Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Camouflage Artist | Gordon Stevenson

Model Painting Room (c1918)
Above is a wonderful photograph of US Navy camouflage artists during World War I. It was initially published on the title page of a magazine article called "Fooling the Iron Fish: The Inside Story of Marine Camouflage" in Everybody's Magazine (November 1919), pp. 102-109. The article was written by American artist Everett Longley Warner, was the officer in charge of the design subsection in Washington DC of the Navy's Camouflage Section. He is seated on the far left, while (from left to right) the other camoufleurs include Frederick Judd Waugh, John Gregory, Gordon Stevenson, Manley K. Nash (in the foreground), and M. O'Connell. However, this particular post is about Gordon Stevenson because we recently obtained new information and images about him from his granddaughter, a DuPont chemist.

Gordon Stevenson (1892-1982) was probably born in Chicago, to parents who had immigrated to the US from Scotland. He grew up in Chicago, where he attended the School of the Art Institute there. While still a student, he was awarded two mural commissions, one of which, titled Construction Site (1909) was installed at the Albert G. Lane Technical High School, while the other, The Landing at Jamestown (1910), was among five other murals (by other artists) about moments in American history, installed at the John M. Smyth Elementary School in Chicago. Fortunately, both of Stevenson's murals have survived; they were restored first in the late 1930s, in connection with the WPA, and then restored a second time in the late 1990s.

Gordon Stevenson mural, Construction Site (1909)

As an advanced student at the Art Institute, Stevenson was also awarded the John Quincy Adams Prize, a foreign travel stipend worth $425. This enabled him to travel to Spain and to work as an apprentice for the well-known Spanish painter Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida, whose paintings were not unlike those of his friend, John Singer Sargent. There is a portrait of Stevenson by Sorolla dated 1917 (reproduced below), which may be the year he returned to the US.

Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida, Portrait of Gordon Stevenson (c1917)
Soon after, whatever the circumstances, Stevenson was chosen to serve in the camouflage subsection that was headed by Warner.

Further confirmation of his wartime service is in two other government photographs. In one (dated July 12, 1918), he is shown in a different room, where he and three co-workers are painting ship models. Stevenson is standing in the center background. The other artists include (left to right) sculptor John Gregory, marine painter Frederick Waugh, and theatrical scene painter Manley K. Nash.

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In another photograph, this one of the drafting room (where he and his co-workers prepared schematic instructions on how to paint the actual ships), he can barely be seen in the background. He is in the very back row in the center (looking down), directly beneath the wall clock.

On August 25, 1918, an article (BENEFIT OF BLIND SOLDIERS) in the Washington Post announced a garden party "for the benefit of the American, French and British blinded soldiers."  The decorations for the fundraising event, the article continues, "will consist of an extraordinary display of flags of all nations and of specially prepared banners painted by members of the camouflage section of the navy." Also featured will be "Gordon Stevenson, of New York, who will sketch portraits while you wait."

Camoufleurs in the drafting room
Following the war, Stevenson continued to reside in New York, where he had considerable success as an illustrator and portrait painter. Of particular note is a portrait he made of Mark Twain, which now hangs in The Players club in NYC. There are at least four other Stevenson portraits in that club's collection. His portraits of other dignitaries can also be found in the Museum of the City of New York, Rutgers University, National Academy of Design, and the Toledo Museum of Art.

Stevenson was a prolific magazine illustrators for prominent publications, notably the New York Times Book Review. He also made a series of portraits for the covers of TIME magazine (1923-24), including pencil drawings of Jack Dempsey, Herbert Hoover, Mrs. Herbert Hoover, Samuel Gompers, Ataturk, Winston Churchill, Fritz Kreisler, Roy Chapman Andrews, Joseph Conrad, Woodrow Wilson, and David Lloyd George. The list goes on—reproduced below are some.

One of those covers (as seen below) was a portrait of Homer St. Gaudens (son of the sculptor Augustus St. Gaudens), who had been the officer in charge of US Army camouflage in WWI.

Speaking of camouflage, below is a marvelous portrait he made (ala Arcimboldo) for the cover of Outdoor Life magazine (August 1940). In 1948, he also illustrated a book by his father-in-law, Edward R. Hewitt (grandson of New York industrialist Peter Cooper, who founded Cooper Union), titled A Trout and Salmon Fisherman: For Seventy-Five Years (New York: Scribner's and Sons). The same family also established the Smithsonian Institution's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum.

Illustration by Gordon Stevenson (c1940)

In the Peter A. Juley & Son Collection at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, there are eight portrait photographs of Gordon Stevenson, taken in 1962, which can be accessed online here.


Since this was originally posted, I have run across an online interview of American artist Everett Raymond Kinstler, titled "On the Shoulders of Giants" and conducted in 2009 by Ira Goldberg. It is online here at LINEA: The Artist's Voice.  On page 7, Kinstler states:

The painter Gordon Stevenson, who'd taken classes with [Joaquín] Sorolla in Spain and knew [John Singer] Sargent, was another of my mentors. Gordon would drop by my studio—he was well along in years, an elegant man, who lacked fire in his belly because he didn't have to work for a living. He'd look at my work and begin his remarks with, "Now, Sargent told me that…" or, "When I was with Sorolla…"

Gordon Stevenson, portrait of Homer St. Gaudens