What is the most important Picasso painting in an L.A. public collection? Many would say it’s the 1932 Woman with a Book in the Norton Simon Museum. But there is also a Picasso so prized that Gertrude Stein hung it above her bed, a composition of six pink nudes (one more than Les Demoiselles d’Avignon), painted the year after that landmark of modernism and in a comparable style. This is in Los Angeles? Yep.
The painting in question is small, barely the size of an iPad. Known as Homage à Gertrude, it hangs in the Special Collections department of the Charles E. Young Research Library at UCLA. Few outside of library researchers see it.
In 1905-6 Picasso painted a portrait of his friend and patron, the American modernist writer Gertrude Stein. That work, now at the Metropolitan Museum (left), predates cubism and is a roughly natural likeness inflected by exposure to African and ancient Iberian sculpture, along with the latest innovations of Matisse.
Picasso’s style changed dramatically over the next couple of years. In summer 1907 he painted Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. He didn’t offer it for sale; he didn’t even show it to the public until 1916.
The patron who might have best appreciated Les Demoiselles at its time of creation was Gertrude Stein. But she was American, and Picasso thought his magnum opus belonged in France. In 1924 Picasso sold Les Demoiselles to the wealthy designer Jacques Doucet, who promised to bequeath it to Louvre. He didn’t, of course. It’s now at the Museum of Modern Art (below right).
Though Picasso didn’t sell his masterpiece to either Stein, he gave Gertrude a consolation prize. It was Homage à Gertrude, a small 1908 work rephrasing the revolutionary demoiselles.
As in the MoMA painting, Homage à Gertrude presents Afro-Iberian pink nudes against a fractured background suggesting blue sky and clouds, with a red curtain at one side and a small fruit still life at bottom. The Homage brings in an element of allegory, with an angel-winged nude blowing a horn. Picasso inscribed his title on a white scroll.
Homage à Gertrude is thus an encapsulation of one of the pre-eminent modern paintings, with a unique connection to the artist’s most renowned patron. How did it end up at UCLA?
Bruin alumnus Gilbert A. Harrison (1915-2008) was a Gertrude Stein fanboy. He recalled a 1937 trip to France:
“I was eager to get to Paris and see Miss Stein at 27 rue de Fleurus, but to my shock and sorrow, she wasn’t there. Fortunately, I’d been invited to lunch by Bernard Fäy, one of her closest friends and professor of American civilization at the College de France. He saw how disappointed I was, got in touch with her, and the next day an invitation came to visit her in Bilignin, a tiny village in the Savoy where she and Miss Toklas summered.
“At the railway station in Belley, the closest town to Bilignin, Miss Stein and her Ford were waiting, and I was driven to a simple, handsome stone house perched on the edge of a deep ravine. The two-day stay was gorgeous – good food, by Alice; great talk, by Miss Stein. I can still taste the homemade strawberry preserves on the breakfast tray, which was set up each morning in the garden. For dinner there was a crusty meatloaf with two hard-boiled eggs at its center. And red wine. For me. Miss Stein never drank, nor smoked, and I did both.
“She seemed very interested in my telling her about the university religious conference at UCLA. “Come here, pussy,” she called out to Miss Toklas, who was in the kitchen. ‘Listen to this! Protestants, Catholics, Jews, all together? How Californian – how American.’
“The next morning we took a long walk across the farmland from Aix-les-Bain. As we passed a pond, Gertrude said, ‘Now, Gil, get that pond lily for Alice, and she’ll love you all her life.’ I was uncertain. An old, leaky rowboat was the only way of reaching it. The deed was done, however, and the walk continued. ‘The trouble with you second-rate intellectuals,’ I remember her saying, ‘is that….’ I’ve never been able to remember the end of that sentence…
“I went home to Los Angeles, and soon World War II was upon us. Miss Stein died shortly after the German surrender. But Alice and I remained good friends until her death thirty years later. Miss Stein had been right about the gift of the pond lily.”
Harrison, owner and editor of The New Republic, assembled a superlative collection of Gertrude Stein manuscripts and memorabilia, drawing on his friendship with Toklas. His holdings, donated to the UCLA Library, range from the original typescript of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas to a silk handkerchief that Toklas embroidered with her partner’s epigram, “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.”
The Harrison trove includes a magic-realist 1930 Gertrude Stein and Her Dog Basket by Francis Picabia and a vaguely cubist Portrait of Alice B. Toklas by Pavel Tchelitchew. But best of all is the Homage à Gertrude, often mentioned in the Picasso literature. John Richardson speculated that it was an ironic tribute—for Picasso was never sure whether Stein was a genius or poseur. In Richardson’s analysis, the nude offering fruit represents the hospitable Toklas, and the winged figure at right is Stein—blowing her own horn.
Beyond dispute: Homage à Gertrude is a painting that deserves to be better known.