So, yes, Stevens is a painter painting pictures of people looking at paintings. And he learned to paint by making copies of the paintings in these same galleries and ultimately created original paintings that incorporate copies of those paintings — and let’s just stop here to admire the art for a minute, shall we?
Antonio Canova’s marble sculpture of a lounging water nymph, “Reclining Naiad,” stands at the center of the gallery we’re in. On the wall behind it hangs Goya’s “The Marquesa de Pontejos.” In Stevens’s re-creation of this space, both the sculpture and the painting are rendered with striking precision, down to the little pug standing next to the Marquesa. He placed a modern woman in the frame, admiring the Goya. Looking closely, it’s Stevens’s wife, Patricia. He titled the work “Three Graces.”
After viewing Stevens’s museum interiors, staring into the actual space brings a definite sense of deja vu. Or perhaps it’s the other way around. Stevens is not a photorealist, but his painterly verisimilitude is impressive.
The paintings in his “Museum Studies” series are not mere copies. The rooms he chose to paint and the works hanging in those rooms are personal choices. In fact, Stevens “moved” particular paintings around in his museum rooms, sometimes for compositional reasons, but mostly to showcase works that influenced him and artists whom he admires. Many of the works contain portraits of his friends and family as interested museum-goers.
Of course, Stevens is not the first to paint a room full of paintings. Famously, Samuel F.B. Morse, before inventing the telegraph, painted the immense “Gallery of the Louvre,” which re-created about 40 masterworks on one canvas, including a tiny “Mona Lisa.” Morse hoped that his survey of European culture would educate the American masses. “His methodology to art was a bit more scientific,” Stevens says wryly. And he is not alone in pursuing the idea of painting familiar interiors. The Connecticut-based artist Brendan O’Connell paints scenes inside Wal-Mart stores; he was recently featured in the New Yorker and interviewed on “The Colbert Report.”
Walking into another of his canvases — another gallery, that is — Stevens is surprised to find that a work he featured in a painting is not on display. But he knows the inside of the National Gallery well, having been an officially sanctioned copyist here during his days as an art student at George Washington University in the 1970s. He says he copied several hundred works over his years of study. He became so good at re-creating the techniques of Degas, Monet, Manet and other masters that former National Gallery director J. Carter Brown commissioned him to replicate a work from a traveling exhibit that Brown wished to give as a gift.