Alfred Stevens was foremost a painter of Parisian mundane society during the Second Empire and especially its women. Depictions of moments in the private lives of the Parisian woman—reading a letter, gazing at a mirror, arranging flowers—was the genre which would become his hallmark. These paintings are neither narrative nor anecdotal, but rather simply address his subjects’ style, grace, and beauty. “The work of Alfred Stevens could be called ‘The poem to the women of the world,’” wrote Theophile Gautier in his review of the 1867 Paris Exposition Universelle, the exhibition that earned Stevens a first class medal and a promotion to Officer of the Legion of Honor.
Although Stevens cannot be neatly categorized as either an Impressionist or as an Academic painter, he clearly experimented with the loose brushwork of the Impressionist style (see also HC.P.xxxx.86), and in Femme en Noir, his predominantly black and gray monochromatic palette very likely was influenced by the American expatriate artist James McNeill Whistler’s “arrangements,” “harmonies,” and “nocturnes” in grays and blacks of the 1870s and 1880s. Stevens considered himself a Modernist, and he considered his paintings of women to be a modern conception, similar to the modern paintings of women by Manet and Monet. He believed that he used his paintings of women as a means to define modernity in both subject and painting technique. Nevertheless, unlike the paintings of these Manet and Monet, both of whom were his friends, Stevens’s true subject was not simply woman but specifically the woman of the world, and it is the representation of her beauty, her clothing of velvet, satin, or silk, and her ambience of artificial splendor that distinguishes Stevens’s art.
Purchased through Francis I. Huard, Paris (dealer), from Catherine Vivier-Stevens, the artist's daughter, by Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, possibly ca. 1926.
Collection of Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, Washington, D.C., possibly ca. 1926-1/17/1969.
Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, House Collection, Washington, D.C.