Alfred Stevens in his studio ca 1885
Archives of American Art Smithsonian Institution
Alfred Stevens (1823-1906) was born in Brussels. He came from a family involved with the visual arts: his older brother Joseph (1816-1892) and his son Léopold (1866–1935) were painters, while another brother Arthur (1825–99) was an art dealer and critic. His father, who had fought in the Napoleonic wars in the army of William I of the Netherlands, was an art collector who owned several watercolors by Eugène Delacroix, among other artists. His mother's parents ran Café de l'Amitié in Brussels, a meeting place for politicians, writers, and artists. All the Stevens children benefited from the people they met there, and the social skills they acquired in growing up around important people. In 1843, Stevens went to Paris, joining his brother Joseph who already was there. He was admitted to the École des Beaux-Arts, the most important art school in Paris. Although it is said that he became a student of its director Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, this is likely not true. An early picture by Stevens, The Pardon or Absolution (Hermitage, St. Petersburg), signed and dated 1849, shows his mastery of a conventional naturalistic style which owes much to 17th-century Dutch genre painting. Like the Belgian painter and friend with whom he stayed in Paris, Florent Joseph Marie Willems (1823-1905), Stevens carefully studied works by painters such as Gerard ter Borch and Gabriel Metsu.
(Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)
In 19th-century Paris Alfred Stevens was more in demand than his friend Edouard Manet. King Leopold II of his native Belgium was a patron, the Vanderbilts snapped up his sumptuous oils of ladies in haute-couture dresses, and William Merritt Chase sought the artist’s advice. "He was kind of a bridge painter between the 19th century and Impressionism," says the New York dealer Lisa Schiller, of Schiller & Bodo European Paintings, pointing to Stevens’s occasionally loose brushwork. But according to Peter Mitchell, of John Mitchell Fine Paintings, in London, this transitional role has been largely overlooked. "When the Impressionists came along and swept everyone else away, he was forgotten," Mitchell says. As a result, many dealers and auction house specialists believe Stevens’s work is still an extremely good value. "There’s an opportunity to buy at a quality level that’s higher than the price level," says Schiller. She adds that artists born in one country but popular in another tend to be plagued by lower prices. Mitchell concurs: "The artist has suffered from not being born French."
What Is Called Vagrancy
What Is Called Vagrancy is representative of the early part of his career, when he was keen to represent the squalor of the time in realist paintings. This Parisian street is the setting for an urban drama. Soldiers lead a mother and her ragged children away to prison for the crime of vagrancy. An elegant woman is trying to intercede with the soldiers, while an old, invalid workman has already given up. The attempt is doomed to failure as shown by the soldier's gesture of refusal. A similar scene can be found in Victor Hugo's Things Seen. On the long grey wall, posters referring to property sales ("sale by auction") and the pleasures of high society ("ball"), contrast with the poverty described in the painting. The different social groups who occupy the same urban space find themselves side by side here in a moving composition, and the role of the State, purely repressive, does not come out well. Stevens' objective was to denounce the poor living conditions in the towns and the cruel treatment meted out to those who lived there. The message struck a chord with Napoleon III who, on seeing this painting at the 1855 Universal Exhibition, supposedly said: "That will not happen again". As a consequence of this, the Emperor ordered that any vagrants should henceforth be taken to the Conciergerie, not on foot, but hidden away in a closed carriage.
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Aspiring to join the ranks of Parisian high society, in the mid 1850s he hit upon a subject that would capture this elite’s interest: upper-class ladies and their outfits. For the salons in Antwerp, Brussels, and Paris, he turned out anecdotal scenes of modern women garbed in crinoline and crumpled silk. He raided the closet of his friend Pauline von Metternich, an Austrian royal and Parisian society fixture, to outfit his models in up-to-the-minute fashions. "You can date the paintings by the dresses," says Polly Sartori, the senior vice president of 19th-century European paintings, drawings, and sculpture at Sotheby’s New York.
His exhibits at the Salons in Paris and Brussels attracted favorable critical attention and buyers. In 1863, he received the Legion of Honor (Chevalier) from the Belgian government. In 1867, he won a first-class medal at the Universal Exposition in Paris, where he and Jan August Hendrik Leys were the stars of the Belgian section, and was promoted to Officer of the Legion of Honor. His friends included Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas, Charles Baudelaire, Berthe Morisot, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Frédéric Bazille, and Puvis de Chavannes, and he was a regular in the group that gathered at the Café Guerbois in Paris.
In 1895, a large exhibition of his work was held in Brussels. In 1900, Stevens was honored by the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris with the first retrospective exhibition ever given to a living artist. Supported by patrons led by the Comtesse de Greffulhe, it achieved social cachet as well as popular success.
In 1905, he was the only living artist allowed to exhibit in a retrospective show of Belgian art in Brussels. Despite these exhibitions, he was not able to sell enough of his work to manage well financially. Having outlived his brothers and most of his friends, he died in Paris in 1906, living alone in modest rooms.
(Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)