The distance in this picture between Alice Toklas, on the left, and Gertrude Stein, on the right, belies the closeness of their life together. They met as expats in Paris in 1907 and were partners for just shy of forty years, until Stein’s death in 1946. Stein was a poet and novelist; Toklas published cookbooks that combined recipes with memories of their life together. The couple was friends with the avant-garde writers and artists of the time and often invited them into their home for food and conversation.
They’re shown surrounded by the art that Stein had begun to collect years earlier. Her pose is mirrored in an 1878 portrait by Paul Cézanne of his wife, hanging just above her head. It’s the first picture that Stein and her brother Leo bought for their collection, and is encircled by works by Pablo Picasso that came to be her focus once Leo moved out and Alice Toklas moved in.
“It was like one of the best rooms in the finest museum except there was a big fireplace and it was warm and comfortable and they gave you good things to eat and tea and natural distilled liqueurs made from purple plums, yellow plums or wild raspberries….The paintings and the cakes and the eau-de-vie were truly wonderful,” Ernest Hemingway wrote of visiting Stein and Toklas in A Moveable Feast, his account of life in Paris in the 1920s.
This photograph captures some of that warmth, that lived-in comfort. I could pore endlessly over its details, probably because I appreciate any glimpse into the lives of others and the stuff with which people choose to surround themselves. But, more than that, I am drawn to the stillness of this picture, the self-containment of each woman, the directness with which they face the camera, ensconced in the familiarity of the home they shared, the life they had built together. Toklas looks alert, watchful. Stein seems a bit impatient, a cup of tea or coffee cooling on the table before her, an aperitif of the sort that Hemingway described waiting alongside in a delicate stem glass.
This picture was taken fifteen years into their relationship, not long after the end of the first World War, but at first glance, there is little hint of the turmoil they’d endured. Looking more closely, you might notice the cracks in the wall behind Toklas, the chips in the distressed plaster on which the collection hangs. Stein and Toklas weren’t wealthy but chose to buy art by their contemporaries rather than spend money on more material comforts. Hemingway claimed that Stein told him, “You can either buy clothes or buy pictures…It’s that simple. No one who is not very rich can do both. Pay no attention to your clothes and no attention at all to the mode, and buy your clothes for comfort and durability, and you will have the clothes money to buy pictures.’”
Stein willed her estate to Toklas, but because their partnership was not legally recognized, the art collection was taken from the apartment where she lived after Stein’s death, leaving patches where the paintings had shielded the walls from exposure to light. I can’t fathom the heartbreak of losing the things that reminded her of her lover, her companion for so long, but Toklas was sanguine as her eyesight began to fail her late in life. “I can remember them better than I can see them now,” she remarked. So perhaps it is better not to dwell on those later years, to set aside for just a moment the long history of LGBTQ+ discrimination and dispossession, to think instead of the fullness of their life together, and call to mind another of Hemingway’s descriptions of his visits with the couple: “The pictures were exciting and the talk was very good.”