Athens, Georgia.- The Georgia Museum of Art is proud to present “Will Henry Stevens”, on view in the Boone and George-Ann Knox Gallery II through March 25th. In 2001, The Will Henry Stevens Memorial Trust via Janet Stevens McDowell, the artist’s daughter, presented the Georgia Museum of Art a large gift of diverse work by the American painter. Stevens emerged as a regional artist whose works were primarily known in the South until the 1940s. During the 1930s and 1940s, Stevens painted in three modes: an American Scene style, an American abstraction that retained elements of naturalism and a geometric abstraction. In many of the images in this special display, Stevens creates work that demonstrates his interest in the harmonious interconnection between the visible planet and the universal world that exists beyond human physical senses.
Will Henry Stevens was born in Vevay, Indiana, a town along the Ohio River. His father was an apothecary and taught Stevens the elements of chemistry and techniques of emulsions, which were later to play a large part in Stevens’ experiments with different media. Stevens studied at the Cincinnati Art Academy for three years before leaving the Academy to begin working at the Rookwood Pottery as a painter/designer beginning in 1904. In 1906, Stevens made the first of many visits to New York. He studied for a while at the Art Students League, but was dissatisfied by the classroom style of William Merritt Chase, and soon dropped out. Stevens was featured in several exhibitions at the New Gallery on 30th Street, which displayed an active interest in the more contemporary art movements under the guidance of its owner, Mary Beacon Ford. At the New Gallery, Stevens met and received the encouragement of Jonas Lie, Van Dearing Perrine, and Albert Pinkham Ryder. Stevens received his first one-man exhibition at the New Gallery in March 1907. Stevens took a teaching position in Louisville, KY around 1912 and remained there for nearly a decade. He exhibited regionally, and by the early 1920s had shown in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, and New Orleans. For many years, Stevens made annual trips to New York to keep in touch with colleagues and stay abreast of contemporary art. He also spent every summer in the mountains of North Carolina, teaching summer classes and painting the woods and hillsides. In 1921, he was invited to join the faculty of Newcomb College in New Orleans where he remained until his retirement in 1948. As in New York, Stevens quickly became part of a community of painters and writers, through which Stevens maintained an active contact with a wide range of ideas and cultural changes, while still quietly pursuing his own idiosyncratic path.
As an artist, Stevens’ interest in nature as subject matter was inspired by his well-documented enthusiasm for the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman. During his years at the Cincinnati Art Academy, Stevens recalled little he liked except the subtly abstracted works of the Impressionist John Henry Twactman, whose influence is apparent in Stevens’ early landscapes. Other influences at that time included James Abbott McNeill Whistler. During a trip to Washington, D.C. in the early 1900s, Stevens discovered an exhibition of Chinese paintings on silk from the Sung Dynasty at the Freer Gallery. Stevens admired their abstract qualities. Regarding the bold black and white linearity, rendered with authority on such a tentative, soft ground, Stevens remarked, “I could not look at Sung without realizing that it had the same kind of philosophy that I had discovered in Whitman.” Stevens clearly experienced in the Sung aspect of oriental art that which the impressionists found in Japanese prints, an affirmation of the two-dimensionality of the picture plane. Art historian, Jessie Poesch wrote that, “the selection by the Sung artists of the salient essences of forms, rather than the explicit and detailed delineation of them, obviously appealed to Stevens, as did, apparently, the sense of line on the surface, the network of lines and forms that suggested distance, rather than clearly defined sense of recession found in most western painting up to the early twentieth century. Seeking more information on Oriental Art and philosophy, Stevens eventually came to the teachings of Lao-Tzu, in which Stevens saw creative parallels to the poetry of Walt Whitman. What Stevens felt all of these diverse sources held in common was an attitude toward the world, summed up in Stevens’ own statement, “The best thing a human can do in life is to get rid of his separateness or selfness and hand himself over to the nature of things—to this mysterious thing called the Universal Order, that any artist must sense…In human nature we are consciously trying to achieve an order. And we are distressed by it, by the task of patterning it on an Order that is not personal or human—that is what I call spiritual.” In the late 1920s and early 1930s during visits to New York Stevens discovered the works of Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee. Their works, particularly, were a revelation, and confirmation of Stevens’ own sense of aesthetic direction. Stevens began to work in a “non-objective” mode while he continued to produce his more “objective” landscapes. In a taped interview with Bernard Lemann, Stevens observed,”I do not draw a line between objective and non-objective (painting)…I am doing both and will continue to, so long as either seems vital to me.”
The Georgia Museum of Art, on the campus of the University of Georgia, in Athens, is both an academic museum and, since 1982, the official art museum of the state of Georgia. The permanent collection consists of American paintings, primarily 19th- and 20th-century; American, European and Asian works on paper; the Samuel H. Kress Study Collection of Italian Renaissance paintings; and growing collections of southern decorative arts and Asian art. From the time it was opened to the public in 1948 in the basement of an old library on the university’s historic North Campus, the museum has grown consistently both in the size of its collection and in the size of its facilities. Today the museum occupies a contemporary building in the Performing and Visual Arts Complex on the university’s burgeoning east campus. There, 79,000 square feet house more than 8,000 objects in the museum’s permanent collection—a dramatic leap from the core of 100 paintings donated by the museum’s founder, Alfred Heber Holbrook. Much of the museum’s collection of American paintings was donated by Holbrook in memory of his first wife, Eva Underhill Holbrook. Included in this collection are works by such luminaries as Frank Weston Benson, William Merritt Chase, Stuart Davis, Arthur Dove, Georgia O’Keeffe, Childe Hassam, Winslow Homer, Jacob Lawrence and Theodore Robinson. Over the years it has been impossible to separate the history of the museum from the story of Holbrook’s generosity. Holbrook retired from an active New York law practice at the age of 70. He began a personal quest to learn about the world of art, an interest piqued by his passion for visiting museums. In his retirement he was determined to study art in a gentle southern climate. A trip to Athens in the mid-1940s led to his introduction to Lamar Dodd, head of the university’s art department. Instantly, the two began a friendship, sharing a joint vision of enriching the visual arts environment in Georgia. Holbrook, clad in a knee-length pink artist’s smock with pipe in hand, attended art classes at the university. The Georgia Museum of Art was founded in 1945, and Holbrook became its first director and one of the university’s and the state’s most beloved citizens. Holbrook continued to serve as the museum’s director past his 90th birthday.
Exhibitions from international museums such as the National Gallery of Scotland, the Palazzo Venezia in Rome, the Rembrandt House and the San Carlos National Museum in Mexico City have all been displayed in the galleries of the museum over the past decade.. Visit the museum’s website at … http://www.georgiamuseum.org