Young Lady on the Beach
Text by Peter Mitchel
Alfred Stevens (1823-1906) was one of the hundreds of traditional artists cast into shadow by the blinding light of the sunrise of Impressionism. In 1900, Stevens was accorded the unprecedented honor of a one man retrospective at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, Paris, during his lifetime.
Lady with Japanese Doll
Within fifty years, the mention of his name in England simply led to confusion with his namesake and near contemporary, Alfred George Stevens, a sculptor from Dorset! The market, of course, follows in step. At an auction in 1902, Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Numbering at Bethlehem sold for 9,200 francs whereas Tous les Bonheurs by Alfred Stevens brought 25,000 francs. Up until 1967, no painting by Stevens had brought more than £4,000 since the Second World War and most examples sold for a few hundred pounds, if that.
Young Girl with a Duck
...What struck me about Stevens was the admiration and respect expressed by other artists, even by Whistler, one of the most caustic, whose ‘bouquets’ were usually composed of stinging nettles. Artists tend to be intolerant of mediocrity and Stevens would hardly have been a pall-bearer at Manet’s funeral in May, 1883, with Monet, Fantin and Zola if the great artist had had no regard for him in his lifetime.
After the Ball 1874
...Alfred Stevens, born at Brussels in 1823, underwent a traditional artist’s training in the late 1830’s and 1840’s. His close friend, Florent Willems, went to Paris and before long (1844) Stevens followed. He was not a prodigy and his early efforts are unrecognizable to us as the work of the artist who was to paint Tous les Bonheurs in 1861. By that date, Stevens, nearing forty, had found his niche as the painter of the contemporary Parisienne.
Afternoon in the Park 1885
The jury of the 1861 Salon where Tous les Bonheurs was exhibited told Stevens that whereas they admired his skills no medal could be awarded unless he changed his subject matter (genre) to something more conventional. His much quoted reply was ‘keep your medal and I’ll keep my genre.' Unlike some artists who feel the need to ‘evolve’, Stevens had the good sense to play to his strengths, perfect his speciality, be content with his role and his happy domestic and social life. He was not averse to the money that he started to make either.
The Second Empire, under Napoleon III, was a time of dynamism and prosperity. The young Empress raised the profile of women, set fashions, and entertained Stevens to a ball at the Tuileries in 1867. Among his fellow guests was Bismarck, destined to return to Paris in a different guise three years later! 1867 saw Stevens triumph at the Paris Exposition Universelle (World’s Fair) with eighteen paintings on display and promotion in the Legion d’Honneur. The pattern was set for the successful career of Alfred Stevens.
Le Sphinx parisien ('la Parisienne') 1870
Together with Whistler, Stevens responded early on to the Japanese craze which opened new possibilities to an artist finely tuned to the subtleties of every fabric and the nuances of every colour. ... Another seated model, Victorine Meurent, became the ‘Sphinx parisien’ in this smaller canvas (above) painted during the siege of Paris in November, 1870, a tour de force display of the artist’s sureness of touch and unfailing eye for colour.
Le Sphinx parisien 1867
In 1880, his doctor advised the artist to get some sea air into his lungs, congested by long, turpentine-fumed hours in the studio. He went to the Channel coast and thus started a long romance with sea and shore (Plate 4). In winter, he went to the Riviera and painted surprisingly modern views of the Mediterranean... Sometimes, he combined his two subjects in compositions like On a Stroll.
Portrait of Sarah Bernhardt as Fedora, 1882
Europeans tend to be unaware of the popularity of Alfred Stevens in the United States and how far back that goes. Several of the major examples today in museums in Baltimore, Boston and Philadelphia, entered the collections of their American future donors during the artist’s lifetime. Stevens enjoyed the friendship of Whistler and Sargent and influenced the Boston School, notably Paxton, Tarbell, De Camp and Philip Hale. The latter was the author of the first account of Stevens in English, published in 1910.
Woman with a Fan
However, there is no doubt that the keenest American fan of Stevens was William Merrit Chase. He met the artist on his visit to Paris in 1881 and eventually came to own a dozen of his paintings. Chase lent a number of his Stevens’ to the exhibition in New York in 1911 at the Berlin Photographic Company Galleries. Prints after the work of Stevens circulated in the United States and the list of museum acquisitions continued to grow. Today he is represented in over twenty public collections, including a magnificent recent acquisition by Dallas.
Palm Sunday 1862
In 1886, Stevens wrote a little book about painting called Impressions sur la peinture. It was so good that separate English and American editions followed, the latter in 1891.
(Peter Mitchell, of John Mitchell & Son, has been researching the life and work of Alfred Stevens since the 1960’s. antiquesandfineart.com)
Porcelain Collector 1868
India in Paris: The Exotic Curio
Woman in a Straw Hat
The Japanese Mask (Intrigue)
Woman Wearing a Bracelet
Woman in Indian Shawl in Studio
Hesitation (Madame Morteaux)
The Bath, 1867
Young Woman with a Fan
Mother and Her Children
Portrait of Mrs. Howe nee Deering
On a Stroll
The Baroness von Munchhausen
The Blue Dress
Symphony in Green
The Painter and His Model 1855
La Villa des Falaises à Sainte-Adresse
Will You Go Out with Me, Fido 1859
Artist's Studio (detail)
Memories and Regrets
The Blue Ribbon
A Portrait Group of Paris Celebrities 1889 (Of particular interest are Sarah Bernhardt in the costume for her role as the Queen in Victor Hugo's play Ruy Blas, Antonin Proust, Author, Jules Massenet, Composer and Georges Bizet, Composer)
Young Woman with Red Umbrella at the Seaside 1885
On the Beach