Although Alfred Stevens was born in Brussels, he spent much of his career in Paris, where he was a close friend of the artist Édouard Manet (1832-1883). Until about 1875, Stevens’s typical subject was the domestic interior, often involving women attired in opulent clothing and represented in luxurious settings. This interest in the modern woman, with her attendant social culture and fashion, distinguished Stevens in the eyes of his contemporaries as a painter of modern life. This notwithstanding, Stevens also strove to emulate seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish painting, especially quiet interior genre scenes and, later, marine compositions.
In the early 1860s, Stevens began to use a particular model, Victorine Meurend—also the favorite model of Manet, who depicted her most famously in his 1863 Olympia in the Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Stevens’s interest to pose Meurend with a bird may have coincided with Manet’s depiction of her in his 1866 Femme au Perroquet, which was completed the same year that Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) exhibited his painting of the same title that depicted a reclining female nude with a bird on her hand (both paintings are in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Stevens’s painting, in addition to having greater specificity in the rendering of hair style and costume, differs from Manet’s and Courbet’s paintings by both downplaying the sensual overtones of the theme and by subtly introducing references to the seventeenth century: the Flemish ebony double cabinet with applied spiral-turned spindles and the Flemish tapestry hanging behind.
The subject of a woman with a pet parrot or bird was a popular genre subject in seventeenth-century Dutch art. A woman feeding her parrot, as in a Willem van Mieris (1662-1747) painting of the subject (National Gallery, London), could symbolize a woman nurturing her dreams of romance, while a woman reaching toward her pet bird, as in Jan Steen's (ca. 1625-1679) The Parrot Cage (Mauritshuis, The Hague), might represent the woman reaching for love, the caged or tethered bird also symbolizing virginity or, sometimes, enslaved love.
Purchased from Walker Galleries, New York, New York, by Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, summer 1941.
Collection of Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, Washington, D.C., 1941-11/29/1940.
Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, House Collection, Washington, D.C.