Alfred Émile Léopold Stevens (1) was born in Brussels on May 11, 1823, into a family of artists and art entrepreneurs. His older brother Joseph (1816-1892) was an artist, and another brother Arthur (1825-1899) was an art dealer and critic. Stevens studied at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, where he knew François-Joseph Navez (1787-1869), the Neoclassical painter and former student of Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) during the latter’s self-imposed exile in Brussels. In 1843, Stevens went to Paris and was admitted to the École des Beaux-Arts. Stevens received a third-class medal at the Paris Salon in 1853, a second-class medal in 1855, a first-class medal in 1867 at the Universal Exposition in Paris, and a first-class medal at the Salon of 1878. In 1900, he was the first living artist to have a solo retrospective exhibition at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris.
After settling permanently in Paris in 1851, Stevens aspired to join the ranks of Parisian high society, and to this end, in the mid 1850s, he began painting fashionably-dressed, upper-class ladies in elegant interiors, a genre which became something of a signature style for Stevens. However, beginning in the 1880s, he also began to paint large numbers of marine landscapes. These marine studies coincided with Stevens’s increasing illness from chronic bronchitis—which slowed the pace of his artistic production—and his resultant need of greater financial stability. As a cure, his doctor sent him to the seaside, and for six years between 1880 and 1886, he went to Sainte-Adresse for two months of the year. To fund these trips, Stevens agreed to give his Parisian dealer, Georges Petit, the right to sell the marine paintings he made there in exchange for a retainer of 50,000 francs a year. (2) The marine paintings that resulted from these visits were mostly small paintings that he executed rapidly at all times of the day and in all kinds of weather. His vantage point was usually looking out to sea, sometimes with figures on the shore and often with boats in the water. Stevens painted these marine scenes in a freer and more impressionistic manner than he used for most of his other works. Stevens enjoyed the friendship and support of the artists Édouard Manet (1832-1883) and Edgar Degas (1834-1917), who was godfather to Stevens’s daughter Catherine. Stevens also influenced the art of the American painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), with whom he shared an enthusiasm for Japanese art. Stevens died in Paris on August 24, 1906.
In the foreground of Femme Assise devant la Mer Regardant des Baigneurs (Woman Seated before the Sea Regarding Bathers), several women, dressed and with hats, and children are on the beach at low tide. One woman is seated in a chair, and two empty chairs are nearby. Several women and children are in the tidal waters, and behind them is a deep blue sea, in which four boats are seen. A pinkish sky with high cumulus clouds divides composition exactly in half horizontally. Stevens painted Barque, Deux Baigneurs et Petits Voiliers in a luminous fog. In the foreground are two dressed women standing in the tidal waters. To their left is a man in rowboat beside a vertical anchoring pole. In the middle ground five sailboats are seen.
When in the 1880s Stevens began painting seascapes on the Normandy coast, he also began to modify his artistic style. For the most part he abandoned the academic realism that he had used for his portrayals of fashionable ladies and, instead, began to employ looser and more spontaneous brushstrokes in a manner clearly inspired by the impressionism of his friend Manet and other artists, especially Eugène Boudin (1824-1898), also a painter of seascapes. This loosening of his style may have resulted from his beginning to paint outdoors (en plein air) rather than or in addition to painting in the studio. This experiment of painting outdoors also led Stevens to create marine paintings that were highly atmospheric and, occasionally, quasi-abstract, somewhat reminiscent of the series of Nocturnes by his friend Whistler. Stevens’s seascape paintings, which seemingly capture a fleeting image of the sea at a moment in time, suggest a late interest in Impressionism. Moreover, these paintings are remarkably varied, depicting not only the endlessly changing effects of light in the sky and on the water, but also the different “moods” of the sea: at night, in stormy weather, at sunset, etc. Stevens painted other marine scenes of this small size (17 x 25 cm) in 1885. Each is signed and dated at the lower right: AStevens 85 (with the AS conjoined). (3)
(1) For Stevens’s life and art, see Danielle Derrey-Capon, Alfred Stevens (1823-1906) et le Panorama de l’Histoire du Siècle (Gand, 2009), Saskia de Bodt, et al., Alfred Stevens, Brussels 1823-Paris 1906 (Brussels, 2009), and Christiane Lefebvre, Alfred Stevens, 1823-1906 (Paris, 2006).
(2) William A. Coles, Alfred Stevens (Ann Arbor, 1977), xix, and de Bodt, Alfred Stevens, 41.
(3) These include Marine (a ship in a stormy sea), sold by Artcurial, Paris, on June 21, 2010, lot 120.
Sold by a private collector at auction, Kende Galleries, New York, 6/20/1946, nos. 17 and 18.
Purchased from John Mitchell, New York (dealer), by Mr. and Mrs. Robert Woods Bliss, Washington, DC, 11/27/1946.
Collection of Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, Washington, D.C., until 1/17/1969.
Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C., House Collection.