The work of Alfred Stevens could be called 'the poem to the women of the world' wrote Theophile Gautier in his review of the 1867 Exposition Universelle, the exhibition that earned Stevens a first class medal and his promotion to Officer of the Legion of Honor.
Although Stevens cannot be neatly categorized as either an Impressionist or Academic painter, his paintings of women must be considered as modern in conception as anything painted by Manet or Degas. What better subject for the supreme painter of the modern woman than the great actress Sarah Bernhardt?
Sarah Bernhardt was considered 'the most famous actress the world has ever known' and was painted by several of the foremost artists of the day, including Hans Makart (1881), Julien Bastien Lepage (1879), and Louise Abbema (1875) and she was painted more than once by Stevens, who taught her to paint in the 1880s.
In the present portrait, the actress looks directly at the viewer. This is an intimate and realistic portrait of the actress, executed in a muted palette of white, browns and blacks. Stevens has chosen to portrait the woman as her knew her, capturing her intelligence and intensity. The artist and actress had close ties most certainly developed as Stevens worked with Bernhardt over canvas and brush. In the 1880s he painted several of these small portraits of the great actress, all characterized by Bernhardt's bold and steady gaze.
This painting will be included in the catalogue raisonné of Stevens' paintings now in preparation by the Comite Alfred Stevens.