Enjoying a reputation as the “Parisian from Philadelphia,” Julius LeBlanc Stewart was an active member of a glamorous social circle of expatriates, business magnates, aristocrats, artists, actors and dilettantes established in the French Capital. As Hiesinger notes in his biography, Stewart was also the epitome of the Belle Époque artist: "The paintings of Parisian high society that earned him fame as a mature artist also distinguished him from every other American, not only for their subject matter but also for the artist's intimate involvement with the life he portrayed." (Ulrich Hiesinger, Julius LeBlanc Stewart: American Painter of the Belle Époque, New York: Vance Fine Art, p. 9)
Stewart was an artistic rarity. Like the other American master, John Singer Sargent, Julius barely knew his own country. Born in 1855 in Philadelphia, Julius was the son of William Hood Stewart, a wealthy American businessman and sugar plantation owner in Cuba. In 1865, at the end of the Civil War, William moved his family to Paris and from there made a name for himself as the most ambitious and discerning patrons of contemporary art. In particular, the Stewart’s residence was a haven for Spanish-speaking artists whose works he collected in great quantity. Among this group that included Eduardo Zamacoïs, Mariano Fortuny, Raimundo de Madrazo, Martin Rico, Julius found his own masters.
Unlike many American artists who flocked to Paris to seek training and return home after a few years, Julius Stewart found his place among the Parisian society and intelligentsia. He was also the only American artist to issue directly from the so-called Spanish-Roman school founded in 1860s by Mariano Fortuny, his father’s favorite artist. In his teens, Julius became a student of the Spanish painter Eduardo Zamacoïs. In May 1873 and upon Zamacoïs’ premature death, he entered the Ecole des beaux-arts and the atelier of Jean-Léon Gérôme. He was one of the master's beloved pupils, and in 1874, accompanied him in his trip to Egypt for a few months. By the mid-1870s, Stewart moved into his own studio adjacent to Madrazo's. The influence of the Spanish painter became evident in Julius’ subsequent works, with their rich and vibrant palette and delicate treatment of light shining through the elegant furnishings of Parisians interiors. Also characteristic of the style was the heavy emphasis on sumptuous scenes of young society ladies and their fashion, such as seen in La lecture, Stewart’s first submission to the prestigious Salon in 1878.
In the 1880s, Julius Stewart further developed his style to also include complex multi-figural compositions, a genre already established by Jean Béraud, his friend and Belle Époque icon. Stewart’s depictions of the most renown beauties and celebrities of the day epitomized by The Hunt ball, his 1885 submission to the Salon, brought him acclaim. Like in the Hunt ball, which featured famed dancers, the Duc de Morny playing the tambourine, and Stewart himself, high-spirited admirers would stare at Stewart’s paintings and engage in celebrity spotting. In fact, Stewart’s exquisite renderings of bourgeois life in modern Paris often included an international coterie of friends and famous personalities, among them such familiar names as Sarah Bernhardt, Baronne Rothshild, Henry Bacon, Frederick Arthur Bridgman, Elizabeth Gardner and Daniel Ridgway Knight. Stewart was also known to be a frequent guest of James Gordon Bennett, the eccentric founder of The New York Herald and later the International Herald Tribune, on yachting excursions and other extravagances. His depictions of Bennett's luxury yachts during the 1880s and 1890s showed that he also excelled in painting images of outdoor leisurely activities enjoyed by the high society.