Alfred Emile-Léopold Stevens
Alfred Stevens was a 19th century Belgian painter who became famous for his vivid and graceful portraits of upper-class Parisian women who appear to have spent their days doing nothing in particular besides simply being beautiful. These elaborate and intricately-detailed portraits of society women in their boudoirs may have become his trademark but there is more to Alfred Stevens than meets the eye.
Stevens was born in Brussels in 1823 but spent most of his life (from 1844 onwards) in Paris where he mixed with artists like Eugene Delacroix, Theodore Rousseau, Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas and writer Alexandre Dumas. He even became known as "the Fleming who was more Parisian than most Parisians".
The focus of his work at the beginning of his career was slightly historical with a hint of Romanticism. But it soon started to tend more towards Realism as the social issues of the time (like the common man or, in Stevens' case, the common woman's burdens), started to trickle through. Once installed in Paris, however, he became influenced by the Belle Epoque era and all the luxury it entailed, shifting the focus of his paintings in an entirely new but still very realistic and humane direction.
Upper-class Parisian women of the Second Empire (and later the Third Republic) became the focal point in his works - women who seemed to have nothing better to do than wait for something that might never happen. These paintings are suffused with an air of melancholy and despair, which clashes with their otherwise colourful and ingeniously-detailed style.
Stevens was a keen observer of these women's inner and outer states. Not only does he accurately portray their feelings of loneliness and boredom, but he also has a remarkable eye for gestures, facial expressions, habits and even skin tone. The lavish 19th century salons decorated with silk fabrics and lacquer in which these women spent their days were perceived as fundamentally shallow, contrasting the superficial beauty of the period with its inner anguish. Stevens did a spectacular job in creating tangible textures and fragrant flowers that produce a truly dramatic and decadent atmosphere, which successfully distracts the viewer from the hidden truth beneath the shiny surface.
His paintings resemble snapshots of crucial moments in the lives of countless women. Stevens often incorporated books and letters in his oeuvre, which have the intriguing effect of inviting the spectator to make up stories about what could have happened or better, still, what is going to happen. Turmoil, sorrow, bad news - all are recurring themes in his work as he depicts women's reactions to these consuming states. Tables also frequently feature in his paintings - symbolising support during particularly dark days.
Although he often portrays these women as divine, even ethereal beings (his Salome, for example, is slightly reminiscent of Khnopff), he also leaves room for the flaws that make them human. These women are strong femme fatales (illustrated by the many portraits of his friend, the French stage actress Sarah Bernhardt), but at the same time they are vulnerable. The rare moments when they get to be themselves - behind closed doors and away from prying eyes - are what most fascinate Stevens.
This duality is also emphasised by his love for mirrors, often showing both sides of a woman (front and back representing the inner and outer states), and his suggestion of other rooms through open doors. These doors offer a contrast between the vibrant and hopeful world of high society, and the inner world of a woman locked away with only her memories.
Eastern influences slowly make their way into the portraits as Stevens begins to incorporate Japanese ornaments and clothing, enhancing already sumptuous canvases. His fascination with exoticism forms a separate part of the exhibition, and includes various ornaments and props featured in his works.
During the final stages of his career, Stevens spent considerable time by the sea in Normandy due to poor health. This resulted in several paintings of harbours and beaches which lack the lustre of his prime.
Date of Birth: 11 May 1823, Brussels
Date of Death: 24 August 1906, Paris
Alfred Emile-Léopold Stevens was a Belgian painter who came from a family of painters. Stevens had two brothers, Joseph Edouard, who was an animal painter, and Arthur (died 1890) who was an art critic and keeper of the painting gallery of Leopold II. Alfred married Marie Blanc (d. 1891) in 1858. Their eldest son Léopold (born 1861) became a portrait, genre and landscape painter. The couple’s other children were Catherine, Jean and Pierre.
Stevens studied under Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Stevens early paintings show a debt to the Realism of Gustave Courbet and the historical subjects of Henri Leys.
After 1855 he turned to painting genre scenes depicting female subjects within middle-class Parisian interiors.
Stevens shared Whistler’s interest in Japonisme (see Woman in Pink, 1866, Museum of Modern Art, Brussels) and was amongst those who frequented La Porte Chinoise at 36 rue Vivienne in the 1860s.
According to Henri Fantin-Latour, Stevens greatly admired one of Whistler’s White Girl paintings, probably Symphony in White, Whistler also appreciated Stevens paintings. Visiting the 1887 International Exhibition in Antwerp, he declared of a painting by Stevens, ‘one would not mind having painted that!’ The Pennells likened Stevens to Whistler in his refusal to bow to public taste. He and Whistler were in correspondence during the period 1886-95.
As President of the Society of British Artists, Whistler was behind the election of Stevens to its membership in 1887. When Whistler resigned his Presidency of the Royal Society of British Artists on 4 June 1888, Stevens, along with Mortimer Menpes, Walter Sickert and Théodore Roussel, resigned in support.
At the beginning of the 1880's, Alfred Stevens' career was at its peak. In 1880 he had sold the sumptuous Le salon de l'artiste to William K. Vanderbilt for 50,000 francs, then a princely sum. He had been forced to sell his elegant house and garden on the Rue des Martyrs, owing to the city's public works program, but he had received 300,000 francs in compensation and was, one would assume, flush from the sale. One slight cloud on the horizon was that his physician, Dr. Peter, had told him to seek the sea air for his health. Hence for the next six years he went to Sainte-Adresse for two months of the year. This was a blessing in disguise, for he was offered a contract by Georges Petit for his annual production of marine paintings at 50,000 francs a year. The agreement was presumably for the small marines which were executed very rapidly at all times of day and in all kinds of weather, usually looking out to sea, sometimes with figures on the shore. They represent Stevens at his most impressionistic.
There were other more important pictures, however, that drew upon his more sustained seaside observations. The most famous was La veuve et ses enfants which was commissioned by the Brussels Museum and was delivered in 1888. At least one other version of this popular picture exists. Another is In Deep Thought of 1881 (St. Louis Art Museum). These pictures show several ladies against the sea with ships in the distance.