With contemporary art critic Camille Lemonnier comparing his paintings of women to 'a rare perfume concentrated within a scent bottle', and esteemed writer Théophile Gautier describing them as 'poems of the women of the world', Alfred Stevens' career had evidently begun to blossom in the mid 1850s. During those years he had found his true subject matter, intimate scenes of women in contemporary dress. His pictures, with their beautiful decoration and lovely gowns, were synonymous with the elegance of the Second Empire, and surviving its fall in the 1870s began to be purchased ever more avidly by the great 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 high prices that Stevens' works commanded enabled him to indulge his taste and acquire beautiful period furnishings, pictures, and objets. Using them to adorn his canvases, they remain an important source of information regarding the advanced and fashionable tastes of the age. The present work shows a maid dusting these very objects, presumably those in his own home, pausing, taken-aback by the sculpture before her. While in his more famed paintings of women he models them as beauties in the most fashionable dress, adorned with stunning period accessories, here is the low class maid, in contemporary utility dress, adorned only with the tools of her trade, the innocent unknowing beauty of her red hair and pale alabaster skin having been captured by Stevens' discerning eye.
The pleasure that Stevens derived from transforming the colours and textures of materials c0n be seen in abundance in this composition. On the one hand we have the maid's clothing, although not as rich as silk or satin, he intricately translates the appearance of her lace-edged blouse, the embroidery around the hem of her skirt and the crispness of her pressed pinafore. On the other hand, it is the objects that provide him with a vast array of differing textures such as the soft feathers of the duster, the harsh bristles of the broom, the delicacy of the flower petals and the smoothness of sculpted bronze. Neither academic or impressionistic in style, An Aspiring Connoisseur is a delightfully rendered testament to the source of the artist's obsession. His dedication to the almost unrivalled translation of the beauty of textures, materials and details on to canvas. In 1886 he explained the genesis for this dedication: '…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.'