Alfred Stevens was Paris’ “finest dandy,” a “lion of the second Empire,” according to Louis Vauxcelles in his eulogy of the artist published in 1906 in the newspaper Gil Blas. Stevens, despite his English-sounding name and Parisian lifestyle, was Belgian, born in Brussels to a family of art amateurs. His father was a collector (he owned several watercolors by Eugène Delacroix), his older brother Joseph would become an animal painter and his younger brother, Arthur an art dealer and critic. Alfred studied at the Académie royale des Beaux-arts in Brussels until 1843, when he moved to Paris and was admitted to the coveted École des beaux-arts.
Stevens made his debut at the Brussels Salon in 1851 with four traditional historical works. This exhibition, which also featured Gustave Courbet’s groundbreaking Stone-Breakers was a major event in Stevens’ life. He for the first time exhibited alongside the father figure of realism, a subject that was also at the center of his own experiments at the time. The impact of Courbet’s work on Stevens reached new heights at the 1855 Paris World Fair, where the Belgian artist made his breakthrough with his own realist work, The Hunters of Vincennes (Musée d'Orsay, Paris). The portrait Courbet made of Stevens (Koninklijke Musea voor Schone Kunsten, Brussels) is evidence of the artists’ mutual respect and influence.
In the middle of the 1850s, Stevens’ style evolved from social realism towards a realistic painting of the glamorous women in domestic interiors, his favorite subject and trademark. For their attention to detail and veracity, these paintings can now be considered iconographic recollections of the life of the upper classes in Paris at the end of the 19th century.
During the 1860s, Stevens was an immensely successful painter and socialite. He became well acquainted with many contemporary forward-thinking artists, critics and writers, such as the Goncourt brothers, Théophile Gautier and Alexandre Dumas. Eugène Delacroix in particular was a witness at his wedding in 1858 and Édouard Degas would eventually become the god father to his daughter Catherine. Stevens’s wife, Marie would host weekly parties which brought together artists from Puvis de Chavannes to Fantin-Latour to Berthe Morisot and Édouard Manet. As these social gatherings developed, personal and artistic bonds tightened. One such event was recorded in Manet’s La Partie de croquet à Paris (1873, Stadel Museum, Frankfurt am Main), which not only took place in the garden of Stevens’s residence on rue des Martyrs, but also featured the Belgian painter at the lower left in the foreground.
Stevens and Manet maintained a convivial friendship throughout the 1860s and the 1870s, frequently attending the same social events in private homes or at the celebrated café Guerbois. By that time, Stevens had acquired fame and his studio itself attracted the who’s who of the Parisian art scene. In the early 1870s, short on funds and seeking exposure, Manet left a few of his own works in Stevens' studio, hoping the busy space would become a commercial venue for his art. It was in 1872, in that studio, that the art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel bought his first paintings by Manet. “Amazed by my purchases,’ Durand Ruel relates, ‘for one fully appreciates a work of art only when one possesses it, I went the very next day to Manet’s studio […]. On the spot, I bought everything he had, that is, twenty-three paintings, for 35,000 francs, at the prices he was asking.” (B. Archer Brombert, Édouard Manet, Rebel in a Frock Coat, New York, 1996, pp. 305-06).
However, starting in the 1880s, despite earning a considerable income through the sale of his paintings and the securing a contract with the dealer Georges Petit, Stevens found that a combination of bad investments and excessive spending caused great monetary difficulties. His financial struggle was further aggravated when he was diagnosed with chronic bronchitis in 1880, possibly due to breathing in paint fumes for years. Taking advice from his doctor, Stevens sought out the fresh sea air and would spend the next fifteen summers on the Normandy coast. At the seaside, his style once again evolved and in the same fashion as the contemporary Dutch school, Stevens painted elegant ladies set against the sea, the dunes or country houses. Gradually, the sea in its own right became his point of focus. Loosely painted in an impressionistic manner, the hundreds of marine works that resulted from these trips to the coast differ from Stevens’ overall production.
Started in 1883, The panorama History of the Century 1789-1889, was Stevens’s most ambitious project. Undertook with the painter Henri Gervex (1852–1929), the panorama was to depict over 660 identifiable, life-size famous figures to celebrate one hundred years of French history between the Revolution and the World Fair. With the help of 15 assistants, Stevens focused on the ladies, the decorative elements and the finish. The panorama, which was exhibited at the 1889 Paris World Fair in a specially constructed rotunda in the Tuileries Gardens, was truly monumental: it was 20 meters high (65 ft.) and had a circumference of 120 meters (nearly 400 ft.). Soon after the end of the Exposition, the rotunda was torn down; the panorama was cut up into 65 pieces and divided among the shareholders of the Société de l'Histoire du Siècle. Only two thirds have survived to this day.
Stevens’ works were avidly collected by the most prominent patrons of the 19th century, among them were the pioneering American collectors Belmont, Walters, Havemeyer, Stewart and Vanderbilt. The American Impressionist, William Merritt Chase, one of Steven’s rare students, owned no less than twelve of his paintings. Stevens’ reputation had somewhat waned over the years until a large retrospective was held in 2009 in his hometown of Brussels and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. With 90 paintings displayed, it brought new awareness not only on his invaluable contributions to the history of art, but also on whom he counted among his friends and acquaintances in this fascinating era.