Introduction

 The Blue Dress

 The Visit

 Memories and Regrets

 The Four Seasons


Introduction

 

The Clark is home to the largest collection of paintings by Belgian artist Alfred Stevens (1823-1906) outside of Belgium. These works usually hang in a special side gallery symbolically outside the canon of modern art history. Yet, because he was one of the first artists to take modern woman and that novel social and cultural phenomenon, fashion, as his subject, Stevens was hailed by his contemporaries as the painter of modern life. Stevens's place in the canon of art history need not be revised. Though familiar with new modernist approaches through his close friendship with Edouard Manet, Stevens chose another direction that was still enthralled by the craft of painting and color he revived from seventeenth-century Dutch and earlier Flemish art. Making his distinctive artistic moves between the moment of Courbet in the 1850s and Manet in the later 1860s, Stevens made a difference to the way modernity could be represented by his dedicated investigation of the dual theme of woman and the interior (meaning both figures inside rooms and the psychological interior, indexed as memory or contemplation). Modernism came about slowly through many, subtle moves, some at the level of the "how" of painting itself, others at the level of "what" was suitable or necessary to paint to catch the distinctive traits of modern life. Stevens's small gestures had real importance in their own brief moment, but they also percolated through to shape the preoccupations of many of those—like Renoir, Cassatt, Morisot, and others—whom we now acknowledge to have become the more daring radicals in the game of modernism. Between the great age of the realist novel in the 1850s—from Dumas's La Dame aux camélias (1848) to Flaubert's Madame Bovary (1857)—and the rise of melodramatic cinema after 1900, we find a moment of painterly experimentation that was modern precisely because it created one face of a modern fantasy called Woman as the defining character of its epoch. Here we can reposition a surprisingly intellectual painter named Alfred Stevens, who was also a generous teacher of many women artists, including the great tragedian Sarah Bernhardt.

inter-pollock_smallGriselda Pollock
Professor of Social and Critical Histories of Art
University of Leeds

© 2000 Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute

 

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