Historic Painting: “Elegant Figures in a Salon” by Alfred Stevens, circa 1860s.

elegant figures in a salon by alfred stevens pd

Score another one for the Google Art Project! The other night, just before I was about to delve back into Season 3 of Lost, this painting came across my Chromecast background screen and instantly I knew it had to go on the blog. The title of this picture is Elegant Figures in a Salon, and art historians are pretty sure it’s by Belgian painter Alfred Stevens, for its style closely resembles many of his other lavish 19th century pictures of upper-class European women. The date is less certain. Google Art Project gives a range of anywhere from 1840, when Stevens first became active artistically, and 1906, the year of his death. Given the gowns of the women in the picture I’d guess it dates from the 1860s. This happens to be the decade in which Stevens was most active with these sorts of pictures, so I think 1860s is a pretty good estimate.

This is obviously set in a European salon, perhaps in Belgium, maybe in France. Four women in elegant gowns are briefly conferring while a servant, dressed in 18th century costume (as was typical for footmen at that time), looks through the salon doorway. I find it interesting that this is a very temporary-looking scene. The women aren’t drinking tea, embroidering or doing anything else that suggests they plan to be here for very long. This is a brief snapshot of a conversation in a certain time and place, as fleeting as it is visually beautiful. Stevens’s details on the gowns, the carpet, the Oriental vase on the mantel and other details of the room are skillfully rendered. There’s also a sort of “soft focus” quality about the whole scene typical of mid-19th century art. It’s realistic, but still velvety in its texture. This is a fragile upper-class world carefully walled-off from the rest of the world.

Thanks to the Google Art Project for bringing these pictures to the world for free. I hope to feature many others as this blog series continues.

This image is in the public domain. The original painting is housed at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston.
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