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Gallery Nine

FOUR SAINTS IN THREE ACTS

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Curator Rebecca Rabinow discusses the 1934 opera Four Saints in Three Acts composed by Virgil Thomson, with a libretto by Gertrude Stein. Transcript available in Met Media

Gertrude began collaborating with the American composer Virgil Thomson in early 1927. That Christmas, Thompson performed the first act of what would become the opera Four Saints in Three Acts for a group of friends that included Gertrude, Alice, and Tristan Tzara. After Gertrude's friend Mabel Weeks heard it performed by Virgil Thomson a year later, she opined, "It would finish opera just as Picasso had finished oil painting." The opera debuted in February 1934 at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, where it was performed to celebrate the opening of a new wing and the first major Picasso retrospective held in America.

A few months earlier, the director of the museum, A. E. "Chick" Austin Jr., wrote Gertrude, "Preparations for the opera are going ahead very rapidly. Everybody concerned is delighted with the theatre, now almost complete. . . . Miss Stettheimer has made the most enchanting models for both settings and costumes in a style which is entirely new and unique and singularly appropriate to the mood of the work as I understand it. . . . I am convinced that you have found the only literary solution for opera in English and that Virgil's music sets it off to perfection." The opera was so well received that it was subsequently performed in New York and Chicago.


GERTRUDE AND ALICE

Of all the Steins, only Gertrude managed to retain the bulk of her collection throughout her life. The paintings she and Leo acquired at the beginning of the century had greatly increased in value, and she occasionally sold or traded works to finance the publication of her books. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933), a somewhat fictionalized, breezy memoir of her early years in Paris, brought her international fame and led to a book tour in the United States. A younger generation of artists, including Eugene Berman, Francis Picabia, Francis Rose, and Pavel Tchelitchew, gravitated toward Gertrude, flattered by her interest in them.

Gertrude's benediction was highly valued in the early 1930s. The artist and writer Jacques Émile Blanche sent a letter introducing the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, "a charming youth absolutely lost and wondering how to make a living with his work." Kenneth Clark, the director of the National Gallery, London, called her attention to a "young English painter called Graham Sutherland that I think outstandingly good." In hopes of discovering the next great artist, Gertrude "went on looking at pictures all the time, and it is one of the nice things about Paris there are such a lot of pictures to be seen just casually in any street anywhere" (Everybody's Autobiography, 1937).

In 1938, when their landlord reclaimed the atelier at 27, rue de Fleurus, Gertrude and Alice moved to an apartment closer to the Seine. In the summer of 1940, Germany invaded France and seized control of Paris. Ignoring the American Embassy's repeated warnings to evacuate the country, Gertrude and Alice retreated to their rented house at Bilignin. Bernard Faÿ, a close friend, translator of Gertrude's writings, and Nazi collaborator, protected them. Gertrude did not purchase any art during the war. The German military was on the verge of confiscating her collection when Allied troops arrived in Paris in August 1944. For more information about Gertrude's life in Occupied France, see https://jacket2.org/commentary/gertrude-steins-war-years-setting-record-straight.

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