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Object details

The Parisian Sphinx
72 × 52 cm
Inventory number: 
upper left: AStevens.

More about this work

The Belgian painter Alfred Stevens worked for most of his career in the French capital, as did his brothers, the animal painter Joseph and the art dealer Arthur. After a cautious start as a social realist Stevens abruptly changed course in 1855 and devoted himself to genre scenes with sensitive depictions of the sophisticated women of his day. They pose in salons and boudoirs, surrounded by chinoiseries and mirrors, seated at the piano or in the bath. They read a letter, gaze out of a window, and converse in whispers. Time and again they inhabit atmospheric pictures redolent of wealth and luxury.

Stevens was not just the painter of the Parisian beau monde, he was also part of it. He was a friend of anyone who was anyone in the world of art and letters. Eugène Delacroix was a witness at his wedding, Alexandre Dumas fils, Eduard Manet and Sarah Bernhardt were intimate friends, and Charles Baudelaire and Edgar Degas frequented his studio. As an artist, Stevens moved between tradition and modernity. He was a society painter working in the margins of progressive and innovative art. He was fanatical about 17th-century Dutch artists, Vermeer in particular. But at the same time he was a painter of modern life as propagated by Baudelaire. With honest artistic intentions and great craftsmanship he portrayed the elegant life of the Second Empire and the Third Republic.

In The Parisian sphinx he painted a woman, identity unknown, who differs from the ladies whom he usually depicted. He generally painted them full-length in richly furnished interiors full of knickknacks and frills. Seated here is a dreamy woman sunk in thought against a plain background in an undefined , bare room. She is wearing a light dress of white muslin with a print of small red, yellow and blue flowers, a black tulle shawl draped over her crossed arms, and a fur knotted around her neck. She delicately raises a finger to her reddened lips, her head tilted slightly to the right. Her neatly pinned-up hair is dappled with light. That cool illumination creates a strange effect. With the title The Parisian sphinx Stevens has conjured up a puzzling and sensual apparition out of a young middle-class woman.

Stevens worked hard, used the same title for different canvases and made more than one version of some paintings, which would later cause a certain amount of confusion. In addition to the one in the KMSKA there are two other Parisian sphinxes, one in a private American collection and the other in the Clark Art Institute in Willliamstown, Massachusetts (inv. no. 1955.863). The latter is the wintry sister of the summery Antwerp variant, as it were.

The KMSKA’s Parisian sphinx is the best-known of Stevens’s series of women viewed from the front. Her popularity even gave rise to a mocking imitation. In the Exposition Universelle burlesque in 1887, which was an initiative of the Brussels artists’ group L’Essor, Léon Frederic ridiculed his honourable colleague Stevens with a parody of his Parisian sphinx (now in a private collection).

Acquisition history

auction: Edmond Huybrechts, 1902

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