In August 1912, American photographer Alfred Stieglitz published Gertrude Stein‘s word portraits of Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse in a special issue of Camera Work. Most scholars agree that these word portraits inspired the invention of the object portrait in the American visual arts. Marius de Zayas, Francis Picabia, Marsden Hartley, Man Ray, Elsa Von Freytag- Loringhoven, Arthur Dove, Charles Demuth, and Georgia O‘Keeffe explored the genre as members of American artistic circles from 1912 through the 1930s. As the genre developed, these artists drew simultaneously upon the semantic and syntactic play of cubist collage, photomontage, Dada language experiments, assemblage, and traditional fine art practices.
The identification of Stein‘s word portraits of Picasso and Matisse as the source of inspiration for object portraiture is secure in scholarly literature. Yet, the theoretical relationship between the two over time remains unexplored. Moreover, scholars have failed to consider other literary experiments by Stein, such as Tender Buttons: Objects, Food, Rooms (1914) and the word portraits produced after 1911, as contributing factors in the genre‘s development. Steinian scholarship primarily attributes her portrait theory to the application of the American psychologist William James‘ system of characterology, which addresses the mental phenomena of simultaneity, stream of consciousness, and a continuous present. As Stein created a linguistic correspondence to Jamesian perception, she employed an alternative language system that made use of repetition, fragmentation, metaphor and metonymy, word play, punning, word heap (or a conscious, volitional emptying of words), nonsense, and sound associations. In so doing, Stein questioned and attacked traditional modes of identity construction in her experimental writing. Her primary objective was to capture modern character and personality as revealed through modern experiences.
I argue that the development of the object portrait genre as practiced by the artists listed above must be considered in light of the profound impact of Gertrude Stein‘s portrait theory, embedded in the cultural interest in personality and psychology, as demonstrated progressively over the course of her literary career. Like Stein, the artists believed that traditional visual language systems based on mimesis were incapable of describing modern personality and alternative lifestyles. Instead, they employed an alternative visual language of objects associated with their subjects to replace portraiture‘s traditional reliance on physical resemblance as an indicator of character. Thus, they invented a new means of conveying essential personality traits.
I argue further that Stein‘s development of an alternative language system based on Jamesian psychology, to question traditional modes of identity construction in her experimental writing, contributed to the overall structure and meaning of object portraiture. Art historians have addressed aspects of this argument but they have not attributed this to the artists‘ interests in Stein‘s writing specifically. Therefore, the primary objective of this dissertation is to bring together the literary scholarship on Stein‘s word portraiture and the related art historical scholarship on object portraiture to reconsider the claims made in each in an attempt to discern parallel themes and stylistic choices evident in the genre‘s development as a visual form of expression within the American avant-garde.