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Sevierville, Tennessee,
Will Henry Stevens (1881-1949)

View Artist Bio
Oil on canvas
30 x 36 inches
Signature Details: Stevens.
Status: The Johnson Collection, Spartanburg, South Carolina

Will Henry Stevens was born in 1881 in Vevay, Indiana, near the Kentucky border. His father, an apothecary, taught him chemistry, which later enabled him to experiment with various media. At sixteen he enrolled at the Cincinnati Art Academy, where he studied for three years under Frank Duveneck, Lucien Henry Meakin and Vincent Nowittny. During what would have been his fourth and final year of study he went to work for a tile designer at Cincinnati's famous Rookwood Pottery. In 1901 he went to New York to study at the Art Students League but soon left because he disliked William Merritt Chase's teaching methods. He became acquainted with the latest developments in international art at the New Gallery on 30th Street, where at age twenty he had a one-man show. There he met artists such as Albert Pinkham Ryder and Van Dearing Perrine.


Leaving New York for Vevay, where he was to live until 1920, Stevens passed through Washington, and the Freer Gallery he became acquainted with and entranced by Sung Dynasty painting in particular, and by Oriental art in general. He delved into Oriental, especially Taoist, philosophy, and fused it with his own views and with advice to given him by Ryder and others. He resolved not merely to observe nature but also to understand its underlying principles which might not be visible. To comprehend the "Universal Order" meant constant seeking. There was no one path, perhaps no one reality. Through contact with the world the artist constructs his own subjective version of reality.  Traditional realism in art was one path, but only one, towards spiritual understanding. Art itself was a means of seeking, but this did not mean striving to attain an accepted standard of excellence. There was no such single, immutable truth in his philosophy.


As part of this "seeking," Stevens began to experiment with various media, including many of his own invention. He developed a special chalk for his pastels. He combined various emulsions.  He began to apply blots of color to pre-moistened paper, letting the softly radiating areas serve as focal points that dictated his remaining composition.


During several visits to Louisiana, Stevens came to love the bayou country and in 1921 he accepted an appointment as instructor of art at Sophie Newcomb College in New Orleans, where he remained until his retirement in 1948. He was integrated quickly into the artistic, literary and intellectual life of that city. The summer following his appointment, he found the small hamlet of Valley Town, near Murphy, North Carolina and built a studio there. The following year he visited Gatlinburg, Tennessee, which became one of his favorite painting sports until the development of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park brought in streams of visitors. He then went to a more remote part of the Smokies, which he came to know as well as any living man. By the end of his life he had painted in Indiana, New York, Louisiana, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Alabama and Mississippi.


During his years at Sophie Newcomb College Stevens made frequent visits to New York City, where he renewed his acquaintance with Robert Henri, George Bellows and other artists. He kept abreast of modernist developments in art and on one trip in the 1930s he was influenced by an exhibition of abstract works by Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky at the Guggenheim. As the logical outcome of Stevens' artistic philosophy, he began "non-objective" painting, but he did not stop painting from nature. Each was a path. In 1940 he began exhibiting at two galleries, one for his works derived from observation of nature, and the other for his abstractions of the underlying Universal Order. Stevens died in 1949. A retrospective of his work was held at the Asheville Art Museum in North Carolina in 1967.



THE SOUTH ON PAPER: LINE, COLOR AND LIGHT; Robert M. Hicklin Jr., Inc., Spartanburg, South Carolina, 1985, p. 59.


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This essay is copyrighted by the Charleston Renaissance Gallery and may not be reproduced or transmitted without written permission from Hicklin Galleries, LLC.





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