June 2024

The Steiny Road to Operadom | Karren LaLonde Alenier | www.scene4.com

Brilliant Exiles

Karren Alenier

Brilliant Exiles: American Women in Paris, 1900-1939, an important exhibition that opened April 26, 2024, at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, focuses on women artists who flourished in the City of Light in the early 1900’s. While curator Robyn Asleson emphasizes the more colorful and flashier Black artists like dancer Josephine Baker and singer/nightclub owner Bricktop Smith, Gertrude Stein has a huge presence in this exhibition. The Steiny Road Poet was awed to see Stein’s Picasso portrait, with its velvet rail ensuring viewers not get too close, there in this exhibition. It was  allowed to travel from its usual home at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.


Pablo Picasso began this portrait in 1905 and completed it the following year. It is considered part of his Rose Period paintings and a foundational piece leading to his Cubism. This portrait was one of only two paintings Stein carried with her when she and Alice Toklas fled Paris to the French countryside during World War II. Days before the operation that would end her life, she wrote a will that bequeathed this artwork upon her death to the Metropolitan Museum.


Picasso’s portrait of Stein is flanked by Pavel Tchelitchew’s blue-toned portrait of Stein’s beloved Alice who has her head bowed and eyes averted to something in her hands, possibly a handkerchief. On the other side of the imposing Stein who is leaning forward in a masterful gesture is Gertrude’s sister-in-law Sarah Stein who stares forth in a frightful gaze from her portrait by Henri Matisse.


Nearby is a dual portrait of a writerly Gertrude and an embroidering Alice in a painting by Francis Rose. Next to the Rose portrait is a case containing a terracotta head of Stein by sculptor Jo Davidson.

There are many familiar women in this display of compelling portraits, some of whom knew Gertrude Stein such as: novelist Djuna Barnes,  painter Zelda Fitzgerald, diarist Anaïs Nin, bookseller/publisher Sylvia Beach, writer/journalist Janet Flanner, writer Natalie Clifford Barney, poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, and publisher Jane Heap.

In an online interview, Curator Asleson quotes Gertrude Stein who said the men [who came to Paris like Ernest Hemingway] were the lost generation but Asleson states it was Paris where the women found themselves and their artistic talents.

Beyond the works related to Stein, the two pieces of art that stays in memory for the Dresser are the “self-portrait” by Zelda Fitzgerald which shows two lanky and muscular nude dancers (Fitzgerald trained to be a ballet dancer) and the larger-than-life poster-style portrait of Josephine Baker.

ZeldaFitzgerald-cr  JosephineBaker-Poster-cr

This is a show to take your daughters and granddaughters to. Brilliant Exiles continues through February 23, 2025. It moves to the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, KY from March 29 through June 22, 2025, and finally to the Georgia Museum of Art, Athens, GA from July 19 through October 12, 2025.



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Karren Alenier is a poet and writer. She writes a monthly column and is a Senior Writer for Scene4. She is the author of The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas. Read her blog.
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