The Eccles Centre Postgraduate Fellowship helped me texture my understanding of salon culture from the 17th century to the 20th century, writes Chelsea Olsen. By looking into the correspondence of writer Gertrude Stein, I uncovered a wealth of little details that not only reinforced my current interpretations of Stein’s salon-inspired word portraits and her positioning within the salon space, but also brought Stein and her salon to life.
The Eccles Centre Postgraduate Fellowship enabled me to undertake an intensive five-day research trip to the British Library in May 2017. During this trip, I was able to consult the Library’s expansive collection of hard-to-find audio and textual resources on Gertrude Stein, Natalie Clifford Barney, and the Stettheimer sisters—all of whom hosted important literary salons in the early 20th century. From listening to Stein’s readings of her salon-inspired word portraits to consulting Barney’s own painstakingly hand-drawn map of her salon and its habitués, I came away from this research trip with a more intimate and multidimensional understanding of how the 20th century salon operated.
Upon receiving the fellowship, I was entering the last leg of my PhD in English at the University of Sussex. In my doctoral thesis, tentatively titled Networking Subversion: The Feminist Potential of Modernist Literary Salons, I build upon existing feminist theorizations of the 17th and 18th century salon in order to assess how we can consider the 20th century salon as a space conducive to feminist modes of creative expression or political action. Using three American women-led salons from the early to mid-20th century—the Stein salon, the Barney salon, and the Stettheimer salon—I assess how matters of gender and sexuality were treated within the 20th century salon space and in the literary and artistic works that derived from it. While I had already consulted hundreds of archival letters and out-of-print texts at the Bibliothèque littéraire Jacques-Doucet and Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, I was at a stage in my research where I needed to cross-reference my findings and add a bit more colour and depth to my descriptions of the salon space—especially that of Gertrude Stein’s salon.
For the first two days of my visit, I focused my research exclusively on published collections of letters and personal essays between Stein and three of her most loyal habitués: writer Sherwood Anderson, Cubist artist Pablo Picasso, and writer/photographer Carl Van Vechten. Through these letters, I uncovered a wealth of little details that not only reinforced my current interpretations of Stein’s salon-inspired word portraits and her positioning within the salon space, but also brought Stein and her salon to life. Through Sherwood Anderson, I came to see Stein as a strong, jovial woman, who chose to laugh in the face of her detractors. The “he he he”s of “If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso” (1923)—which I had already read as concomitant to Hélène Cixous’ “The Laugh of Medusa”—took on a new subversive power and significance. Similarly, Correspondence: Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein (2008) gave me new context for understanding Stein’s other literary portrait of Picasso, “Picasso” (1911); in the portrait, Stein repeatedly refers to Picasso as one who “was one going on working,” which Picasso—in many of his early letters to Stein and her brother, Leo—describes himself as. What most caught me by surprise, however, was a series of letters between Stein and Van Vechten in which they discuss Florine Stettheimer’s Portrait of Carl Van Vechten (1922)—a work which I analyze in my chapter on the Stettheimer salon.
The following two days proved to be equally fruitful. During a listening appointment at the Library’s Rare Books & Music Reading Room, I was able to hear Stein’s readings of “Matisse” (1911) and “If I Told Him,” in which her emphases on certain words and her overall tone clarified and reinforced my own interpretations of the portraits and how Stein positions herself as both Matisse and Picasso’s superior, judge, and maker within them. I also consulted one of Natalie Clifford Barney’s collections of memoirs—Souvenirs Indiscrets (1960)—which provided new insight into the origins of her 20 rue Jacob salon and Barney’s admiration of Sappho.
Yet, the ultimate highlight of the visit—and one of the highlights of my academic career thus far—came on the last day, when I came across the hand-drawn map of Barney’s salon in a first edition of her memoirs, Aventures de l’esprit (1929). Not only was I utterly charmed by the sheer amount of detail (the side table featuring cups of whisky, port, orangeade, and fruit was particularly appealing), but I also found great pleasure in deciphering the dozens upon dozens of names of salon guests that Barney had crammed into every spare inch. I felt as though I had been transported into that space, overwhelmed by the talent and fame of those who filled it.
Chelsea Olsen is a PhD student at the University of Sussex.