Will Henry Stevens was born in 1881 in Vevay, Indiana, where his father was a pharmacist. While working at his father’s drugstore as a teenager, Stevens learned to grind and mix his own pigments—skills that later enabled him to develop new formulas for the pastel chalks that would eventually become his preferred art medium.
Stevens studied at the Cincinnati Art Academy for three years before leaving in 1904 to work at the Rookwood Pottery as a painter and designer. In 1906, he made the first of many visits to New York, where he briefly studied at the Art Students League under impressionist painter William Merritt Chase, before becoming interested in the more contemporary art movements being exhibited at The New Gallery. There he met and received the encouragement of artists like Jonas Lie, Van Dearing Perrine, and Albert Pinkham Ryder, and had his first solo exhibition in 1907.
He took a teaching position in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1912 and remained there until 1921, when he joined the art faculty of Newcomb College in New Orleans. For the next several decades, he escaped the heat and humidity of Louisiana by spending nearly every summer in the cooler climate of Asheville, NC, and the surrounding mountains. Because his teaching commitments left little time to paint in his regular studio during the school year, most of his personal work was done during these months.
Stevens preferred to create works on paper that could be rolled up and transported easily while traveling around the mountains by car. Drawing with charcoal, pastel, and watercolor enabled him to work quickly and place greater importance on the graphic design of his compositions.
As an artist, Stevens’ interest in nature was inspired by reading the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman, as well as studying Chinese Sung Dynasty silk paintings and the works of James McNeill Whistler and John Henry Twachtman. During the last decade of his life, Stevens’ work became increasingly non-objective (abstract), as he gained greater appreciation for the art then being created at Black Mountain College, twenty miles east of Asheville. Stevens retired from Newcomb College in 1948 to return to his birthplace in Indiana, where he died of leukemia the following year.
All the Stevens works on display were gifts of the Will Henry Stevens Memorial Trust and are in the Gregg Museum’s permanent collection.