Alfred Stevens

18 September 2009 - 24 January 2010

Belgian artist Alfred Stevens (1823-1906) was one of the most well-known artists in Paris in the second half of the 19th century. He caused a furore with his paintings of elegant, intriguing and distant women. The artist captured the contemporary worldly woman convincingly and deftly, paying close attention to the gorgeous textures of the clothing and luxuriously appointed interiors. This first retrospective in thirty years of Alfred Stevens features 64 paintings and is being organised in cooperation with the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium in Brussels, where it was on display until 23 August 2009.

Alfred Stevens attended the Brussels Academy, where he was schooled in the romantic tradition. But it was not long before he sought artistic innovation and moved to Paris. 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 (1819-1877) who chronicled the everyday lives of simple people, as well as by the Dutch interior tradition of depicting genre scenes in contemporary interiors. The works of the realist Courbet, who chronicled the everyday lives of simple people, served as an example in this regard. From 1845 until 1857 Stevens likewise concentrated on painting socially realistic themes, as seen in such works as Small industry.

The good life in Paris
Gradually Stevens 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. Stevens’s 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. Stevens 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 colours, the public also greatly admired the lifelike portrayal of the various materials. As a result his paintings sold widely.

Alfred Stevens (1823-1906), India in Paris, the exotic trinket, 1877, Van Gogh Museum, AmsterdamAttractive exotic elements
From 1862 onwards Stevens’s works feature more and more exotic elements. He and painter James McNeill Whistler were among the first artists to cultivate a fascination with Japanese art and objects. Stevens 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.

Stevens not only painted the Parisian bourgeoisie; he was also an active participant in the decadent life of Parisian society . His close friends included luminaries of the French literary and artistic circles, from authors Charles Baudelaire and Alexandre Dumas Jr. to painters Édouard Manet and Edgar Degas, and actress Sarah Bernhardt.

A catalogue will be published to accompany the exhibition, compiled by the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, c. 200 pages, 150 illustrations. Available in English, Dutch and French. Price: c. € 30.

Friday nights
On Friday nights the exhibition Alfred Stevens gets an exclusive twist with the project (DE)-Constructing me by the designer Catta Donkersloot in which she shows three films and a tableau vivant. The Friday night continues online on seven creative minds collaborate in (RE)-Constructing Stevens and explore in this blog how topical the various themes in the exhibition still are.

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