Alfred Stevens: Hymns to Beauty, Hints to the Soul

Throughout the second half of the nineteenth century Alfred Stevens was amongst the most famous and successful artists in Europe. His skill as a draftsman was complimented by a gift for characterization most notably when portraying women, and he was not simply an observer but a lover of women who possessed the empathy and perception to capture them as they wished to be seen. He was also a great supporter of female painters and aided the artistic careers of Berthe Morisot, Eva Gonzalès, Lilla Cabot Perry, Louise De Hem, and even the actress Sarah Bernhardt.

‘Portrait of Sarah Bernhardt’ by Alfred Stevens (1885)
Image courtesy of the Armand Hammer Museum, Los Angeles

During his long career Alfred Stevens earned the respect and admiration of contemporaries from all points on the artistic compass; in addition to friendships with the artists listed above his immediate circle included Édouard Manet, Eugène Delacroix, Edgar Degas, Charles Baudelaire, Emile Zola, and James Whistler. Perhaps no other artist of the period was so happily received by both the Academic establishment and the Impressionist avant-garde.

Alfred Émile Léopold Stevens (1823-1906) entered the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels in 1830 shortly after its reorganisation and expansion under François-Joseph Navez, who became an important early influence. Arguably the foremost painter in Belgium during this period, Nevez had implemented wholesale changes to the curriculum and introduced the exacting French Academic teachings of his own master Jacques-Louis David. This rigorous formal training enabled the young Alfred Stevens to hone and perfect his technique without prejudicing his future stylistic choices. In addition to this Academism, Stevens also felt the influence of the Romantic School and that of the emerging French Realist painters Jean-François Millet and Gustave Courbet whose authentic images of working men and women he would draw inspiration from in the first few years of his career.

‘Ce que l’on Appelle le Vagabondage’ by Alfred Stevens (1855)
Image courtesy of the Musée d’Orsay, Paris

Stevens’ early success ‘Ce que l’on Appelle le Vagabondage’ (‘What we call Vagrancy’) is classic mid-19th century Social Realism and in subject and handling might be the prototype for the subsequent work of the great Victorian painters Frank Holl and Luke Fildes. An effective condemnation of the callous way in which the destitute were treated across France, the painting depicts a homeless mother and her two children (one an infant) being arrested and led away by the gendarmerie; another woman attempts to give her a little money but is told to mind her own business by one of the armed men. Upon seeing the painting at the 1855 Exposition Universelle in Paris it so outraged Napoleon III that he ordered it be taken down. Most accounts of the incident optimistically claim the emperor’s anger was prompted by the sight of some of his poorest subjects being mistreated when in fact he was just furious to learn that his gallant soldiers were being asked to demean themselves by rounding up tramps!  What a lovely man.

Such is the significance of the young Stevens as a painter of Social Realism that two of his pictures are today held in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Himself a great admirer of Millet and Courbet (and Holl and Fildes in England) van Gogh also expressed his high regard for Stevens in several letters to his brother Theo… It all comes down to the degree of life and passion that an artist manages to put into his figures. So long as they really live, like a figure of a lady by Alfred Stevens… magnificent.”

‘In the Studio’ by Alfred Stevens (1888)
Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

As Stevens became increasingly interested in colour his palette became richer and lighter, and so did the subjects he began to paint. Like van Gogh twenty years later Stevens was never going to fulfil his potential as a colourist whilst constrained by the chromatic limitations of Social Realism but unlike Vincent he found his inspiration à l’intérieur not en plein air. To the exclusion of all else, by 1860 Alfred Stevens was painting the elegant young beauties of the emerging Belle Epoque cocooned in the luxurious townhouses of the 16th; the subject that would become his speciality.

The all-female subject pictures of his mature period encapsulate everything that the name Alfred Stevens conjures up today: elegance, sophistication, and beauty. However, unlike the contemporaneous Artistes Pompier whose female characters were drawn from classical and biblical sources and shot through with emotional intensity those of Alfred Stevens are unmistakably modern women and – like the best cucumbers – cool without being cold.

‘The Bath’ by Alfred Stevens (1873)
Image courtesy of the Musée d’Orsay, Paris

To a greater or lesser extent this new artistic course set by Stevens inspired those subsequently followed by James Tissot, Carolus-Duran, Eugene de Blaas, Gustave de Jonghe, Paul César Helleu, and Frédéric Soulacroix among many others. In 1867 the Exposition Universelles featured eighteen of his paintings and many more would subsequently draw large crowds in 1878 and 1889, and of course annually at the Salon of the Société des Artistes Français.

The 1867 Exposition Universelles in Paris which featured eighteen painting by Alfred Stevens

Unlike John Singer Sargeant, Philip de László, and Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant, Alfred Stevens was never a portraitist and did not make a specialty of painting the wives and daughters of wealthy gentlemen. From around 1880 the rebirth in popularity of society portraiture brought in good money for many excellent figural painters but these commissions often came at a reciprocal price to the artist; rich patrons could be demanding, and their wives and daughters often proved less than ideal sitters. Stevens’ female subjects on the other hand were predominantly characters of his own creation and although, as I have already mentioned, he knew how to imbue them with personality his sitter’s input should not be underestimated. Although the women he depicted are unmistakably bourgeois his models were invariably bohemian and they knew how to pose and play a part; they could improvise and interpret and had the dedication and discipline of professionals, not to mention a rather scandalous reputation with the very women they were hired to portray.

‘L’Ètude du Rôle’ by Alfred Stevens (1888), featuring one of his actress models
Image courtesy of Sotheby’s

Like many of his Impressionist friends, Stevens’ favourite models were professional actresses which – contrary to popular opinion – did not necessarily also make them prostitutes. They were les Insoumis; young women of the theatre whom Society and especially the police thought rebellious, dangerously liberated, and confusing. Today, the theory that actress-equals-hooker seems ridiculous but back then it was all too frequently an assumption based upon experience. Tragically, any 19th century actress who had not made a favourable marriage much beyond the age of thirty was in danger of falling into poverty and inevitably (assuming she wanted to live) prostitution; a fate that remained commonplace well into the 20th century, as that great style icon Louise Brooks – one of the most beautiful, talented, and influential actresses of the past hundred years – was to discover.

It was, in part, the intermingling of these two very different worlds that helped make les mademoiselle in Stevens’ paintings so alluring; decorous high-born mondaine as played by the demimondaine. This angel/devil contradiction has always both attracted and terrified men in equal measure but now, in the era of Charles Baudelaire, it had been put into words… “Are you from heaven or hell, Beauty that we adore? O Beauty! huge, frightening, ingenuous monster!. Reassuringly, Stevens’ femmes are not nearly so fatale. Posing in their cosmopolitan apartments they hint at the Exotic yet remain charmingly virginal, albeit clearly possessing desires that would not be thwarted forever.

It has rather been forgotten today but this preoccupation with Virtue was not simply concerned with quaint ideas of “pure hearts” and “the beauty of innocence” but with the very real danger of venereal disease. In the 19th century syphilis was a familiar killer; a slow and painful death sentence that would rob its victims of their looks, dignity, and sanity before it eventually took their lives. In the eyes of both men and women there was therefore something wonderful – magical even – in the image of a beautiful, healthy young woman, and perhaps in picturing them alone and indoors Stevens was vouchsafing their integrity. More importantly though I have no doubt his primary intention was to convey their independent spirit, a quality to be both admired and desired in a modern woman, as (again) Baudelaire pointed out… “Men get along best with women who can get along best without them.”

‘Young Woman with a Japanese Screen’ (circa 1880) by Alfred Stevens
Image courtesy of the Speed Art Museum, Louisville

The paintings of Alfred Stevens contain a huge amount of similar information that is invariably missed by many modern viewers and – predictably – reviewers. It is both ironic and sad that critics today can stand in front of a Pollock, Rothko, or Hockney (or similar jumped-up interior decorator) and find something profound in its vacuity and yet look at a painting by Stevens and see only a pretty face. Unlike Diderot, Ruskin, and Sewell too few of thes critics are also art historians and consequently attempt to cover up their lack of connoisseurship by making art appreciation sound as pretentious as possible. But they are useful. In boosting the unlikely fine art careers of hubristic window dressers and graphic designers with delusions of grandeur they help maintain investor confidence in the contemporary art market (so that the con can go on) by convincing wealthy private and institutional buyers that the Twombly or Basquiat scribble they just forked out a fortune for is a modern masterpiece rather than something any hyperactive child could reproduce given enough crayons and insufficient adult supervision. Inevitably, that man Baudelaire predicted this back in 1846; “How many artists today owe to the critics alone their sad little fame!” Welcome to the Abstract Age where we have denigrated the traditional and elevated the offbeat to the point where competence and substance are no longer considered important. This infatuation with the Unconventional has stunted and trivialised art and is now doing far greater harm in the wider world.

In contrast, the paintings of Alfred Stevens possess dignity and depth and always have a tale to tell. Unfortunately they are stories that contemporary audiences do not know how to read. Nineteenth century gallery-goers on the other hand would have had no such difficulty interpreting the narrative and unravelling the visual clues. They understood that wealthy young women (of the period) changed their attire several times a day for different engagements and would have been able to identify the precise hour or occasion being depicted simply by looking at the clothes being worn. They would also have recognised the meaning of the carefully staged props on display – the mirrors (introspection and remembrance), open windows (love and longing), books (wisdom and refinement), birds (liberty and nobility), and flowers (rarity and youth) – that revealed the lady’s mood and personality, her situation and story.

‘Perdu dans la Poésie’ by Alfred Stevens (circa 1870)

Dating from around 1870, ‘Perdu dans la Poésie’ (‘Lost in Poetry’) depicts a girl at an open window beside a house plant reading a book, informing us that we are looking at a sophisticated young woman who is in love. Her pearl necklace at first appears to tell us no more than we had already assumed – that she is from a wealthy family – but pearls are one of the oldest symbols of fertility and as for the yellow dress; that is pure homage. Whilst unmistakeably a painting of the period, ‘Perdu dans la Poésie’ deliberately echoes the work of the great French artist Jean-Honoré Fragonard and one of his most iconic paintings ‘La Liseuse’ (‘Young Girl Reading’) painted a century earlier; a respectful nod that would not have gone unnoticed by Stevens’ fellow artists and his sophisticated Parisian audience. ‘Perdu dans la Poésie’ is currently available to purchase and can be viewed at the Gallery page.

‘La Liseuse’ by Jean-Honoré Fragonard (circa 1770)
Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

In 1872 Stevens made a huge hit with ‘La Parisienne Japonaise’, the first in a series of paintings in which he presented his female protagonist dressed in Japanese costume (or surrounded by East Asian curios). Four years earlier, following a 200-year period of isolation, Japan had once again opened its ports to Western traders and soon the fashionable stores of Paris were full of Imari porcelain, Higasa parasols, Shibayama screens, Noh masks, and Ningyo dolls.

‘La Parisienne Japonaise’, ‘Yamadori’*, and ‘The Japanese Robe’ by Alfred Stevens

  • In 2013, when Christie’s in London auctioned one of the above paintings they knew (or cared) so little about it that it was sold (for £149,000) with the title ‘Yamatori’. I don’t know what a “yamatori” is, but a yamadori is a houseplant that has been collected in the wild.

Whilst the Japonisme craze influenced an important period in the art of Alfred Stevens it should not be forgotten how fundamental it was to Impressionism; what would the paintings of Monet, Degas, Cassatt, Whistler, and Gauguin have looked like had they never seen (and subsequently attempted to imitate) a Hokusai or Hiroshige woodblock print?

Left; ‘Vision after the Sermon’ by Paul Gauguin (1888). Right; ‘Plum Garden at Kameido’ by Utagawa Hiroshige (1857). In Gauguin’s painting Jacob fights an angel in a field in Brittany but they might easily be sumo wrestlers in a Japanese garden. Images courtesy of Tate Britain and Brooklyn Museum, New York City

The incorporation of these gloriously exotic – and invariably colourful – artifacts into the art of Stevens (and those of his contemporaries Whistler, Tissot, and de Jonghe) could not have been more natural or, for that matter, fortuitous. The international success of Stevens’ Japonisme paintings introduced him to a new audience in America, among them some of the most important collectors of the Gilded Age including William Henry Vanderbilt, August Belmont, and Louisine Havemeyer. Stevens’ great success enabled him to fully indulge his fascination with all thing Japanese. His studio – in his grand home near the Place Pigalle – was elaborately decorated with the same antiques and objets d’art that populated some of his most famous paintings and it was here that the artist played host to all the great writers, painters, and actors of the day.

Although Stevens enjoyed a highly successful career the last seven years of his life were greatly affected by chronic bronchitis and the effects of a bad fall which left him confined to a wheelchair. From 1899 Stevens spent much of his time convalessing on the Normandy coast and inevitably the pictures he painted became less ambitious and his technique (perhaps necessarily) much looser. Although twentieth century critics – obsessed by Impressionism – would spend too much time pondering the significance of the sketchy seascapes and figural doddles he painted during this late period it is Stevens’ elegant Parisienne subjects of the 1860s, ’70s and ’80s that evidence his real importance as an artist.  The Belgian writer Camille Lemonnier (1844-1913) summed up the work Alfred Stevens’ great period as only a poet would dare… “The whole expanse of his canvas’ is covered with fresh, solid, and abundant colour. His painting evokes the translucid depths of precious stones – one would say it was composed of gems crushed and annealed, or of light prismatic enamels. It caresses the eye like a brilliant metal, like silken tissue or a beautiful fruit.”   

During his illustrious career Alfred Stevens exhibited at all the major venues in France, winning numerous gold medals at the Salon in Paris. He was elected a member of the Royal Academy of both Brussels and Madrid, and made a Commander of the Légion d’Honneur and Grand Officer in the Order of Leopold.  In 1900, a retrospective exhibition of more than two hundred of his paintings was held at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris; the first time such an honour had been afforded to a living artist.

‘Perdu dans la Poésie’ by Alfred Stevens (1823-1906) is now available to purchase and can be viewed via our online Gallery

by Gavin Claxton
© Academy Fine Paintings Ltd 2024