Alfred Stevens

Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum, from 18 September 2009 until 24 January 2010.
The exhibition was shown previously in Brussels, at the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, from 8 May to 23 August 2009. The author of this article saw the exhibition in Amsterdam.

1. Alfred Stevens (1823-1906)
What We Call Vagabondage, 1854-1855
Oil on canvas - 130 x 165 cm
Paris, Musée d’Orsay
Photo : Musée d’Orsay

Alfred Stevens (Brussels, 1823-Paris, 1906) is still the most Parisian of the Belgian painters. His career during the second half of the 19th century was exceptionally successful and was closely linked to the figure of Parisian women during the Second Empire, elegant, distant and intriguing whose mystery and beauty he was able to capture in his work. At a time when the bourgeoisie reigned over French society, Stevens’ genius consisted in knowing how to seize the spirit of his time by exploring its models as well as their attire and their interiors. Although he cannot be classified in the Impressionist Avant-garde, his friends and at times style afford close parallels. The Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, after the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique in Brussels, presents a complete and very accomplished retrospective of Alfred Stevens’ work until 24 January.

The exhibition chooses to mix chronological and thematic presentations of his career and, in the case of Alfred Stevens, these often reflect the evolution in his work. The two large rooms corresponding to the museum’s temporary exhibition space offer a very pleasant, light hang but also bring into play intensely coloured backdrops which change for each section.

The visit starts out with the painter’s Realist period, the least familiar. Between 1845 and 1857, by mixing his Flemish roots and their private interiors with the influence of Gustave Courbet, Stevens’ work tends toward a Realist style intent on illustrating the life of the lower classes. The Hunters at Vincennes, better known with the title of What We Call Vagabondage (1854-1855, Paris, Musée d’Orsay), presented at the Exposition universelle of 1855 in Paris remains the most emblematic canvas of this period. In fact, at the time it earned a certain reputation for Stevens among progressive circles. In the same vein, there is Minor Industry or Tolerating Begging (before 1857, Antwerp, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten) with its closely focused figures in the foreground of a mother and daughter hanging onto her skirts both begging at the door of an obviously bourgeois building, as revealed by the shiny copper doorbell, the sign “Modes” to one side and especially the little corner of a shopwindow displaying silver objects, in sharp contrast to their poverty. However, toward the end of this Realist period, Stevens’ specific manner begins to stand out. Thus, in the Paying Condolences (1857, private collection) one finds both the Realist vein in a scene of condolences to a young widow and the graciousness of three young women in a goldpanelled salon.

The rest of the exhibition is an explosion of luminous crinoline, lace, silk and cashmere shawls whose only purpose is to enhance the Parisian woman, a figure of divine essence, captured in the privacy of her home. And yet despite all of the glamour surrounding these women, Stevens’ heroines often let off an air of melancholy.

The décor is always an important element in Stevens’ compositions. He pays close attention when reproducing the luxurious interiors of the salons of the grande bourgeoisie. The painter himself lived in a magnificent 18th century private residence in the rue des Martyrs, then the artist neighborhood, at the beginning of the Troisième République. The Painter’s Salon (1880, private collection) depicts the reception room in his house. The richly decorated setting, the gold ornated furniture, the wood paneling and the elaborate frames of the paintings on the walls, form a sumptuous background for the three elegant young ladies busy in what we can only guess is a frivolous conversation.

2.Alfred Stevens (1823-1906)
The Japanese Parisian, c. 1872-1875
Oil on canvas - 130 x 165 cm
Liège, Musée d’Art Moderne et d’Art Contemporain
Photo : MAMC

Many of the artists in the second half of the 19th century, following the Oriental fashion of the times, which led from Japan, through India, to Paris integrated certain themes into their work. Alfred Stevens was no exception and one of the sections in the exhibition presents the different variations in décor and objects depicted in his canvases. This demonstration comes very much alive thanks to the pieces, such as the Indian elephant or the Chinese vase with the dragon, still in the artist’s family, which are exhibited alongside. Once again, women are very present here. The artist continues to offer the viewer the delicate interchange between the luxury of the exotic decoration and the refinement of the models. The highpoint of this manner is embodied by The Japanese Parisian in which an elegant redhead dressed in a flowered kimono, surrounded by bouquets, looks with melancholy into a mirror.

Less convincing, in fact a commission produced only due to financial need, the seascapes reveal an Alfred Stevens who flirts for a time with Impressionism. The exhibition closes with what is supposed to be the highlight of the artist’s career in Paris, The Panorama of the Century, in collaboration with Henri Gervex.

Although a trip to Brussels or Amsterdam is never disappointing, it is too bad that art lovers will have to go there to admire what is in fact the essence of the Parisian style and Parisian women in the 19th century. Let’s hope that a Parisian institution will soon take the initiative of following up and completing the work done there. The catalogue, with clear and intelligent articles includes an important and useful biography in the first section, for the most part due to several years’ work by Christiane Lefebvre, then a series of thematic essays thoroughly illustrating the work of Alfred Stevens.

local/cache-vignettes/L115xH144/Couverture_Stevens-9c43f-7d904.jpgCollective work, Alfred Stevens, Fonds Mercator, Brussels, 2009, 207 p., 34,95€. ISBN : 9789061538745.

Visitor Informations : Van Gogh Museum, Postbus 75366 NL 1070 AJ Amsterdam. Phone : +31 (0)20 570 52 00. Open daily from 10.0 to 18.0, the friday from 10 to 22. Rates : 12,50 € (reductef : 2,50 €)

Website of the Van Gogh Museum

Bénédict Ancenay, jeudi 14 janvier 2010

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