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.