If you’ve seen Woody Allen’s recent movie, Midnight in Paris, then you know the protagonist gets to live a fantasy: experiencing Paris in the 1920s. Set amidst free-flowing booze, unending jazz, and the city’s twinkling lights, the movie is one giant valentine to Paris and to the incredible creativity that was flourishing there during the Jazz Age.
Among the artists and writers depicted, there is a special place reserved for Gertrude Stein—presented in the film as the grande dame of the Parisian art world. The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde, edited by Janet Bishop, Cécile Debray, and Rebecca Rabinow, explores this idea more fully. The book beautifully portrays the world occupied by Stein and her brothers, Leo and Michael, and their role in Paris’s vibrant cultural life, along with the stories behind their evening salons and the amazing collection of modern art works they acquired, creating, through their influence, a new international taste for modern art.
In the movie, when the protagonist learns the price of a Matisse painting, he jokes that he wishes he could “pick up six or seven.” Two women who did much more than that were Claribel and Etta Cone who, through frequent trips to Europe, became close friends with Gertrude and Leo Stein. They traveled frequently to Paris, eventually amassing an extraordinary collection of 3,000 works of art. Learn more about the sisters in Karen Levitov’s Collecting Matisse and Modern Masters: The Cone Sisters of Baltimore.
If you want to read more about the writers in Paris at the time, check out Imagining Paris: Exile, Writing, and American Identity, by J. Gerald Kennedy, which looks into the life and work of five American ex-pats: Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, Henry Miller, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Djuna Barnes. Or, if you want to experience for yourself what Paris might have been like during the Jazz Age, be sure to look at David Travis’s Paris: Photographs from a Time That Was, which is, like Woody Allen’s film, a gorgeous visual tribute to the City of Light.