Enigmatic Parisian Sphinx
A dreamy young woman, lost in thought, gently supports her head with her hand. She stares out, directly at us. The unusual, cool lighting creates an unsettling atmosphere. The background is brown and neutral, the space devoid of objects or attributes. She is so enigmatic, this woman that Alfred Stevens painted in his Parisian Sphinx. And so very different to the kind of ladies he usually depicted, in their richly appointed interiors, full of frills and ornaments. Who is she? What riddles does she have to tell? The title merely adds to the mystery.
There’s no denying it: artists like looking at women. They traditionally gave them mythological or historical roles, but Stevens wanted to do something different. He portrayed contemporary women as seductive subjects. In The Parisian Sphinx, he turns a young bourgeoise into a mysterious and sensual apparition. A femme fatale.
The Brussels-born artist Alfred Stevens made his name in Paris as a painter of beautifully dressed ladies. He portrayed them in charming genre pieces, in which he invariably captured a fleeting mood. The sadness of a farewell, the emotion of a letter, the rustle of a silk dress. Each one an atmospheric painting packed with wealth and luxury. ‘The glance of a woman has more charm than the most beautiful landscape or seascape, and more attraction than a ray of sunlight.’ So wrote Stevens himself in his Impressions sur la peinture, a book with 360 aphorisms on painting. The same thinking is clearly expressed in The Parisian Sphinx.
Parisian Sphinx I, II and III
Alfred Stevens worked hard. Very hard indeed. He made several versions of some paintings. Besides the one in the KMSKA, at least two other Parisian Sphinxes are known. One belongs to an American private collection. The other is at the Clark Art Institute in Willliamstown, Massachusetts and is the wintry sister, as it were, of her summery Antwerp counterpart.
When the young Brussels artist Alfred Stevens made his début as a painter in Paris, he specialized in realistic, socially engaged art. In 1855, he turned instead to themes from the lives of contemporary upper-middle-class women, becoming the chronicler of the demi-mondaines: women who lived off their wealthy lovers.
Society painter in Paris
Stevens became an immensely successful society painter, moving in the highest fashionable and artistic circles. The painter Eugène Delacroix was a witness at his wedding. Alexander Dumas fils and Eduard Manet were good friends. And the authors Charles Baudelaire and Gustave Flaubert were regular visitors to his studio.
Ensor was not a fan
His younger colleague James Ensor was not an admirer. He referred with florid contempt to the ‘currant juice’ and ‘pistachio’ colours of Stevens’ paintings. And towards the end of Stevens’ career, he called him a ‘frog, so full of hot air that he cannot help but burst’.