Though born American, Julius Stewart had a life not unlike his famous contemporary John Singer Sargent. Both were born to American families yet were raised and educated in Europe. Stewart’s father, William Stewart, was a well-known art collector who helped to jumpstart the careers of many younger artists like Eduardo Zamacois, a Spanish painter who would later become Julius’ first teacher when the Stewart family relocated from Philadelphia to Paris.
It was in Paris that young Julius would grow up surrounded by art, artists and art collectors. Eventually he studied under Raimundo de Madrazo and was later enrolled in the atelier of Jean-Leon Gerôme. Stewart had his first success in the Salon of 1883 with his Five O’Clock Tea, followed by a hugely successful entry in 1889 entitled Hunt Supper. It was these pictures which most represented his subject matter and style: the fashionable, high society ladies of Paris’ upper class. He became one of the leading portrait painters of the city’s social elite, developing strong techniques in portraiture and figure painting, as well as capturing the exquisite surroundings in which they gathered – in the cafes, gardens, banquet halls and living quarters of the wealthy.
Though he lived in France, Stewart remained active in the American art scene with shows and exhibitions, and French critics of the time recognized a style in his work that was European influenced but still uniquely American. Later Stewart would add open-air nudes to his repertoire of subject matter. He remained in Paris until his death in 1919, continuing to exhibit in Europe and America as well as helping to bring more American artists into international exhibitions.
Julius Stewart and John Singer Sargent reigned as the two finest painters of society life and figurative work in the late 19th century. Sargent’s reputation as a portrait painter was beyond Stewart’s, but no other American challenged Stewart in his mastery or ability to depict French high society. A man of standing, wealth, and incredible talent, Stewart was admitted to the crème of the crop of French society. Often his salon submission works of societal events such as balls were closely looked at to see what noteworthy individual’s faces could be recognized. In the 1890’s Stewart turned to painting nudes in the landscape. With these he turned to an almost allegorical approach, based more on the feminine mystique such as “the female huntress” or spritely nymph. His figures were not overly idealized though, as they had muscle and an anatomical faithfulness to life. Stewart was a great academic painter and unlike some of his French counterparts, did not wish to over idealize his female forms. It is possible that he had been inspired by the work of Anders Zorn, the great Scandinavian artist and painter of the female nude.
“The Clearing” is an elegant, poetic and formal nude study by Stewart. It is as much about sunlight as it is female form in a celebrated sense. The sunlight backlighting is a focal point and Stewart uses a striking and bold technique with light and darks to create the strong contract of sunlight foliage and the darkness of shaded areas. Upon closer inspection, Stewart has challenged himself with capturing the translucency of light hitting skin and the different colors that are reflected on the models body. Glazes of greens and mauves on the skin are a testament to Stewart’s level of technique and mastery. Few Americans achieved this or would attempt this, but Stewart had long trained at the French academies with the best. The woman is posed by the elegant tree in a nymph like way, suggesting she has been frolicking and has just taken cover in its modest refuge. It is not a portrait but a long celebrated metaphor or a graceful female form at one and in ease with nature. In the 19th century this was in a literary sense a much written about and artistically examined topic in poetry, art and writing.
Private Collection, Newtown, CT