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.
This afternoon, empty easels stand in many of the galleries. Nobody is at work trying to master the masters, but the copy program that Stevens credits with much of his knowledge and success is an integral part of the National Gallery’s mission, written into the bylaws by founder Andrew Mellon. The Gallery provides the easels but limits copyists’ access to the larger galleries on the main floor of the West Building. Because there are only about a dozen easels, that ensures that galleries aren’t clogged with would-be Rembrandts.
Sally Freitag, who recently retired as chief registrar of the National Gallery, estimates that 150 to 250 people are signed up at any one time. “I’d say it’s mostly the leisure crowd, the older folks who have time to do it, mostly during the weekday from 10 to 5,” Freitag says.
Though she hasn’t seen Stevens’s new series, Freitag says, “It’s nice to see people who copy then go on and become their own artists. Instead of just copy all the time, which just seems kind of sad.”
Part of the fun of Stevens’s gallery portraits is spotting the familiar paintings, often many to a canvas. For Stevens, that fun was extra work, because, thanks to the laws of perspective, he had to render many of these well-known works from odd angles. One of his largest canvases, “Seeking Sargent,” captures John Singer Sargent’s massive work, “The Wyndham Sisters,” in nearly its full glory — but seen at an angle. Remarkably, Sargent’s lush painting is still recognizable seen from the side and in miniature.
Sargent is a particular inspiration, Stevens says, and he’s painted this work before. A Stevens reproduction of “The Wyndham Sisters” hangs in the lobby of the Willard Hotel. More impressively, Stevens’s version of Gilbert Stuart’s 8-foot-by-5-foot portrait of George Washington (the one with the Greek column and the rainbow, known as “The Lansdowne”) hangs in Mount Vernon. If you want to compare Stevens’s effort to one of the originals — Stuart himself painted several copies — there’s one hanging at the National Portrait Gallery. And if you go two flights up in the Portrait Gallery, you may view a Stevens original, his portrait of power broker Vernon Jordan.
Or visit Monticello, where a number of Stevens’s copies hang. “I haven’t tallied this up,” says Susan Stein, senior curator and vice president for museum programs at Monticello, “but I would venture to say that Brad Stevens’s hand is very well represented at Monticello.” That’s partly because much of Jefferson’s collection was either sold to pay debts or has vanished over time.
Displaying copies of famous paintings at Monticello is not new. “While some people might bristle at the idea of showing copies of things,” Stein says, “actually Jefferson owned copies in his own time. So his own collection was a composite of original works that he had obtained, but also copies of portraits of men that he admired.”
For instance, Jefferson petitioned the Royal Society in London to have copies made of portraits of “the three greatest men who ever lived” — Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton and John Locke. “Some 200-plus years later,” Stein says, “we echoed Jefferson’s request, because the Bacon and Newton were missing. And the Royal Society generously allowed us to copy those two portraits.” Today, Stevens’s recopies hang in Monticello’s parlor — “exactly where they did originally,” Stein says.
Stevens admits that “this copying business . . . seems so outdated now, but for centuries and centuries and centuries that was the accepted way to learn how to paint.”
He thinks the copyist program is the next best thing to laboring in a master’s atelier. “The way I look at it is, these artists, these so-called masters, have already gone through the same problems that you’re being confronted with now, and they’ve solved some of them,” he says. “So why wouldn’t you take advantage of their solutions to problems and situations that you come across in painting?”
Now retired from teaching art at George Washington and Georgetown universities, the 58-year-old Stevens combines commissioned portrait work with original compositions, largely landscapes and cityscapes. The “Museum Studies” series brings Stevens “full circle,” he says, as one of his first paintings after graduating was also a museum study — of the interior of the American Wing at the National Gallery.
Barbara Buhr, owner of Charlottesville’s Warm Springs Gallery, where “Museum Studies” was recently exhibited, says she had admired Stevens’s work for years. After seeing his painting “The American School,” she had the idea of mounting an exhibit of similar works in Charlottesville. “Brad was enthusiastic about the idea and began exploring it. The theme is near and dear to his heart and autobiographical on many levels.”
The difference between Stevens’s early museum paintings and this new group — which took a year to complete — is that in his older works, the people and paintings were secondary. The focus was on the architecture and geometry of the spaces. “This series, I think, is more intimate, more psychological,” Stevens says. Though Stevens had abandoned his museum-study idea in the pursuit of career and commissions, Buhr’s suggestion was well-timed. The artist was ready for a journey back to his early inspiration. Even after completing the 11 works that were hung for the show, he continued painting, ultimately completing two more canvases. (An exhibit of Stevens’s work, including several of his “Museum Series” pieces,” opens April 10 at the Hylton Performing Arts Center in Manassas.)
Back in the National Gallery, Stevens finds an empty bench and takes a seat. This is one of his favorite activities. “I fully admit I’m a weirdo,” Stevens laugh. “There’s nothing more I’d rather do in the world than look at art, than look at paintings. The encouraging thing is that every time I go to a museum there’s tons of people there. Especially if it’s a special exhibit. Which shows that I’m not alone. People love looking at art.”