Alfred Stevens (1817-75)
English Decorative Painting
Since the Middle Ages no living tradition of mural painting has arisen in England, and attempts at its revival have not been so successful as to encourage public bodies to spend money on the purpose. In consequence the abilities of famous painters like Alfred Stevens and G. F. Watts, whose natural gifts fitted them for heroic decorative painting, have been to a great extent wasted. If they had been born in France instead of England these two men would almost certainly have been employed on great schemes of decorative fine art painting for public buildings, but as it was, their splendid powers were frittered away through lack of any adequate opportunity to exercise them.
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That Watts and Stevens were both at least partially successful in this most difficult branch of painting must be attributed to the fact that both were masters of sculpture as well as painters, and so acquired a knowledge of solid form rare among English painters, and that both spent some years in Italy studying the great masters of mural painting. But this experience would have been useless if they had not been naturally endowed with great imagination and creative power. Of the two, Watts produced by far the greater body of work, but Stevens, in so far as one can judge from the fragmentary nature of his work, would seem to have been the more highly gifted.
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Alfred Stevens was born at Blandford in Dorset. His father was a heraldic painter, and as a boy Stevens assisted him in his work. His talents at an early age were remarkable enough to attract the attention of a local gentleman, the Honourable Samuel Best, who provided him with the means to go to Italy to study, after a project to apprentice him to Edwin Landseer had happily fallen through.
In October 1833, at the age of sixteen, he landed at Naples, and remained in Italy for nearly ten years, not returning to England till 1842. During this time he mastered the principles of architecture, sculpture, and painting as practised by the great old masters of the Renaissance. He produced little original work - a few portrait studies only - and gave his time to a thorough study of the masterpieces of his predecessors. To live, he copied for the dealers; at one time he was even forced to take a job as clerk of the works to a builder; and in 1841 he became an assistant to the Rome-based Danish sculptor Bertel Thorwaldsen (1770-1844).
Study of the Early Renaissance
It has been said that Stevens was advised to study the work of Salvator Rosa (1615-73), when he came to Italy, but that instead he studied the works of proto-Renaissance Giotteschi, in the Church of the Incoronata at Naples. If so, the instinct which made Stevens study the primitives was a sound one, and it explains the fact that his years in Italy made him a master instead of an inferior copyist of Renaissance mannerisms. For the principles on which the art of the Renaissance was based are clearly evident in the masterpieces of the early Renaissance artists, whereas in the later 15th century they are overlaid by an elaborate superstructure. So by studying the foundations of Renaissance art, Stevens was able to enter into the spirit of the great masters of its close, and to produce an art of his own closely analogous to theirs, because it was based on the same foundations, but not an unintelligent and superficial imitation.
So it was that Stevens could learn from Michelangelo (1475-1564), as Raphael (1483-1520) himself had done, whereas most later painters, disregarding the foundations on which the art of Michelangelo was built, could do no more than imitate his grandiose gestures and exaggerated forms.
Stevens himself spoke of Thorwaldsen as his only master, but this cannot be taken too seriously. He learned the technique of sculpture from him no doubt, but he found his real masters not among the living who are now dead, but among the dead who are still living.
This work had also been thrown open to competition, and the judges this time expressed their appreciation of Stevens' sketch design by awarding him a prize of one hundred pounds, and the sixth place among the competitors. Only the subsequent discovery that his design was more suitable for execution gained him the commission against his more favoured rivals. Shorn of its crowning equestrian statue, which in his wisdom the Dean of St. Paul's considered inappropriate, the memorial was duly erected. With the exception of four pieces of mosaic art for St. Paul's, it was Stevens's first and last public work of importance. Fully completed only in 1912 when the equestrian group at the top was cast from his model, the Wellington monument was not only Stevens' finest work of art, it is also the greatest work of English sculpture produced during the 19th century. The architectural features form an outstanding composition, and the two bronze groups - Valour and Cowardice, and Truth and Falsehood - have all the grandeur and vigour of a Michelangelo sculpture.
Decorative Art Commissions
During the years which elapsed between
his failure at Westminster Hall and the Wellington Memorial Commission,
Stevens had found employment of various kinds. In 1845 he had been appointed
master of architectural drawing, linear
perspective, modelling, and ornamental painting in the Government
School of Design at Somerset House. He resigned this post in 1847, and
was commissioned in the same year to decorate Deysbrook House near Liverpool.
In 1851 he was designing ironwork for Messrs. Hoole of Sheffield, which
gained a first prize for their exhibit at the Great Exhibition of that
year. In 1852 he designed the now well-known lion for the palings of the
British Museum, and in 1855 he decorated the house of Don Christobal de
Murietta in Kensington with a series of paintings from Spencer. In 1855
he was commissioned by Mr. R. S. Holford to decorate the dining-room at
Dorchester House, and this work together with the Wellington Memorial,
and the mosaics for St. Paul's, occupied him for most of the rest of his
life. A scheme which he put forward for the decoration of the dome of
St. Paul's with sculpture and painting was rejected, and he died at the
age of 58, a prematurely worn-out and disappointed man.
Stevens was probably the finest draughtsman
and decorative painter that England has ever produced, but owing to the
blindness and indifference of his contemporaries he has left only scattered
fragments of what might have been a magnificent life's work. Even so he
has left enough to show that he was one of the greatest artists known
to Victorian art - not in
England alone, but throughout the Continent of Europe. Florentine painting,
to which Stevens's work is so closely allied, developed on sculptural
lines, and that he can take his place beside the great Florentines on
equal terms, is at least partly due to the full and intimate knowledge
of solid form which his experience as a sculptor gave him.
A master craftsman in bronze and marble
(as well as porcelain and silver), in the largeness of his design and
draughtsmanship, and in immense force which animates his figures, Stevens
comes very near to Michelangelo,
but he is less rugged, and more serene, and he never falls into the grotesque
exaggeration which mars some of Michelangelo's work. His draughtsmanship
has a direct vigour and sense of style which is very rare, and his studies
for the figures in his compositions never remind one of the model posing.
He seizes at once exactly what is needful for his heroic conceptions,
and in this he differs from most painters who attempt ideal work, and
whose drawings are usually portraits of a
particular model or empty generalizations without life or character. The
process of transforming a literal study into an idealized figure almost
always involves a loss of vitality, which accounts for the tameness of
so much ideal work, but with Stevens this process seems to be absent,
for there is no difference in vision between the preliminary study and
the completed work. From the first he sees with the eye of the imagination
in large and heroic terms.
Unfortunately, it is mainly from his studies, sketches, and cartoons that the art of Stevens must be judged, but it is possible from these and from the few decorative works which reached completion, to reconstruct in the imagination the splendid achievement that might have been his in a more appreciative age. In the intervals of his decorative work he executed a few small subject-pictures and portraits, and these show the same spacious artistry as his larger work. His subject-pictures such as the 'Judith' (Tate Gallery) and' King Alfred and his Mother' (Tate Gallery), both very small pictures in actual measurement, have the largeness which only comes from great imagination, while his works of miniature portrait painting shows that he might have achieved as great a position and greater wealth if he had chosen to devote himself to this branch of painting. See also: Best Miniaturists.
They show a most sympathetic understanding of his sitters, which fine draughtsmanship, reserved colour, and refined handling of paint enabled him to express to perfection. These qualities can be seen in the portrait of 'John Morris Moore' (Tate Gallery) and a portrait of an unknown man (Tate Gallery), both of which recall Venetian rather than Florentine art, and in the 'Portrait of an Artist' (Tate Gallery), which actually suggests Velazquez in its sense of values and breadth of handling. But his masterpiece in portraiture is the 'Mrs. Collman' (National Gallery, London), an entirely personal work which recalls no other artist. Ingres would perhaps be the most apt comparison for this, for it has the same sensitive and lucid draughtsmanship, but in colour, atmosphere, and, above all, quality of paint, arguably it surpasses anything which Ingres ever did. If the other portraits by Stevens are not quite equal to this they yet fall very little below it, and the portrait of 'Mrs. Young Mitchell' (Tate Gallery), though left unfinished on account of the death of the sitter, remains one of the most charming and sensitive portraits of its age.
Works by Alfred Stevens can be seen in the best art museums around the UK.
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