After all the femme fatales and power-hungry head-wranglers, I did not recognize this to be a portrait of Judith. In fact, it looks more like a Joan of Arc portrait. No severed head, no maid, no glittering gown or buoyant breasts. But an expression of total trust in the heavens. Pure and illuminated.
The Tate offers no description of this artwork and only one online biography of Stevens (1817-1875) mentions it. And while I may jest that it looks like St. Joan, it is truly a sensitive and expressive portrait of a woman – sharing much with Renaissance painting prior to Mannerism.
It has been said that Stevens was advised to study the work of Salvator Rosa (1615-73), when he came to Italy, but that instead he studied the works ofproto-Renaissance Giotteschi, in the Church of the Incoronata at Naples. If so, the instinct which made Stevens study the primitives was a sound one, and it explains the fact that his years in Italy made him a master instead of an inferior copyist of Renaissance mannerisms. For the principles on which the art of the Renaissance was based are clearly evident in the masterpieces of the early Renaissance artists, whereas in the later 15th century they are overlaid by an elaborate superstructure. So by studying the foundations of Renaissance art, Stevens was able to enter into the spirit of the great masters of its close, and to produce an art of his own closely analogous to theirs, because it was based on the same foundations, but not an unintelligent and superficial imitation…
Unfortunately, it is mainly from his studies, sketches, and cartoons that the art of Stevens must be judged, but it is possible from these and from the few decorative works which reached completion, to reconstruct in the imagination the splendid achievement that might have been his in a more appreciative age. In the intervals of his decorative work he executed a few small subject-pictures and portraits, and these show the same spacious artistry as his larger work. His subject-pictures such as the ‘Judith’ (Tate Gallery) and’ King Alfred and his Mother’ (Tate Gallery), both very small pictures in actual measurement, have the largeness which only comes from great imagination, while his portraits show that he might have achieved as great a position and greater wealth if he had chosen to devote himself to this branch of painting. (1)
Although Stevens was talented, he was disappointed in his career. His single masterwork is the Wellington Monument in St Paul’s – which he worked on from 1857 until his death. Problems involved money and Stevens’ pursuit of the perfection he knew from Italian art. It took him 10 years to produce a full-size model of the monument, and the money ran out at the point Stevens completion of the work would cost that much again (£14,000). An extra £8,500 was made available in the charge of Mr Leonard Collmann, “as Mr Stevens had a want of all knowledge of the value of money or of its management” (2). The final monument is a reduced version of Stevens’ original proposal.
Jays! If this is the reduced version, how could it be any bigger?
(1) Alfred Stevens (1817-1875), Art Encyclopedia: 2012, About Visual-Arts-Cork.com
(2) Alfred Stevens (1817-1875), The website of Bob Speel, myweb.tiscali.co.uk