday get-togethers of artistic luminaries rapidly became famous throughout the community. Sarah and Michael held similar salons and also entertained Matisse and collected his work. Popular opinion held that Sarah and Michael had better food, but the more discerning conversation and more avant-garde art were to be found at 27, rue de Fleurus. Certainly, the artists of the Paris scene frequented both homes.

Initially, Leo Stein was the major force in the rue de Fleurus salons, giving lectures on art while Gertrude remained in the background. As Gertrude’s expertise grew and her opinions became pronounced, however, she came out of the shadows. Gertrude and Leo became estranged, partly because her artistic judgments were wildly divergent from his and partly because he was never very enthusiastic about Gertrude’s own writings. Leo moved permanently to Italy in 1912, at which time Gertrude virtually cut off her relationship with him. Gertrude remained at the rue de Fleurus with her lover, secretary, and friend Alice B. Toklas until 1938, when the apartment’s owner wanted the space for his son; the two women then moved to 5, rue Christine. All during the years Gertrude lived there, the rue de Fleurus apartment was a center for artists and writers, and many of those who passed through became household names.

During the Steins’ tenancy, the walls of 27, rue de Fleurus were covered from floor to ceiling with paintings, many of them unframed. Friendships waxed and waned. Picasso supplanted Cézanne as favorite son when Cézanne’s prices skyrocketed and the Steins could no longer afford his paintings. (Gertrude felt that Cézanne owed it to an old friend to offer old-customer prices.) All the major movements of a volatile era were exhibited and expounded at the Stein salons. Musicians and photographers were part of the circle. In fact, everyone remotely connected with the art world longed, usually in vain, to be invited. The details of Gertrude’s salons were taken care of smoothly by Toklas, spouse, secretary, and even “bouncer,” who told people whose speech or behavior gave offense (Ernest Hemingway was one) that they were not welcome to come back. The salons were discussed, praised, and caricatured throughout Europe and the United States; Gertrude Stein was truly a legend in her time.


The salons of the Steins had a major influence on Gertrude Stein’s own work and on that of the artists who participated in them. Stein’s first novel, Quod Erat Demonstrandum (or Q.E.D., written in 1903 but not published until 1950 under the title Things as They Are), Things as They Are (Stein) mostly written before she became acquainted with Paris artists, was new in content but traditional in form. It told the story—her own story—of a lesbian triangle in which the main character is the loser; the book fictionalized events that took place before Stein’s move to Paris. The novel utilized a relatively straightforward, linear narrative. After meeting Cézanne, however, Stein translated his practice into her own work. Three Lives (1909) Three Lives (Stein) puts into words a decentered reality in which no single theme, person, or idea predominates. The book is made up of three sections, each of which subtly characterizes a servant girl and shows her powerlessness in the face of her controlling environment and determining character. According to Stein, she used Cézanne’s advice to painters as well as the example of his practice to create a new writing style that focused on nuances of voice and that created a flat, seamless surface. She referred to her approach as “the continuous present.”

After Cézanne, Picasso became a major influence on Stein’s work. At the time when he became Stein’s friend, Picasso was moving toward cubism. She did not try to capture Picasso’s angular style in words but rather dwelled on his method of manipulating objects to represent his vision. “I was very much struck . . . with the way Picasso could put objects together and make a photograph of them,” she once wrote, adding that “by the force of his vision it was not necessary that he paint the picture. To have brought the objects together already changed them to other things, not to another picture but to something else, to things as Picasso saw them.” She tried to achieve similar manipulations with words, through fracturing syntax and violating expectations in her bold word portraits (one of which was called “Picasso”). Her goal was “to kill the nineteenth century,” and she believed the methods of the avant-garde artists would allow her to do it.

Gertrude Stein.

(Library of Congress)

The effects of Stein’s salons and her personality on the artists she entertained are less easy to pin down than the artists’ effects on her, which she eagerly and voluminously documented. (It is, of course, true that she selected from their words and works what agreed with her own theories.) First, she was a very colorful figure, with an eccentric way of dressing and a lifestyle shocking to most of her contemporaries. Her image appealed greatly to artists, who produced numerous paintings and photographs of her. Probably the most famous of these is Picasso’s portrait of her; he also painted her brother Leo. Gertrude Stein was also painted by Francis Picabia, Pierre Tal Coat, Marie Laurencin, and others. Generally, these paintings emphasize her stockiness and at the same time suggest her uncompromising intelligence. Stein seems to have achieved the status of a mythic figure among these artists.

The lively interchange among the artists and writers at the salons allowed them to share each other’s techniques and attempt to apply them to different media, as Stein herself attempted to translate Matisse’s and Picasso’s art techniques into writing. Moreover, the concept of art itself became more plastic and flowing, as artists of various disciplines saw parallels that eliminated barriers between them. Stein encouraged this notion of a plastic art through the various pronouncements she made on artistic subjects. Her views were generally taken very seriously, although often they were merely disguised versions of others’ theories. Of course, the artistic movements of the beginning of the twentieth century—Fauvism, cubism, Futurism, Dadaism, and others—were involved with fragmenting experience and demolishing traditional art forms; the desire for experiment and revolution was in the air. How much of this was actually connected with Stein’s salons is open to conjecture. It can only be said with certainty that a large percentage of the early twentieth century’s avant-garde artists passed through the doors of 27, rue de Fleurus.

The Stein salons were a part of the image of the art community for a number of years and were the subject of scandal, jokes, complaints, envy, and admiration. Their presence contributed to the public’s growing belief that a vast gulf exists between elitist and popular art. Literary salons

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bloom, Harold, ed. Gertrude Stein. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. This selection of critical essays includes writers from Stein’s time as well as later ones. An essay by Judith Saunders about Paris and another by Jayne Walker about Stein’s first decade as a writer are particularly useful for those interested in Stein’s salons. Helpful chronology concludes the collection.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dubnick, Randa. The Structure of Obscurity: Gertrude Stein, Language, and Cubism. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984. This difficult but rewarding book shows the interplay between Stein’s work and avant-garde literary and art movements. Helps connect Stein with current literary theory. For advanced students of Stein and modernism. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hobhouse, Janet. Everybody Who Was Anybody: A Biography of Gertrude Stein. 1975. Reprint. New York: Anchor, 1989. Gossipy biography filled with colorful anecdotes of Stein’s life and times. Good for an overall impression. Voluminous, excellent illustrations, including photographs of Stein, her literary friends, and her apartment. Good color reproductions of Stein-influenced paintings. Includes index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hoffman, Michael J. Gertrude Stein. Boston: Twayne, 1976. Clear, concise critical study, one of the better books in Twayne’s United States Authors series. Most of the study analyzes Stein’s writing, but the opening chapter gives an account of the Paris salons. Notes, bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kellner, Bruce, ed. A Gertrude Stein Companion: Content with the Example. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1988. A highly informative, strangely constructed book containing, among other things, brief analyses of Stein’s writings, critical essays, thumbnail biographies of famous Stein associates, important Stein quotations, and poems about Stein. Good photographs. Annotated bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Knapp, Bettina. Gertrude Stein. New York: Continuum, 1990. Straightforward, well-written introduction to Stein. Divided into two parts, “The Life” and “The Work”; first part gives details of Stein’s relationships with Paris artists. Notes, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mellow, James R. Charmed Circle: Gertrude Stein and Company. 1974. Reprint. New York: Henry Holt, 2003. Describes Stein’s life in Paris from 1903 to the end of World War II, with emphasis on the salons for which she was famous. Includes index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Toklas, Alice B. What Is Remembered. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1963. A memoir of Toklas’s life with Gertrude Stein. Impressionistic and somewhat inaccurate, as memoirs often are, this book is nevertheless worth reading for its wit and for the often astonishing vignettes of Paris life.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wineapple, Brenda. Sister Brother: Gertrude and Leo Stein. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996. A dual biography that tells the story of the relationship and rivalry between Gertrude Stein and her brother Leo. Includes bibliography and index.

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