A bit cloudy and gloomy in San Francisco, my mood is still, despite the bright lights in our galleries, introspective. Mind you, we know nothing of really bad weather in our part of the country, but the combination of winter weather and my own state of mind makes a consideration of a painting in our inventory by Alice Barber Stephens appear, on this day, particularly appropriate.
An artist whose work demands to be better known, Stephens is perhaps mostly considered as an illustrator, but this painting places her in the white heat of impressionism, right up there with Manet. Actually, Fifth Avenue begs comparison with that most iconic of Manet’s work, Bar at the Folies Bergere. What Roger Fry and Clive Bell would later categorize as post-impressionism, certainly with application to Manet, is equally applicable to this work by Stephens. The deft brushwork and balanced deployment of the figural elements within the painting testify to Stephens’ talent, and possibly betray the original intention of the use of this painting for an illustration.
That it is well-executed, however, overlooks the narrative content that might be its most important feature. While ostensibly merely a view down Fifth Avenue in the winter, with snowflakes falling and well-upholstered men and women enjoying the material delights of this particular shopping thoroughfare, social contrasts are manifestly apparent. In the front of the picture plane, a young boy and girl, not nearly so well dressed thrust forth collection boxes doubtless seeking contributions, given their dress, to an orphanage or a settlement house. So young, raggedy, and on their own, the children function to make manifest contrasts that largely reflect a newly forming social consciousness. The recent publication of Jacob Riis’ photographic essay of the slums of New York How the Other Half Lives is worth mentioning in this context. Not to be overlooked is the black flowerseller in the derby hat in the right middle background. Nearly invisible, one can only imagine the plight of poor blacks in New York at this time, presumably occupying the lowest of the lowest rung on the social ladder.
As one of only a few working women artists, one wonders to what extent Stephens affiliated with those marginalized figures in Fifth Avenue. But, of course, for the time, even the well-dressed women must be considered as marginalized members of what was a profoundly masculine society. No question about it, Stephens was aware of all of this, and certainly as regards the role of women in the art world, her own teaching career makes it apparent she sought to bring women into the mainstream, and provide her sex with opportunities hitherto denied. In 1902, while teaching at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women, she took the scandalously controversial step of including in the curriculum the first-ever in America life drawing class for women.