‘When you have a talent like yours,’ Alfred Stevens was told one day by a ‘peintre pompier’ of his time, ‘you don’t deal with the subjects you do. You see, art is about making great things. Promise me you’ll change to another genre and we’ll give you the medal of honour.’ To this, the artist is said to have retorted superbly: ‘You can keep your medal; as for me, I’ll keep my genre.’ And in fact, it was the genre which made him famous, the idle lady caught – as if frozen – in the insignificance of her live. At first glance, the oeuvre seems conspicuous by the total absence of subject, while in reality there is a lack of action. Stevens is the painter of immobile postures, of the suspended gesture. In Autumn Flowers he painted a woman, yes, but one whose fixed gesture is motivated by a secondary detail, an affable mannequin lit as if by a spotlight which causes a play of the light and a flow of reflections. Stevens was not an Impressionist. He was not smitten with the outdoor light – at least not at that time, though later on he would paint some nice seascapes. However, he understood that the light causes infinite changes in what to him remained essential, a material, a shape, the harmony of colours. The woman is not the subject of the painting. According to Gustave Vanzype, it is the still life composed of the fabrics in which she is dressed and the things around her, similar to the still lifes painted by the Old Masters out of love for sumptuously assorted colours and brilliant impasto. The virtuosity of the colourist was such that there was nothing he dared not do, like this symphony of grey and black. Some time before Whistler, he wanted ‘to use colours to compete with the musician who uses sounds’. He stuck this hard silhouette on a dark backdrop, without any scenery, which was not usual for him, and makes her stand out by jet frills and flounces, the gloss of the chestnut chignon, the matt sheen of the profile, the pastel flowers and the richly decorated table cover, like the one he had already used in Remember, which is also part of this Museum’s collection. Stevens advised his students to efface brush traces by means of a knife and to make the strokes as smooth as marble since smooth matter makes the tone more beautiful. In 1867, the year in which he produced Autumn Flowers, Stevens showed another seventeen paintings at the Paris World Exhibition. He was at the height of his fame.
Text: Micheline Colin, Museum of Modern Art. A Selection of Works, Brussels, 2001, p. 46 © Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels