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ne of the traditional roles of an art dealer is to take an independent view. Put another way, they buck the trend or do their own thing. Often this has resulted in a rescue operation for an artist, a school, or a movement which has been cast aside by the vagaries of fate. Visiting the recent Chardin exhibition at the Royal Academy, it was difficult to imagine that even such an obvious genius fell into neglect. A Chardin revival, starting in the 1840s, was needed to reverse over half a century of decline.

PLATE 1: Une elegante au paravent japonais, oil on canvas, 23 1/2” x 20”, signed. Collection: The J.B. Speed Museum, Louisville, Kentucky.

Alfred Stevens (1823-1906) was one of the hundreds of traditional artists cast into shadow by the blinding light of the sunrise of Impressionism. In 1900, Stevens was accorded the unprecedented honor of a one man retrospective at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, Paris, during his lifetime. Within fifty years, the mention of his name in England simply led to confusion with his namesake and near contemporary, Alfred George Stevens, a sculptor from Dorset! The market, of course, follows in step. At an auction in 1902, Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Numbering at Bethlehem sold for 9,200 francs whereas Tous les Bonheurs by Alfred Stevens brought 25,000 francs. Up until 1967, no painting by Stevens had brought more than £4,000 since the Second World War and most examples sold for a few hundred pounds, if that.

People may not share my enthusiasm for the posthumous fate of artists’ reputations but they are often interested in buying ahead of the trend. Today, that may be the only means of acquiring an artist’s work because it may otherwise move beyond their means. We are often asked how does one choose an artist to study, to buy and in which to specialize? There is, of course, no simple answer, but one should not be guided by the critics. The opinion of fellow artists is often the best guide. When I started looking at the life of Alfred Stevens in the mid-1960s I found him to have been weighed down with honors, titles, awards and contemporary critical acclaim. This is true of a lot of Salon artists in 19th century Paris whose reputations have not endured.

PLATE 2: Le sphinx parisien, oil on canvas, 16 1/2” x 12 3/4”, signed and dated 1870.
Private collection, USA.

What struck me about Stevens was the admiration and respect expressed by other artists, even by Whistler, one of the most caustic, whose ‘bouquets’ were usually composed of stinging nettles. Artists tend to be intolerant of mediocrity and Stevens would hardly have been a pall-bearer at Manet’s funeral in May, 1883, with Monet, Fantin and Zola if the great artist had had no regard for him in his lifetime.

Alfred Stevens, born at Brussels in 1823, underwent a traditional artist’s training in the late 1830’s and 1840’s. His close friend, Florent Willems, went to Paris and before long (1844) Stevens followed. He was not a prodigy and his early efforts are unrecognizable to us as the work of the artist who was to paint Tous les Bonheurs in 1861. By that date, Stevens, nearing forty, had found his niche as the painter of the contemporary Parisienne. The jury of the 1861 Salon where Tous les Bonheurs was exhibited told Stevens that whereas they admired his skills no medal could be awarded unless he changed his subject matter (genre) to something more conventional. His much quoted reply was ‘keep your medal and I’ll keep my genre.' Unlike some artists who feel the need to ‘evolve’, Stevens had the good sense to play to his strengths, perfect his speciality, be content with his role and his happy domestic and social life. He was not averse to the money that he started to make either.

PLATE 3: Jeune femme à l’eventail, oil on panel, 8 3/8” x 6 1/8”, signed.
Private collection, Ireland.

The Second Empire, under Napoleon III, was a time of dynamism and prosperity. The young Empress raised the profile of women, set fashions, and entertained Stevens to a ball at the Tuileries in 1867. Among his fellow guests was Bismarck, destined to return to Paris in a different guise three years later! 1867 saw Stevens triumph at the Paris Exposition Universelle (World’s Fair) with eighteen paintings on display and promotion in the Legion d’Honneur. The pattern was set for the successful career of Alfred Stevens. Together with Whistler, Stevens responded early on to the Japanese craze which opened new possibilities to an artist finely tuned to the subtleties of every fabric and the nuances of every colour. The paravent (screen) japonais was successfully added to the studio props, as in this lovely canvas which we are proud to have sold to the J.B. Speed Museum in Louisville, Kentucky (Plate 1). Another seated model, Victorine Meurent, became the ‘Sphinx parisien’ in this smaller canvas painted during the siege of Paris in November, 1870, a tour de force display of the artist’s sureness of touch and unfailing eye for colour (Plate 2).

PLATE 4: Voiliers et vapeurs, oil on canvas, 17 3/4” x 14 1/2”, signed. Collection: John Mitchell and Son, London.

Although it is the large scale canvases that have caught the public’s attention by selling at auction for hundreds of thousands of dollars in recent times, (none more eye catching than the famous Vanderbilt painting sold for $1.6 million in 1998), Stevens was equally at home on a small panel only eight and a half inches high (Plate 3).

In 1880, his doctor advised the artist to get some sea air into his lungs, congested by long, turpentine-fumed hours in the studio. He went to the Channel coast and thus started a long romance with sea and shore (Plate 4). In winter, he went to the Riviera and painted surprisingly modern views of the Mediterranean as in this Cap Martin of 1894 (Plate 5). Sometimes, he combined his two subjects in compositions like the Evening Rendez-vous (Plate 6).

Plate 5: Cap Martin, oil on panel, 18” x 21”, signed and dated 1894. Private collection, USA.

Europeans tend to be unaware of the popularity of Alfred Stevens in the United States and how far back that goes. Several of the major examples today in museums in Baltimore, Boston and Philadelphia, entered the collections of their American future donors during the artist’s lifetime. Stevens enjoyed the friendship of Whistler and Sargent and influenced the Boston School, notably Paxton, Tarbell, De Camp and Philip Hale. The latter was the author of the first account of Stevens in English, published in 1910. However, there is no doubt that the keenest American fan of Stevens was William Merrit Chase. He met the artist on his visit to Paris in 1881 and eventually came to own a dozen of his paintings. Chase lent a number of his Stevens’ to the exhibition in New York in 1911 at the Berlin Photographic Company Galleries. Prints after the work of Stevens circulated in the United States and the list of museum acquisitions continued to grow. Today he is represented in over twenty public collections, including a magnificent recent acquisition by Dallas.

In 1886, Stevens wrote a little book about painting called Impressions sur la peinture. It was so good that separate English and American editions followed, the latter in 1891.

Plate 6: Evening Rendez-vous, oil on panel, 12 1/2” x 19 1/4”, signed. Collection, John Mitchell & Son, London.

I recommend to the reader that the trouble spent in locating a library copy would be rewarded by the value of Stevens’ remarks, full of common sense and unpretentious insights into painting. He writes of his pleasure in the act of painting itself, the wielding of the brush and stresses the vital importance of technical mastery – not a popular theme today! ‘One cannot be a good painter without being a good craftsman’ were his words.

Today, Stevens is back to prominence and the catalogue raisonnné of his work is in preparation in Paris. Yet the story of Alfred Stevens is not finished because a full-scale exhibition of his work is not even at the planning stage. When that event takes place, he will then be returned to the position he enjoyed in his lifetime – and quite rightly so. Whatever the twists and turns of history, the cream eventually comes to the top.

All illustrations in this article are works by Alfred Stevens which have been sold by John Mitchell & Son. Peter Mitchell, of John Mitchell & Son, has been researching the life and work of Alfred Stevens since the 1960’s. John Mitchell & Son specializes in fine paintings and drawings of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. The gallery is located at 160 New Bond Street, London, UK, W1Y 9PA. Telephone (from the US)

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