Monday, October 17, 2011

The Gertrude Stein Statue -- Bryant Park

photo NYC Parks Department

In November 22, 1931 American writer and photographer Carl Van Vechten wrote a letter from his apartment at 150 West 55th Street to Gertrude Stein in Paris.  The two writers had met there in 1913 and for the rest of Stein’s life they would sent letters back and forth across the Atlantic regularly.

In this letter Van Vechten asked for a photograph “of Jo Davidson’s statue too!  I want to have this very much.”  After a chatty closing, he added a post script, “Please send me a photograph of the Davidson.”

Van Vechten was referring to a squatty sculpture done by American artist Jo Davison a full decade earlier when World War I had come to an end and Paris was crowded with new-thinking artists, writers and musicians.  The art and literature world were changing and Gertrude Stein had positioned herself squarely in the middle of the revolution. 

Reared in a wealthy Jewish family in Pennsylvania, she had moved to Paris with her brother Leo in 1903.  Immediately they were stirred by the community of the avant garde and became fast friends with Pablo Picasso and supported modern writers and artists.

Stein, along with her life-long partner Alice B. Toklas, hosted Saturday night salons to which the greatest names in art and literature of the day flocked.  Stein was said to hold court like an empress at these gatherings; yet always maintaining her approachable and congenial personality.  Among those that came to Stein’s salons was Jo Davidson.

The writer would visit Davidson at his studio, reading to him from her works, while he sculpted busts of prominent persons.  He would later remember “’A rose is a rose is a rose,’ took on a different meaning with each inflection.  When she read aloud, I got the humor of it.  We both laughed, and her laughter was something to hear.  There was an eternal quality about her—she somehow symbolized wisdom.”

That eternal quality prompted Davidson to ask Gertrude Stein to pose for him in 1920.  Posing for Davidson was unlike posing for any other artist.  He preferred to chat, perhaps share coffee.   For his Stein sculpture, he needed to capture her earthy essence.  “To do a head of Gertrude was not enough—there was so much more to her than that.  So I did a seated figure of her—a sort of modern Buddha,” he explained three years later when the statue was finally cast.

Getrude Stein poses for Jo Davidson in his studio -- photo Vanity Fair, February 1923

Indeed the portrait was Buddha-like, as the artist intended.  Stein sits in a long dress, open legged, with her hands dropped between her knees.  Her face is age-worn, but kind, and she looks to the floor with a stare of contemplation.

Gertrude Stein loved it.

“Miss Stein returned the compliment,” reported Vanity Fair Magazine in February 1923, “by doing of him [a] portrait.”   Her part prose, part verse work was titled “A Portrait of Jo Davidson.”

The statue was loved and hated.  Critics acclaimed it or denounced it as “unflattering.”  Yet Davidson’s intentions were never to flatter – not in the sense that would necessitate manipulating physical truths to achieve physical beauty.  Stein’s essence was not worn on the outside.

Ernest Hemingway described her saying “Miss Stein was very big but not tall and heavily built like a peasant woman.  She had beautiful eyes and a strong German-Jewish face that could also have been Friulano and she reminded me of a northern Italian peasant woman with her clothes, her mobile face and her lovely, thick alive immigrant hair which she wore put up.”

Hemingway’s description could have been written about Davidson’s statue.

Gertrude Stein died on July 27, 1946.  The footprints she left in the world of art and literature are as crisp today as they were half a century ago.  Stein once said “the most serious thinking about writing in the twentieth century has been done by a woman.”  She was speaking of herself.

During Gertrude Stein’s life in Paris, New York City had filled its parks and squares with bronze and granite statues of statesmen, poets and warriors.   In 1992, however, there was only one that depicted a woman – not an angel or an allegory—the statue of Joan of Arc.

Parks Commissioner Betsy Gotbaum took notice of the slight.  The New York Times quoted her on July 16, 1992 saying “I was a little insulted that Mother Goose was the only representative of my sex in probably the most important park.”

Dr. Maury Leibovitz heard her message.  The New York art dealer and psychologist happened to own the estate of Jo Davidson.  Before long New York would have a statue to a real, American-born woman:  Gertrude Stein.

Bryant Park, directly behind the New York Public Library, had just undergone an extensive restoration and renovation.  Leibovitz arranged for a copy of the Davidson statue to be cast and placed on a polished granite base designed by architects Kupiec & Koutsomitis.   The Bryant Park statue was the eighth casting – there would be two more to follow—with the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art owning their own copies.

A terra cotta version of the Stein sculpture in Washington DC -- photo National Portrait Gallery

Comparing Hemingway’s lesbian character in For Whom the Bell Tolls with Gertrude Stein, the authors of “Hemingway’s Genders: Rereading the Hemingway Text,” wrote “Both Pilar and Stein are figures of ambiguous gender.  Both are perceived as combining a masculine massiveness with feminine qualities.  Jo Davidson’s marvelous statue of Stein in New York’s Bryant Park…illustrates well the monumental quality she shares with Pilar.  Both women were seen by Hemingway not only as exemplars of different sexualities but as teachers of these differences.”

Several months after Dr. Leibovitz died, his gift to the city was unveiled on November 5, 1992.  It remains one of the most fascinating and captivating works of public art in the city.


  1. Hi Daytonian -
    A post on Sidney Z Mitchell on Old Long Island today brings up the question - "Where was his NYC townhouse?"

    I thought you might have a clue. Any ideas?

  2. in 1942 at the age of 80, he had a city residence at 1020 Fifth Avenue in addition to the Oyster Bay estate. The building still exists and is still populated by millionaires and servants.