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Guelph-born artist William Stevenson persevered to prominence

Seen as 'too modernist' by many, Stevenson eventually became known as one of Canada's finest landscape artists
Screenshot 2022-04-21 2.57.44 PM
Head With Still Life by William Stevenson

When people think of Canadian landscape artists, usually the first names that come to mind are those of Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven. However, there was another painter who, while his name might not be as readily recognized by the average Canadian as those icons, has nonetheless been regarded by fellow artists and art historians as a great Canadian painter and perhaps one of this country’s greatest landscape artists.

William Leroy Stevenson was born in Guelph on May 1, 1905, to William E. and Mary (Savage) Stevenson. He was afflicted with infantile paralysis which left him with a lame club foot. Stevenson preferred to go by his second name, and was called Roy by family and friends.

In 1910, the Stevenson family moved to Calgary where young Roy attended elementary school and then high school. Although he was interested in art from an early age, his parents did not encourage him to take up artistic pursuits. As a painter, he was predominantly self-taught.

In 1924, Stevenson went to work as a clerk in a branch of the Royal Bank in Clive, Alberta. It was the first of numerous jobs he held to support himself while he followed his passion for art.

One day in 1925 he visited the Calgary Public Library which had recently received sixty books on art. While he was there, Harry Hunt, the secretary of the Calgary Art Club, introduced him to Maxwell Bates, a Calgary-born painter and architect who was a year older than Stevenson. The two young men had similar ideas about art and struck up a friendship that would last for the rest of Stevenson’s life. Bates, who would have his own distinguished career as an artist, would one day credit Stevenson with having a profound influence on his work. 

Stevenson joined the Calgary Art Club, and from 1926 to ’27 he studied figure drawing at evening classes at the Provincial Institute of Technology and Art (now the Alberta College of Art and Design) in Calgary under Norwegian-Canadian artist Lars Haukaness. Stevenson said that was the only formal instruction he ever received. He was a voracious reader and particularly liked the works of French authors Honore de Balzac and Alexandre Dumas.

Stevenson initially painted in watercolours, but then began to use oil. His and Bates’ treatment of landscapes began to differ from that of more conservative western Canadian artists. Among other things, Stevenson was interested in exploring what he called “compositions using rhythmic repetition of shapes.” 

While some art patrons found the work a “welcome contrast” to what had been traditionally displayed in Calgary art shows, other people were not so accepting. Local artists thought the paintings were “too modernist,” and even shocking. They found Stevenson’s paintings too flamboyant and uncontrolled, and both Calgary newspapers printed letters to the editor recommending that Bates be confined to an asylum.

As a result, both artists were banned from the Calgary Art Club, and there was a campaign by traditionalists to prevent them from ever again exhibiting in any public buildings in Calgary.

Then in 1929, Bates and Stevenson went on a three-week trip to visit the Art Institute of Chicago. There, they saw original paintings by Cezanne, Renoir, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Seurat, Matisse, Lautrec and Picasso. The visit solidified Stevenson’s interest in modernism and expressionism and laid the foundation for the art he would produce in his mature years. According to Bates, “This (Chicago trip) was one of the most profoundly influential events in Stevenson’s life, followed by a lifelong admiration for Cezanne.”

Sometime later, Stevenson saw a still-life, oil on panel, by Andre Dunoyer de Sergonzac which greatly impressed him. “Roy’s hero was Segonzac,” Bates said. Not surprisingly, Canadian art historian Joan Murray would state in her book Canadian Art in the Twentieth Century, “Stevenson, in his figure paintings, developed an exciting painterly style, thick with manipulated paint, resonant colour, and an aura of emotional involvement reminiscent of the French painter Dunoyer de Sergonzac.”

However, it was Stevenson’s Alberta landscapes that gained him his greatest renown. Nonetheless, he still encountered hostility in that province. In 1931, British-born artist A.C. Leighton excluded Stevenson and Bates from the newly-formed Alberta Society of Artists. Leighton would one day express anger at learning that works by Bates and Stevenson would be displayed in Canada’s National Gallery.

While Stevenson continued to paint, he went to work for the Alberta Wheat Pool and then the Canadian Pacific Railway. When the Second World War broke out, he was unable to enlist because of his disability. After the war he and Bates – who had spent several years as a POW in a German camp – joined a new Calgary group of painters, most of whom were younger than them but shared their interest in modernism.

Stevenson’s work was now finding acceptance. His paintings were being shown in exhibits across Canada. In Ontario, art patrons could see his work in galleries in Toronto, Stratford, London and Windsor. Famed New York art critic Clement Greenberg saw Stevenson’s paintings in a gallery in Edmonton and had high praise for it. One of his paintings was acquired by the Vincent Price Collection of Fine Art.

Stevenson was employed as an art instructor by the Calgary Allied Arts Council. He also worked as an instructor for the University of Calgary and the Banff School of Fine Arts. The Guelph-born artist who had once been an outcast of the Western Canadian artistic community exhibited with the most prestigious art societies in Canada, including the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts, the Ontario Society of Artists, the Art Society of Montreal and the Canadian Group of Painters. 

After at long last achieving national and international recognition as an artist, Stevenson was killed in a car accident in Clive, Alberta, on December 14, 1966.