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Stephens, Frederic George

Date born:  1827

Place Born:  Aberdeen (?), Scotland

Date died:  1907

Place died:  London, United Kingdom

Athenaeum art critic and biographer of British artists. Stephens was born to Septimus Stephens of Aberdeen and Ann Cooke (Stephens)(?) and raised in Lambeth. Because of an accident in1837, Stephens was physically disabled and educated privately.  He later attended University College School, London. In 1844 he entered the Royal Academy [of art] Schools where he met John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt.  He became part of their Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848, often serving as a model for their pictures (Millais's Ferdinand Lured by Ariel,1849,  Ford Madox Brown's Jesus Washing Peter's Feet 1856). His discouragement at his own artistic talent convinced him to destroy his paintings and change careers to art history. Using his intimate knowledge of the Brotherhood artists and his lucid writing style, he publicized their aims to a frequently bewildered public.  He joined the Athenaeum as its art critic also writing freelance for other art-historical publications on the continent and the United States. During this time he was deeply under the influence of Dante Gabriele Rosetti, whom he allowed to write reviews of his own work under Stephen's name.  Stephen's first work of art history, Normandy: its Gothic Architecture and History was published in 1865, and a history of Netherlandish art, titled Flemish Relics, appeared the following year. That year, too, 1866, Stephens married Rebecca Clara Dalton (1833/4-1916).  Monographs on Edwin Landseer in 1869 and William Mulready in 1867 followed. Stephens began writing a nearly hundred-piece series for the Athenaeum in 1873 on British collecting, treating major collections and small collectors together. Under the direction of George W. Reid (q.v.), he published the first four volumes of the 10-volume series on British caricature for the British Museum's Department of Prints and Drawings, from 1870 onward. For a long time he was associated with the Grosvenor Gallery (1877-1890), writing contributions for their catalogs.  In 1875, Stephens' tone changed, describing himself more as an art historian than a critic in his Flemish and French Pictures with Notes Concerning the Painters and their Works, 1875. He left the Brotherhood in 1882 at Rosetti's death and began to publish more balanced accounts of their work.  He criticized William Holman Hunt's Triumph of the Innocents 1885 for the mixing of hyper-realism and fantasy. [Hunt issued a diatribe against the critic in the second edition of Hunt's Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, 1914].  Stephens contributed essays on art for H. D. Traill's Social England: a Record of the Progress of the People (six vols., 1893-7) placing Pre-Raphaelitism within a continuum of British art.  This countered a prevailing notion, propagated by the Brotherhood themselves, of springing uniquely from a pallid past.  A work on Lawrence Alma-Tadema by Stephens appeared in 1895.  His review of the posthumous exhibition of Millais in 1898 took the painter to task for poorly thought-out works. Stephens' conservative views toward modern art--he loathed Impressionism--resulted a departure as art critic from the Athenaeum in 1901, a tenure of forty years.  He was replaced by Roger Fry (q.v.).  He died at home in 1907 and is buried in Brompton cemetery. His collection of graphics and books was auctioned in 1916 at Fosters, following Rebecca's death.

His criticism was part of the 19th-century British literature encouraging middle-class art patronage and the growing Victorian interest for contemporary art. His anti-elitism led him to champion the greats of British graphics, Thomas Rowlandson, Thomas Bewick, and George Cruikshank. His survey of British collecting in the Athenaeum placed major collectors next to modest ones.

Home Country:  United Kingdom

Sources:  Macleod, Dianne Sachko. "F. G. Stephens: Pre-Raphaelite Critic and Art Historian." Burlington Magazine 128 (June 1986): 398-406; Macleod, Dianne Sachko. "Stephens, Frederic George (1827-1907)." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004; Macleod, Dianne Sachko. "Mid-Victorian Patronage of the Arts: F. G. Stephens's 'The Private Collections of England.'" Burlington Magazine 128 (August 1986): 597-607; J. B. Manson. Frederic George Stephens and the Pre-Raphaelite Brothers. London: privately printed, 1920; The Athenaeum no. 4142 (16 March 1907): 329.

Bibliography:  [complete bibliography:] Macleod, Dianne Sachko. "F. G. Stephens: Pre-Raphaelite Critic and Art Historian." Burlington Magazine 128 (June 1986): 398-406; Laurence Alma Tadema, R.A.: A Sketch of his Life and Work. London: s. n., 1895;  Catalogue of Prints and Drawings in the British Museum: Division I. Political and Personal Satires. 4 vols. London: British Museum. Department of Prints and Drawings, 1870 ff.; Exhibition of the Works of Sir Anthony van Dyck. London: Grosvenor Gallery/H. Good and Son, 1887; Normandy: its Gothic Architecture & History . . . in Rouen, Caen, Mantes, Bayeux & Falaise: a Sketch. London:. A. W. Bennett, 1865; "Beata Beatrix, by Dante G.Rossetti." Portfolio 22 (1891):45-47; Dante Gabriel Rossetti. London : Seeley and Co, 1894; Flemish Relics: Architectural, Legendary, and Pictorial, as Connected with Public Buildings in Belgium. London: A. W. Bennett, 1866; Memoirs of Sir Edwin Landseer: a Sketch of the Life of the Artist. London : George Bell, 1874.