Will Henry Stevens

Will Henry Stevens (1881–1949) was introduced to art at an early age, as his parents were both amateur artists. In 1901 he enrolled at the Cincinnati Art Academy, furthering his studies at the Art Students League of New York. Between 1912 and 1916, Stevens taught art classes in Louisville, Kentucky. In 1921 he joined the faculty at the Newcomb Art Department of Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana, where he would make a lasting impression as a teacher and successful artist until his retirement in 1948.

Stevens is famed for working in two distinct artistic styles. His paintings of nature follow the guidelines of Representational Naturalism, though they maintain his personal and emotional response to the scenery. Stevens’ second style is one that he is credited for pioneering: Southern Modernism. This genre of art is influenced by Modernist aesthetics, yet is largely informed by the experiences of life in the South. Stevens’ abstract and non-objective Southern Modernist works retain the vocabulary of nature’s forms. Arabesque lines indicate the path of wind and feathered edges represent river waves upon the shore. Despite the absence of outright natural representations and his use of angular lines and geometric shapes, it is apparent that even Stevens’ abstract works are intertwined with nature.

Stevens retains a national reputation as a modernist artist today and even had a New York City dealer in his mature career while teaching at Newcomb College. Though his work in Representational Naturalism was more successful commercially, Stevens worked in two styles for the majority of his career. Sharing a root inspiration tied to nature, neither can be completely separated from the other. Yet, they are also distinctly unique and served specific purposes for the artist. Of his duality of styles, he wrote to Newcomb College faculty member and friend Bernard Lemann, “I do not draw a line between objective and non-objective...I am doing both and will continue to, so long as either seems vital to me.”

 

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Will Henry Stevens, #951, 1935. Oil on canvas, 25 3/4 x 35 inches. Purchased through the Alma Lee, Norman and Cary Saurage Fund of the Baton Rouge Area Foundation in honor of Alma Lee and H.N. Saurage Jr. Louisiana Art & Science Museum Collection, 2001.002.001

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Stevens assisted his pharmacist father by measuring and combining ingredients for medications. He later translated this skill to art, mixing and grinding his own paints and pastels. Pastel crayons were Stevens’ preferred medium; he experimented with recipes until he developed a clay-based pastel formula that did not smudge.

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