Sunday, September 29, 2013

Stevens, Alfred

Young Woman Resting in a Music Room
year unknown
oil on canvas
40 x 61.2 cm
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA, USA

Alfred Emile Leopold Stevens (1823 - 1906) was a Belgian painter, born in Brussels. He was one of the most well-known artists in Paris in the second half of the 19th century. He caused a furor with his paintings of elegant, intriguing and distant women. He captured the contemporary worldly woman convincingly and deftly, paying close attention to the gorgeous textures of the clothing and luxuriously appointed interiors.

It was at the Paris World Fair of 1855 that he achieved a breakthrough with a painting of a beggar woman and her children in the snow. In this early period of his career he was particularly influenced by realist artists such as Gustave Courbet who chronicled the everyday lives of simple people, as well as by the Dutch interior tradition of depicting genre scenes in contemporary interiors.

Gradually he abandoned socially engaged realism and went on to develop a modern form of realistic painting showcasing society ladies in their luxuriously appointed salons. These works evoke the spirit of the good life in Paris. His subject choice was nothing short of pioneering at the time, as women had until then always been portrayed or painted exclusively in a mythological or historical context up until then. He depicted women as a sort of priceless ‘objects’ in their beautifully furnished homes. This provided him with an opportunity to demonstrate his craftsmanship. In addition to the harmonious colors, the public also greatly admired the lifelike portrayal of the various materials. As a result his paintings sold widely.

He and painter James McNeill Whistler were among the first artists to cultivate a fascination with Japanese art and objects. He was also an eclectic collector, filling his house with furniture and works of art from a wide range of periods, styles and countries. Still, he was primarily interested in attractive exotic trinkets and items such as kimonos, fans, parasols and folding screens, which he incorporated in his paintings. He not only painted the Parisian bourgeoisie; he was also an active participant in the decadent life of Parisian society.