The Parisian Sphinx


Alfred Stevens
Brussels 1823 - Paris 1906
oil on canvas
72 x 53 cm
Inventory number 1373

When the young Brussels-born painter Alfred Stevens debuted in Paris, he specialised in realistic, socially engaged art. However, in 1855, he made a thematic switch to scenes from the lives of contemporary bourgeois women. He became the chronicle painter of the demimondaines, women who were supported by their wealthy lovers. His choice of subject matter was quite innovative. Previously, female figures in painting mostly played a mythological or a historical role. Stevens was the first to portray them as precious beings in richly decorated interiors. The Parisian Sphinx is a mysterious woman and quite different from the females he usually portrayed. She is depicted from the front, her hand supporting her head slightly as she gazes out of the canvas to the viewer. The background is brown and neutral. There are no attributes in the painting. Who is this woman and what secrets does she hold? It remains an unanswered question to this day.


In addition to the sphinx at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp, there are at least two other Parisian sphinxes by Stevens. One is in an American private collection, the other is held by the Clark Art Institute in Massachusetts. The latter is the wintry counterpart, if you will, of this summery rendering in the collection of the museum.

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