William Lester Stevens
Much has been written about Rockport’s native son and only locally-born-and-raised National Acadmician. The biographies emphasize an eccentric, often prickly personality; a work ethic of heroic prportions; a prodigious exhibitor who, it is said, won more awards than any other artist of his era. A fine mind and avid reader, Stevens believed that good painting starts with a good brain. He was a tireless chronicler of his native Cape Ann until he believed the appeal of the place was lost to overcrowded conditions—too many artists. He abruptly moved in 1934 to the Berkshires. Seeing as many examples of Stevens’ work as I have has taught me that artists like him—who absolutely love the act of painting and, having barely completed one canvas, virtually cast it aside out of desire to tackle the next one—can produce a lot of mediocre work in their frenzied quest for a better painting next time. Couple this behavior with a surprisingly experimental streak, an eagerness to try something different (especially if it hastens the process), and you have an artist who, when he hits it right, can produce an exciting and moving piece of art. But as a collector, I feel with artists such as Stevens that you have to be prepared to dislike more examples than you like; you really have to refine your knowledge of the artist’s work to select the best ones. For me, his best work is from the 1920s and 1930s— his harbor, winter, and rare street scenes. His earlier, broken-color work is more sought after than his later, A stylized, more Post-Impressionist technique that frequently employs dark outlines of the primary objects in the composition. My first example of the artist’s work, an autumn landscape, is a masterpiece, and really educated me on how good Stevens could be in the mid-1920s. I acquired this from George Comenos Gallery in Boston around 1985; it was absolutely the best example I had ever seen by the artist, and required a little trading to afford it. A brief trip to San Francisco and the Montgomery Gallery in 1987 was the source of the moody, restrained interpretation of Motif #1 and showed the artist’s ability to resist painting the iconic building bright red, instead casting it in shadow, focusing the grey day light on the debrisaden floor of the inner harbor at low tide. I felt good about discovering this Cape Ann image in California. The next opportunity was going to be “pay dirt,” an absolutely minor auction tucked away in a village in upstate New York that rarely has paintings. I saw a tombstone ad in the Bee stating that a few W. L. Stevens pieces in estate condition (usually means dirty paintings and ratty frames) were being sold— nobody would know about it! Actually by now, it’s 2003 and I’m pretty much a veteran at spotting painting buyers and in a standing-room-only crowd of mostly farmers and locals, I recognized nobody … “great,” I thought. About two numbing hours into this auction of used home furnishings, I watched an overweight man in L’il Abner overalls with an underage girl drop $11,000 on two 8" x 10" oils, and I begin to think I’m in a rerun of an old Twilight Zone episode. I did, however, get a very good rare gouache depicting a Rockport street scene, with old cars and figures, inscribed to a friend and dated 1923. It slipped through the commotion of everybody congratulating Farmer Gray. My fourth example was a less strenuous experience; purchased a year later from Stephen Motyka, it is a superb mid-1920s snow scene. Then when I least expected it, and wanted it, I saw the best harbor scene I had encountered in years. It is now 2006, I’m deep into writing this book, but I sense a new trait emerging: the defensive collector. I didn’t want anybody else getting the picture, so I went ahead and did it again. I believe working with and figuring out the artist William Lester Stevens has been a very valuable learning experience for me.