A Sense of Life in the Living — Paris Portraits: Stories of Picasso, Matisse, Gertrude Stein, and Their Circle by Harriet Lane Levy

Paris Portraits

Paris Portraits: Stories of Picasso, Matisse, Gertrude Stein,
and Their Circle

BY Harriet Lane Levy
(Heyday Books, 2011)


From the Publisher:

Paris Portraits is a short masterpiece. This sparkling manuscript, long hidden in the archives of the University of California’s Bancroft Library, brings to life a vibrant and mythic time and place. Through Harriet’s eyes, we circulate among the artists and patrons in the salons of Gertrude and Sarah Stein, overhear conversations between the up-and-coming Matisse and his students, and see Gertrude Stein’s reaction when she learns of Picasso putting his hand on Toklas’s knee. We’re present when, while reading the poetry of Tagore, Harriet looks up and for the first time, sees — really sees and understands with the heart — what Matisse is doing.

Paris Portraits enables us to visit, however briefly, a world that has left its mark on our imaginations — and will inspire those generations of writers, poets, and artists to come.”

In 1907 a forty-year-old San Franciscan named Harriet Lane Levy moved to Paris with her friend Alice B. Toklas. The two had been encouraged to do so by a former neighbor and childhood friend, Sarah Samuels, who had married the younger brother of the influential art patrons, Gertrude and Leo Stein. Harriet was to spend the next several years in the City of Light, wafting in and out of the Steins’ salons and Montmartre, learning about modern art and literature, and becoming acquainted with the artists and writers the Steins promoted.

Paris Portraits is Levy’s clearly written account of those years and relationships. She writes of the pre-World War I years, before Ernest Hemingway arrived in Paris; her candid stories center around the artists of the early twentieth century and pre-date the anecdotes about the Steins that are familiar to those who have read Hemingway’s memoir, A Moveable Feast. So reading Paris Portraits is like opening a rarely used drawer in an old dresser and discovering a lovely string of beads you had not known was there. It is an intriguing surprise.

…reading Paris Portraits is like opening a rarely used drawer in an old dresser and discovering a lovely string of beads you had not known was there.

At the core of this small and slim book of 104 pages are the personalities and artistic preferences of the Steins. In the chapter entitled “The Two Camps,” Levy writes of the powerful influence the Steins had over the Parisian art world — and over her. She sums up her feelings about the family in the same chapter: “…in spite of my affection for them, I hated them because I never had the courage to tell them to go to hell, as I so often wanted to do.” “Leo discovered Matisse,” she went on to write, and grew to appreciate Picasso, while Gertrude “loved Picasso,” whose “spirit was akin to her own.” But for Sarah Stein, Matisse became and remained “the one great artist.”

The Steins prominently displayed the two men’s paintings in their homes and encouraged their friends and other visitors to buy them. These visitors, Levy writes, came from all over the world to view the paintings, then returned to their homes “bearing a message, a message of a new idea, a new vision that was opening to the world.”

Levy confesses that she would have liked to purchase a Picasso, but was too afraid of angering her old friend Sarah to do so. She also relates an occasion where Alice Toklas arrives late to an appointment at Gertrude’s apartment and is treated so cruelly by Gertrude that Levy vows never to buy a single one of the Picasso paintings the tyrannical Gertrude so passionately promoted. She eventually invests in an oil painting by Matisse, “The Girl with the Green Eyes,” which hangs in the San Francisco Museum of Art at her bequest.

Levy freely admits to struggling to understand the work of both artists, as well as the writings of Gertrude Stein. “I saw nothing to praise in all these paintings on the walls,” she writes. “I looked at them over and over again, waiting for the day when they would explain themselves to me.”


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