The Case Against Picasso: Gertrude Stein, Canons, and Colonialism

Ryan T. J. J.
Notes to a Young Artist
3 min readMay 4, 2020
Image of Pablo Picasso as a child

Pablo Ruiz Picasso is a household name in the visual art world. One of the most famous painters in the world, he is frequently lauded by the art world, and the narrative often goes like this: a genius artist whose intense gaze was picked up on immediately by his family as a young boy, he lived through poverty, knowing that his way of painting and seeing the world would shake it — it was only a matter of time before his genius got discovered, before achieving fame and success.

That much is a myth, as art scholars have, since the later part of the 20th century, begun to term it. Instead, his success can be more concretely discussed and attributed to, among other things, American writer Gertrude Stein’s patronage in his early career.

(Left:) Woman In An Armchair, 1929. (Right:) La Rêve, 1932.

Though Picasso’s visual style was radical, most narratives argue his masterfulness in ways that are not consistently defendable. For example, his works are frequently argued to render the visual world in a brand-new, multi-perspectival way. In works like Woman In An Armchair (1929), though there are indeed instances of multiple perspectives being superimposed onto each other, that the sitter’s limbs have been elongated to take on sinuous, vine-like forms, or that even her breasts have been imaginatively distorted so far that she can be visually said to “bear fruit,” suggest that perhaps it wasn’t his way of viewing the world that demanded attention, but the latent sexuality in the work.

Self-Portrait, 1907.

Also widely praised is his incorporation of traits of African, or Iberian Art — the large, flatness of the eyes and other facial features resembling those of masks and other artifacts of such culture — for the spiritual value of motifs of supposedly more “uncivilized” people, who were more — in the words of many gallerists — “spiritually authentic.” This merely constitutes colonialist canon, wherein the Western art world continues to fetishize the motifs of foreign cultures as being primitive and primal. Thomas McEvilley (20th-century American art critic) himself lamented existing, misguided discussions of the “spiritual propinquity” of “primitive”[1] elements.

There were many (struggling) artists, who as children, drew manically in their notebooks in class, knew to scribble away unimportant detail, and knew to piece together different motifs and styles in patchwork, yet it takes an influential critique to confer “genius” upon these artists. Stein was known to provide that critique for Picasso — had she not acquired and displayed so many of his works in her Salon alongside works of other artistic forces like Henri Matisse and Paul Cézanne, would Picasso still enjoy the fame and critical acclaim he does today? For other reasons too — for example, Laurel Recker (contemporary American scholar in Global Studies) explores Stein’s construction of Picasso rivalry against Matisse[2], and Karin Cope (contemporary Canadian art historian) and many others explore the effects of Stein’s burgeoning success as a writer on the acclaim of Picasso’s works[3] — I am not alone in arguing not.


[1] Thomas McEvilley, “Doctor Lawyer Indian Chief: ‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art at the Museum of Modern Art in 1984,” Artforum International 23, November 1984, 24,

[2] Laurel Recker, ‘Pitting “Matisse” Against “Picasso”: Gertrude Stein’s Companion Portraits,’ Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory 72, №4, 2016, 27–52,

[3] Karin Cope, “Painting after Gertrude Stein,” Diacritics 24, №2/3, Summer-Fall 1994, 190–203,



Ryan T. J. J.
Notes to a Young Artist

Ryan is a twenty-something human currently at Stanford University, finding something that needs to be done, hopefully, not singularly.