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 seems so outdated now, but for centuries and centuries and centuries that was the accepted way to learn how to paint.”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.”