Alfred Stevens had an artistic career that many would be envious of. His circle of friends and patrons and his far ranging influence established him as one of the more important painters of his time. Stevens’ artistic studies began in Brussels under the guidance of François Navez (1787-1869). In Paris he studied under Camille Joseph Roqueplan (1803-1855). His first canvases date from 1848. Stevens’ year of absolute triumph came in 1867. Just forty-four years old, he had eighteen paintings entered in the Universal Exposition which won him a First Class Medal. He was promoted to Officer of the Legion of Honor and invited to the Imperial Grand Ball at the Tuileries. Indeed, no small feat for one whose debut was only nineteen years previous. Stevens spent the first three decades of his career painting elegant women of the haute bourgeoisie dressed à la mode. It is with these paintings that Stevens made his fame and no small fortune.
In 1874 King Leopold of Belgium commissioned Stevens to paint a set of works illustrating the four seasons. This set remains in the Royal Collection.
Stevens’ paintings were avidly collected by the most prominent individuals of the latter part of the 19th century: Walters, Havemeyer, Stewart, Belmont and Vanderbilt. American Impressionist William Merritt Chase owned no fewer than twelve of Stevens’ paintings. Vincent Van Gogh was also an admirer. Writing to his brother Theo in 1885 he said “Everything depends on the amount of life and passion that an artist knows how to put into his figures; when they live, an Alfred Stevens girl for example,...[is] really very beautiful.”
By 1880, we see a shift in the subject matter Stevens chose to depict. After developing a malady from inhaling turpentine fumes his medical advisor and friend, Dr. Peter, recommended that he spend time at the seashore. These visits to Le Havre on the Normandy coast marked a gradual departure from the subject matter that was the mainstay of his critical and popular success. He began to paint little marines such as L’Été a Deauville. These marines are sincere, direct, and exquisite in color and not unlike some works of Courbet, who painted Stevens’ portrait. Many of these marine paintings remind us of more subtle seascapes of Whistler. The ocean served well as a romantic and dramatic device that particularly suited Stevens’ oeuvre.