Artwork of the Week for January 11, 2010

Alfred Stevens (Belgian, 1823-1906)

In the Studio, 1888, oil on canvas

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC

In keeping with this month’s theme of the Art of Art History (artworks that draw on or deal with the canon of Western Art), a painting about the art of painting.

What is it about the studio that makes it such an appealing subject for artists to depict? By the end of the nineteenth century, the constructed image of the down-trodden bohemian was no longer en vogue among artists. While this romanticized artistic type continued to intrigue writers and poets, artists themselves wished to portray a different sort of persona. Reliant on patrons and sales for their livelihood, artists were just as much businessmen as real-estate agents or steel-barons. “By the 1850s,” explains Neil Harris, “the artistic life was no longer merely a foil to materialism and economic selfishness; it had been captured to exemplify the virtues of industry and material success which dominated the business community.” It was the nineteenth-century reality that art making and selling was just another venture in capital.  Therefore, when it came to images of self-representation, artists were caught between maintaining an artistic persona of a sophisticated outsider and expressing a sense of corporate professionalism. Enter the artist’s studio.

Self-portraits by artists allowed for them to assert a sort of gentlemanly character, but images of their studio were perhaps more emphatic declarations of an artist’s potential value. His cultural sensitivity and material success along with his process and skill could be captured in a single image of the artist’s workspace. Here, Stevens’ uses the subject of the studio to assert his familiarity with both the great paintings of the past and the trendiest artworks of the present.

Stevens’ “In the Studio” is something of a “greatest hits” collage. Velazquez, Whistler, and Monet are all appropriately referenced. The mirror in the background, which shows a hint of the artist at work, along with a miniature portrait to its right are citations of Velazquez’s famous “Las Meninas” (1656), the most famous painting about painting. Also scattered across the wall in the background are references to contemporary trends in visual tastes: Japanese fans, umbrella, and scrolls — it was the age of Japonisme — and an assortment of painted portraits.

Most captivating are the women in the foreground, all of whom are characters from contemporary 19th century paintings. Whistler gets several nods in the foreground, including the fur carpet which is stolen from his“Symphony in White No. 1” of 1861. Often discussions of “In the Studio” call it an image of interrupted portrait-painting session, with the woman standing to the right as the artist at pause. I beg to differ. The standing woman is placed in front of a golden wall adorned with cherry blossoms. Her region not only further emphasizes a consumer taste for Japanese-inspired adornments, it quotes Whistler’s “Symphony in Flesh Color and Pink: Portrait of Mrs. Frances Leyland” (1871-74). She is all the more interesting because in one hand she holds an artist’s palette and a brush as she leans gingerly on a partially painted canvas. Ah! But her hands are not the hands of an artist, they are too idle. They are the hands of a muse. The three women are not engaged with each other — their gazes are internal to the painting, but are detached from any particular object or person. Their only relationship is that they are all inspiration for the artist that paints them, and that artist is Stevens.

Stevens quotes himself in his painting. Seated on the lush red sofa is a woman in oriental garb. In her lap is a golden platter and a curved sword. She is Salome exactly as Stevens depicted her in another painting (which was inspired by Henri Regnault’s more famous “Salome”).

Put all these pieces together, and “In the Studio” becomes a play on the relationship between the real world and the painted world, a game all the more intensified by Stevens’ highly realist style.

It is a great painting — the kind of painting that stops you in your tracks, the kind of painting old men love to explain to younger women, and the kind of painting art historians love to gush over to anyone willing to listen.


3 thoughts on “Artwork of the Week for January 11, 2010

  1. this is really interesting. i really admire your breadth of knowledge on western painting, enough to catch the doffs of the hat from the painter to others. it’s fun to do, eh?

    i think, though, that, just as every generation decries the youth of the day as being the worst ever, so every generation must wail that *now* artists are selling out.

    i feel like both are true and both are false. perhaps it has always been a myth that artists were somehow pure, no generation is “worse” than any that preceded it. (though, as a sidenote, particularly during the japonisme period, much hired work, ads, were just wonderful art.) artists have always had to find a way to pay the rent.

    but then take whistler — would he have painted the nocturne that drew fire from ruskin and impoverished whistler in the end, had he been focussed mainly on his reputation? would utamaro have been almost literally murdered by censorship had he only been trying to stay popular?

    artists have always had to create what they had to create, and they’ve always had to feed the kids. stevens, i don’t know. i just get a kick outa the very kitch of it.

    • Thanks for the comment, Lotusgreen.

      You bring up some themes I’m very interested in as a researcher — I specialize in painter-printers, and the question of artistic integrity is always at the top of the page when discussing “fine art” artists who turn the “reproducible arts.” There’s always a market to pander to, and any artist who can successfully navigate it earns himself the security to experiment with counter-mainstream styles/subjects/media. It’s the eternal question: what came first, the consumer or the artist?

      also, your Japonisme blog is mind-boggling — it’s a tremendous resource!

  2. thank you very much — i appreciate it.

    among the things i have found truly surprising in doing research for the blog are these, which i think are related to this subject:

    • i learned that i probably would not have heard of many of the artists i have always loved had it not been for entrepreneurs, for example bing in france and watanabe in japan. even people like frank lloyd wright brought a wealth of japanese art to the states, and then of course there’s boston’s mfa.

    • i’ve learned that sometimes that work *had* been “edited” to be appealing to, well, say, me — what the public wanted to see, by those entrepreneurs. so should i love it less? very confusing.

    • and i’ve learned what an extraordinary number of artists and designers, et al, got their chance by winning a contest. this would never have occurred to me!

    in fact, i don’t think that any of these three, had you asked me 3 or so years ago, been even mentioned in my thoughts or discussions about “ART.”

    not that these necessarily answer your question…. :^)

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