ART D’oeuvre: Philadelphia with a Side of Stevens, Please

After spending an art-filled weekend in the City of Brotherly Love, I thought to highlight a work of art by a lesser known artist that I happily discovered while in Philadelphia for this latest edition of ART D’oeuvre. Alfred-Émile-Léopold Stevens’s Departing for the Promenade (Will You Go Out with Me, Fido?) from 1859 is domiciled in a small annexed room off the Annenberg galleries within the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The Museum (apart from it’s notable Rocky fame) houses a truly exceptional collection, excellently curated – I highly recommend a visit to this art lovers playground. The Stevens painting quietly sits among other famous works by European 19th century artists including: Claude Monet, Paul Cézanne, Vincent Van Gogh and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec…just to name a few. The Museum has also grabbed headlines recently as it has been named the benefactor of Keith and Katherine Sachs’s extensive contemporary art collection, further raising its profile as an institution serious about art, both past and present. Let’s talk art!

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The light heartedness and realistic portrayal of Departing for the Promenade (Promenade)‘s subject matter immediately drew me into this beautiful painting’s story. The artwork captures a snapshot of daily life from the 19th century that still resonates with modern audiences: the viewership captures a woman, as she slowly opens the lock of her ornately gilded French doors while exchanging a gaze with her puppy (appearing in the left hand corner), who is eager to accompany his lady. The fixed, almost endearing gaze between master and canine, beautifully illustrates the intrinsic bond connecting humans and their pets. The artistic rendering of man’s (or in this case, woman’s) best friend has been a common subject for artists for millennia, like the cave art inside the Lascaux Caves in France (dating from around 15,000 BC). In this particular piece, the nature of true companionship and mutual friendship is clearly rendered by the shared, loving gaze between the lady and her pocket-sized pooch. The representation of this mutual affection is a refreshing contrast to the frigid portraitures of women dating from the 16th and 17th centuries, where dogs appear as mere decorations.

Stevens’s Promenade also represents a type of intimacy; the private spaces of the woman’s home. As an art historian, I am interested in the artistic quality of art, but equally its representation of society of yesteryear. Therefore this piece also represents the lady’s interaction with the objects within her home. The domestic architecture depicted by Stevens is simple, but characteristic of the social elite’s fashionable décor of the time and is hinged upon three core elements. First, framing the main subject, the lady, is a beautifully gilded panel work that blends both walls and door together.  This particular design is in the style of Louis XVI, where white walls were embellished with contrasting gold classical motifs, outlining rectangular perimeters along the surface of the walls, creating a very rich, yet refined effect. Resting in the right hand section of the canvas, sits an olive green satin settee in the background. Its textured pattern shimmers and deep shadowed creases created by back buttons are exquisitely executed by Stevens’s paintbrush. Finally, the most novel element of this piece, a portrait of a lady, in a gold rococo style frame hanging above the upholstery, looking over the scene. Who is this woman?  From her dress and disposition, I believe this painting dates from 18th century where powered wig were highly fashionable, along with her ornate headdress and soft flowing robes. It was not uncommon for gentrified society to include portraits of their ancestors within the home.  Perhaps the woman is a distant relative, looking over her heir, evoking a sense of protection.

I thought to end this visual analysis with the charming lady who dominates the Promenade, and truly steals this art scene. Stevens’s exceptional artistic talent is conveyed on many fronts. The unknown mistress has a certain elegance and coquettishness about her – a small hint of her playful demeanor is illustrated by the slight head tilt over her shoulder in the dog’s direction. Stevens’s artistic mastery and precious talents come alive through the elaborate rendering of the multiple textures of her dress: the crushed velvet brown cape, her multicolored wrap, the satin yellow ribbon and even the delicate embroidery of her white skirt do not got unnoticed. The contrast in discernible materials reflect Alfred-Émile-Léopold Stevens’s talent as an artist, that merit high praise.

Holly knows art. If you enjoyed Alfred-Émile-Léopold Stevens’s Departing for the Promenade, check out these paintings for an extra helping of art:

Holly’s Art Table D’Hôte:
Fleur d’automne (Autumn Flowers) by Alfred-Émile-Léopold Stevens – Drawn to Stevens’s naturalistic painting style? Perhaps overshadowed by his realist contemporaries, Stevens has a rich portfolio of work that demonstrates his talent as an artist. Over the course of his career as a painter, his depiction of women in candid poses, such as this painting housed at the Fine Arts Museum of Belgium provides a rare insight into life as a woman in the 19th century.

The notion of art as a vehicle depicting society, is best achieved by the great satirical painter, William Hogarth. The Toilette (fourth canvas from a series, entitled Marriage a la Mode, from 1743), Hogarth pioneered the Georgian-era cartoon, whose scenes take Stevens’s work an extra step further – providing commentary (in rather negative tones) for the (dilapidated) state of English society.  You must experience his works for yourselves – they really are worth a look. Note the paintings within the painting too!

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