In 19th-century Paris the salon painter Alfred Stevens (1823-1906) was more in demand than his friend Edouard Manet. King Leopold II of his native Belgium was a patron, the Vanderbilts snapped up his sumptuous oils of ladies in haute-couture dresses, and William Merritt Chase sought the artist’s advice. "He was kind of a bridge painter between the 19th century and Impressionism," says the New York dealer Lisa Schiller, of Schiller & Bodo European Paintings, pointing to Stevens’s occasionally loose brushwork. But according to Peter Mitchell, of John Mitchell Fine Paintings, in London, this transitional role has been largely overlooked. "When the Impressionists came along and swept everyone else away, he was forgotten," Mitchell says. As a result, many dealers and auction house specialists believe Stevens’s work is still an extremely good value. "There’s an opportunity to buy at a quality level that’s higher than the price level," says Schiller. She adds that artists born in one country but popular in another tend to be plagued by lower prices. Mitchell concurs: "The artist has suffered from not being born French."
A recent traveling retrospective of Stevens’s work — the first in 30 years — may have reminded collectors that he was an important precedent for the avant-garde artists who succeeded him. A joint effort between the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, in Brussels, and the Van Gogh Museum, in Amsterdam, "Alfred Stevens: Painter of Worldly Women," which finished its tour in Amsterdam in January, included more than 60 works by the artist. According to Edwin Becker, head of exhibitions at the Van Gogh Museum, it’s not Stevens’s style, which is academic, but his choice of subject that makes him modern. Instead of portraying female figures from either mythology or history, as was traditional, Stevens drew attention to contemporary women and their personal dramas. "You have women reading letters, women being refused, women being neglected," explains Becker. "He places women in the foreground, with all these feelings and obsessions. That’s the modernity of Stevens."
Born in Brussels, Stevens was the son of a retired military officer who dabbled in art dealing. His mother’s parents ran a café where Stevens grew up mingling with the artists, writers, and politicians who frequented it. He studied at the academy in Brussels under the Belgian Neoclassical painter Joseph Navez">François-Joseph Navez, took classes at the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and settled permanently in the French capital in 1852. Through his older brother Joseph, also a painter, he hobnobbed with the city’s leading artists and was soon exhibiting realist pictures in the style of Courbet in salons. Aspiring to join the ranks of Parisian high society, in the mid 1850s he hit upon a subject that would capture this elite’s interest: upper-class ladies and their outfits. For the salons in Antwerp, Brussels, and Paris, he turned out anecdotal scenes of modern women garbed in crinoline and crumpled silk. He raided the closet of his friend Pauline von Metternich, an Austrian royal and Parisian society fixture, to outfit his models in up-to-the-minute fashions. "You can date the paintings by the dresses," says Polly Sartori, the senior vice president of 19th-century European paintings, drawings, and sculpture at Sotheby’s New York.
According to Mitchell, in 1880 William Kissam Vanderbilt (one of Cornelius Vanderbilts grandsons) visited Stevens’s studio and saw Le salon du peintre, 1880, which shows three ladies in conversation in the artist’s drawing room, their dresses aglow in the daylight. He bought it on the spot. Over the next century the painting changed hands privately — Schiller recalls selling it for $200,000 in 1980 — until 1998, when it appeared at Sotheby’s New York and achieved $1.65 million — still the artist’s auction record — in part thanks to an increased appetite for 19th- century academic work in the 1990s. In 1999 Le salon was resold privately for $2 million. "You will not see that same jump from 1999 to now — or any jump, actually," Schiller says, citing the shift in taste toward more-modern works. Brussels-based Berko Fine Art currently has an undated watercolor study of the work, priced at €180,000 ($245,000), that Patrick Berko plans to bring to the Shanghai Fine Jewellery and Art Fair this May.
Stevens’s most highly prized canvases, says Schiller, are his large paintings of women in groups, which, depending on size and quality, can command anywhere from $80,000 to $600,000 (the upper end usually being achieved in private sales). She adds that after these come the images of lone beautiful women in their prime, like Blue Ribbon, 1870-75, which fetched £240,500 ($475,860) at Sotheby’s London in May 2008. Another work, La Parisienne, 1880 — depicting a young redhead with a parasol, one hip jutted rakishly out — is on offer at the Boon Gallery, in Brussels, for €150,000 ($205,000).
A man-about-town who loved fine things, Stevens spent the large sums he earned from his paintings on clothes, art, and antiques for the home he shared with his wife, Marie. According to Eric Walstedt, vice president of Hammer Galleries, in New York, Stevens’s collection of Asian objects sparked the interest of his friends Manet, Edgar Degas and Berthe Morisot, helping to spur the japonesque art of that era. Items from Stevens’s collection often turned up in his paintings as curiosities for his ladies to look at, as in the circa 1877 Le masque japonais, which was in the retrospective and which Hammer Galleries is currently offering for $875,000.
Stevens’s paintings attract mostly 19th-century collectors. Not many of his finest works remain outside museums, and the rare gems that do appear on the market generate a lot of interest. "If a good picture comes up in the middle of Europe, people will go there," says Mitchell, who is currently asking £969,000 ($1.5 million) for a painting he lent to the retrospective, La villa des falaises à Ste-Adresse, 1884, depicting a tranquil scene of men and women on a seaside terrace. According to Charles Boon, of the Boon Gallery, the pictures of ladies have their strongest adherents in the United States. In the 1990s "most of the Alfred Stevens paintings in Belgium were sold to American investors," he says, adding that the artist’s marine landscapes, which he produced in large quantities beginning in the 1880s, pop up more often in Belgium. Boon puts the value of these at between $9,000 and $35,000, although a few of the smallest works can sell at auction for less than $5,000.
The marine works were a last grasp at financial stability for the aging artist. Accustomed to selling his pictures for a mint when he needed to pay bills, Stevens had to slow down his production when he began to suffer from chronic bronchitis. His doctor sent him to the seaside, and to fund these trips, Stevens agreed to give his dealer Georges Petit the right to sell the paintings he made there in exchange for a retainer. Some of these late works command high sums — among them, Mitchell’s La villa and Regardant filer un vapeur, 1884, a frothy composition featuring a pink-frocked brunette that carries a price tag of $250,000 at Schiller & Bodo. Generally, however, the rare large seascapes are worth between $25,000 and $50,000, according to Schiller. A small 1892 painting of a wave-tossed sailboat sold at Christie’s South Kensington in October 2009 for £8,125 ($13,250). The marine pictures appeal to buyers from mainland Europe and to those from new markets, such as Russia, says James Hastie, head of 19th-century art at Christie’s New York: "They’re uncomplicated and they’re immediate. They’re extremely good value."
With the recent retrospective restoring the sheen to his reputation, could Stevens be poised to emerge as more than a sideshow to Manet? "A major work hasn’t come up since the exhibition," says Hastie. "It’s going to be interesting to see how it affects the market."
"Alfred Stevens" originally appeared in the April 2010 issue of Art+Auction. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Art+Auction's April 2010 Table of Contents.