Thursday, August 18, 2011

In the Studio by Alfred Stevens

Though seldom considered today (thanks, mainly, to our intense interest in ‘artists’ like Jackson Pollack and David Hockney), Alfred Émile Léopold Stevens (1823 – 1906) painted too many magnificent pictures to be swept aside by the tide of contemporary art ‘criticism.’

Stevens was born in Brussels.  Both his older brother and son were painters, and another brother an art dealer and critic.  He came from talented parents – his father was something of a celebrated collector in his own right, and his mother ran the Café de l'Amitié in Brussels, a meeting place for politicians, writers, and artists.

Like many artists of the time, Stevens studied at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, where he mixed with several Neo-Classical painters, and in 1843 he went to Paris where he studies at the École des Beaux-Arts.  He started to show his own work in 1851, and he quickly became a medalist at the Paris Salon. 

Stevens soon became known for his masterful pictures of women in contemporary dress. He became a glittering part of the Paris social scene, befriending such worthies as Alexandre Dumas, Théophile Gautier, and Eugène Delacroix (who was a witness at Stevens’ wedding to socialite Marie Blanc).

During the Franco-Prussian War, Stevens fought for the French before returning to Belgium with his wife and family before the Paris Commune.  They returned to Paris after the war and he continued to win acclaim and commissions.  However, Stevens did not successfully manage his income, and after outliving most of his friends and family, died alone in a Paris hotel.

In the Studio is a remarkable picture for a variety of reasons.  Socially, it is quite interesting for a painting of the period to depict female artists.  Though there were certainly women painters at the time, they were, at best, marginal figures.  But also look at the easy composition: the painter stands aside her easel, palette in hand, listening in a languid attitude.  The studio visitor, obviously a lady of substance, leans forward in concentration and engagement.  The model, on the other end of the room (and of the social spectrum) sits isolated on the couch, splendid in her ornate dressing gown (which, no doubt, belongs to the artist).  Despite her classical beauty, the face seems, in repose, sullen and care-worn.  She is indeed a woman apart.

The studio itself is rich with the props and details often found in studios of this era – and is particularly rich in bits of Orientalia, including fans and a golden Japanese screen.  Stevens was a key figure in creating an interest in Japanese art, which was exploited by many artists of the era, including Whistler.  This wonderful picture is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and my readers are urged to visit it.

Below, to provide an additional taste of Steven’s Oriental oeuvre, here is his delightful La Parisienne japonaise.

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