Alfred Stevens's paintings of women have been compared to 'a rare perfume concentrated within a scent bottle' - words written by the 19th-century writer and art critic Camille Lemonier. Théophile Gautier described them as 'poems of the women of the world'. Admired by both art lovers and artists, Stevens work retains a universal appeal - possibly the reason why his best paintings have appeared so infrequently on the market.
During the 1850s, Stevens had found his calling in intimate scenes of women in contemporary dress. His paintings were visual 'poems' of the modern woman of the second Empire dressed in the finest satins, velvets and silks. His rendition of the archetypal Parisian woman became Stevens's trademark, as well as his means of defining modernity in both subject and painting. Following his Paris Salon debut in 1853 and with the patronage of King Leopold II, Stevens entered the sparkling society of the Second Empire. Close friends with Princess Mathilde and Jérome Bonaparte, Napoleon's youngest brother, the artist became a familiar figure in society. Although the Second Empire would come to an end, the glitter and the flamboyance of Stevens's life continued until the late 1890s. In the mid-1870s, after purchasing a grand residence on 75 rue des Martyrs, Stevens held many soirées that would include Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas, Jacques-Émile Blanche, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Johan Bartold Jongkind and Sarah Bernhardt, most of whom he had met in the 1860s. He was particularly close to Degas, who was godfather to Stevens's daughter. Blanche, a keen observer of the relationship, stated that it was Stevens from whom Degas acquired his technical methods.
Peter Mitchell comments on Stevens's style: 'Stevens towers above his rivals firstly and predominantly by his abilities and sensitivity as a painter. He was possessed of a wonderful Flemish vitality and appetite for work and he dedicated himself to study every nuance of his subject. The charm, the refinement, the sense of restraint were the qualities of the subject to which he applied a sound technique in drawing and painting. Stevens's girls are not the dolls of his rivals, but have volume and structure. All the details of the costumes, presented with meticulous relish, would be unavailing unless the figure beneath were anatomically convincing. At the same time, there is a painterly touch in the most highly finished works, quite unlike the laboured results of a painter gifted with a less assured hand. Perhaps his most original gift as a painter was a sense of colour which touched upon unusual and intriguing subtleties' (P. Mitchell, Alfred Emile Léopold Stevens, London, 1973, exhibition catalogue, p. 12).
In the 1870s Stevens began to enjoy the patronage of the most important collectors and arbiters of taste in Europe and America. Such was the combination of his innate sense of colour and taste, and his ability to constantly develop and perfect his technique, that his success among the public and potential patrons was guaranteed.
The beautiful and lavish dresses which Stevens depicted were often loaned from great ladies such as the Princesse de Metternich, and remain to this day an important source of information regarding the advanced and fashionable tastes of the age. In Symphonie en Vert the artist has used a beautiful and delicate palette of subtle shades of green to create a highly fashionable, tantalizing and yet serene composition. The stress on tonal harmonies is strongly reminiscent of Whistler's work and calls to mind famed images such as Symphony in White No. 2 (fig. 1), now in the Tate Gallery, London. Phillip Hale, renowned Bostonian artist and author of a monograph on Stevens work, comments on the shared fascination with colour between Whistler and Stevens, and the latter's superiority in his understanding of colour: 'As a colorist Stevens was, indeed, remarkable. He had a gift to make harmonies of color. As a matter of fact he had made symphonies in grey, in yellow, or in blue, before Whistler was known at all as a painter. (P. Hale, 'Alfred Stevens', in Masters in Art: A series of illustrated monographs, Boston, X, 1910, part 109). Although Stevens was much older and at that time by far the more successful of the two, their careers followed similar paths, they admired each other's work, and remained acquainted for the greatest part of their working lives.
The pleasure that Stevens derived from transforming the colours and textures of materials can be seen in abundance in this composition. Neither academic nor impressionistic in style, Symphonie en Vert is a delightfully rendered testament to the source of the artist's obsession and clearly shows his dedication to the translation of the beauty of textures, materials and details on to canvas, which in 1886 he explained as follows: 'A man is not a modernist because he paints modern costumes. The artist in love with modernity should, first of all, be impregnated with modern sensations.'