“The Paintings of John Calvin Stevens” at the University of New England Art Gallery is a major exhibition of dozens of paintings and drawings by arguably the most important individual in the development of art of Maine.
The personal legacy of John Calvin Stevens (1855-1940) includes the Portland Museum of Art. He designed the museum’s LDM Sweat Memorial Galleries. More importantly, he was a leader and chairman of the group that founded the museum. And it was he who obtained the patronage that made the institution a reality and gave it durability. But the Portland Society of Art not only founded the PMA, it created what is now the robust and thriving Maine College of Art, which many consider the most dynamic art institution in the state of Maine. art-oriented.
Stevens designed over 350 buildings on the Portland Peninsula and over 1,000 in Maine. (It’s no coincidence that the University of New England is on Stevens Avenue.) Stevens’ influence, however, went far beyond the buildings he designed in the Northeast. . Featuring Stevens’ sketches of his own designs, the 1889 book “Examples of American Domestic Architecture” was the seminal statement of the distinctly American style of shingles and colonial revivalism. This made Stevens one of America’s most influential architects. It was his vision that came to embody the standard image of the American home built before 1950.
In short, Stevens was one of the most influential individuals in the history of American aesthetics.
Behind Stevens’ persuasion was his artistic ability. His images were widely published in the most influential architectural publications at a time when architects relied on their ability to draw. Prominent architects such as Stanford White, H. Van Buren Magonigle, and many of their peers must be considered among America’s most accomplished visual artists. (Frank Lloyd Wright’s success story is similar: the tale of his global influence begins with the 1910 publication in Germany of his Wasmuth portfolio, which became a defining statement of international style.)
In other words, we don’t look at Stevens’ paintings because he was an influential architect. On the contrary, he became an influential architect because he was a great artist.
Stevens was a peer of Winslow Homer, not only because he designed Homer’s house and studio, but as a fellow painter. They were friends, and Stevens was delighted to find that America’s greatest painter was “happy to give advice freely.” Homer even donated one of his masterpieces to Stevens: “The Artist’s Studio in an Afternoon Fog” from 1894, now owned by the University of Rochester but recently was exhibited at the Portland Museum of Art.
Stevens’ American Impressionist-style paintings are accomplished and structurally complex for works largely produced with the band of Sunday painters, the Brush’uns, with whom he painted religiously for decades.
“November Snow” (1914), for example, presents an open but steep and autumnal slope. It is beautifully painted with a quick, sparkling brush. Our eyes circle around the Sentinel Pine in the upper left and descend diagonally downward from the upper left corner to the lower right corner, where our gaze travels up through the now grayed-out trees to the upper skyline on the crest of the hill to restart the circuit.
Although this dynamic visual structure is a common approach, Stevens’ vision as an architect is more often his guide. What architects create, after all, is less about objects than spaces for people. What matters most for architecture is the exit, the way out of a place. Besides impressive brushwork, color, light, and formal composition, the most rigorous guide to Stevens’ paintings is his sense of path.
“Path Through Delano Woods” (1913) is an excellent example of Stevens’ work. It depicts a two-lane road through a wooded landscape. The light brings out the deciduous foliage in the foreground, warm yellow chartreuse with its early season leaves. The path curves to the right past a backdrop of cool spicy green pine trees. The correct track is in the very center of the image, and it is aligned with our perspective. We are on this path. And because we’re moving on the right side of the road, we feel like we’re moving forward.
We see this path logic over and over again. It not only drives our eyes into the work, but also our body. This transports us into the scene. In “Winter Landscape” (1911), for example, we follow in the footsteps of our hiking companion, his scarf blown straight by the icy wind, returning to the warmth of the distant house announcing a fire in his hearth by the smoke blowing sideways from its chimney.
The path’s approach is clear but has subtle implications; it is no less structural than an empathy tool. “The Dividing Line” (1914) brilliantly follows an old stone fence on a seaside berm. The space is easy for us to understand, and the stone fence reveals the work of its own making.
Above all, the exhibition demonstrates that Stevens, who regularly exhibited his paintings in Maine, New York and Boston, was an important American Impressionist painter. Although the entire body of work is impressive, the majority of the work is strong enough to stand on its own in any collection of American painting. ‘Burning Off’ (1914) and ‘Seascape’ (nd) are excellent seascapes that echo Homer but don’t bow to him. “Easter Sunday” (1914) and “Beech Tree, Great Diamond Island” (1901) are just two of many precisely painted scenes that can be appreciated for sense of line, drawing, light, structure, description and Stevens atmosphere.
Of course, the basis of the show are Stevens’ drawings. With dozens of views, it’s easy to see how they were the source of its success. Stevens had been accepted into the architecture program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology but could not afford to enroll. So he learned architecture through the hard work of learning. It is perhaps this approach that made him a lifelong student of drawing.
Whatever the source of his abilities, the fruits of Stevens’ hard work and skill changed the way Portland, Maine and America looked.
Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian living in Cumberland. He can be contacted at: