Stephen Gjertson was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1949, the eldest son of Arthur and Betty Gjertson. Gjertson’s family loved to read, so it’s not surprising that his first exposure to the visual arts came from books. “We owned a set of encyclopedias that reproduced many works of art. We also had novels illustrated by artists such as N. C. Wyeth, Norman Rockwell, Howard Pyle, and Dean Cornwell. I remember reading those books and copying the illustrations. Later, my interest in the Old West led me to history books and stories with paintings by Frederic Remington, Charles Schreyvogel, and Nicholas Eggenhofer, whose pictures I also copied. For birthdays I received books on the great masters. The work of Michelangelo, Titian, and Rembrandt made a lasting impression on me. That, I said to myself, is what I want to do.”
Gjertson’s love for nature was born in the fields, woods and cliffs along the Kettle River in Sandstone, Minnesota, the home of his parents and grandparents. He filled his sketchbooks with drawings of trees, rocks and the ruins of old buildings scattered throughout the overgrown quarry and the surrounding countryside. He decided to make art his profession while drawing Pilgrims at Thanksgiving in the third grade. At age 10, he received his first box of oil paints for Christmas. His art teachers in both junior and senior high school encouraged the young Gjertson. After graduating, he attended the University of Minnesota, where he played drums in the Football Marching Band. The art department at the university was hostile to what he wanted to do as an artist, and instructors told him to not pursue the outmoded principles of traditional art. Discouraged, he left and attended art school for one year. There, he encountered the same senseless fascination with negative, theory-centric art and learned nothing of practical value. In 1971 he met Richard Lack and studied art seriously until 1975 at Atelier Lack, a studio-school based upon the teaching of the 19th century French ateliers and the Boston impressionists. During that time he received three grants from The Elizabeth T. Greenshields Memorial Foundation in Montreal, Canada. He taught at Atelier Lack from 1973 to 1988. He has also taught at Atelier LeSueur and The Bougie Studio. In 1978 he met Kirk Richards, who was studying at Atelier Lack. The two artists became the best of friends.
Although he admires the work of the Boston impressionists, Gjertson’s artistic interests are closer to those of the French academic painters of the 19th century, painters whom he has studied and admired for over forty years. His work combines a subtle naturalism with balanced and harmonious design, beauty, and skillful craftsmanship. Unlike many artists, who gain notoriety by specializing in one or two genres, Gjertson’s interests are varied. He paints works within all five of the fundamental categories in the Western artistic tradition: still life, landscape, portrait, genre and imaginative painting (an updated and broader term for what was formerly called history or poetic painting). This diversity makes it impossible to pigeonhole his body of work.
When introduced to the work of Henri Fantin-Latour while a student, Gjertson began painting flowers and fruit and has since gained a considerable reputation for his elegant still lifes. He loves the subtle beauty of flowers and fruit, and will not paint still lifes of inanimate objects. He paints his still lifes directly from nature and attempts to accurately portray the beauty he sees before him. His general preparation is usually a preliminary drawing, which can vary in its degree of finish. Complex arrangements may require a detailed cartoon, but this never includes the flowers. They are always designed and painted alla-prima.
Gjertson also paints plein-air landscapes that share an affinity to those of the Russian artist Ivan Shishkin, a painter whom he greatly admires. For complex landscapes Gjertson usually draws a careful cartoon on location to work out the shapes and to create the design he wants. He transfers this to canvas and does the painting outside, sometimes making final adjustments, primarily in execution, in the studio. In recent years, circumstances have forced Gjertson to limit his landscape painting and most of his current work is figurative. He and his wife, Patricia, have four children, all of whom have modeled for numerous portrait, genre, and imaginative figure paintings.
Gjertson accepts occasional portrait commissions. In the early 1980s, the American Portrait Society made him an exceptional member. His portrait of former governor Arne H. Carlson hangs in the Minnesota State Capitol. His portrait of Ecolab CEO Allan L. Schuman hangs in their corporate headquarters in Saint Paul. Like the work of many past artists, the line between Gjertson’s genre painting and portraiture is difficult to discern, since all of his genre paintings are portraits of the subjects. He has also drawn portraits in charcoal and pencil.
Since 1976, Gjertson has organized and exhibited in over fifty exhibitions featuring the work of contemporary realists and impressionists. In 1995 he organized Beauty: A Rebirth of Relevance for the Newington-Cropsey Foundation Gallery of Art in New York. That exhibition featured his work and that of Richard Lack, Don Koestner and Kirk Richards. In the fall of 2002 his and Mr. Richards’ work was showcased in the two-person exhibition For Glory and For Beauty at the Biblical Arts Center in Dallas, Texas. In 2005, with artists Kirk Richards and Steve Armes, he formed “TRIAD: Three American Painters.” In early 2009, with Katherine Lack and Annette LeSueur, he organized Distinguished Company, an exhibition at the Bloomington Art Center that featured the work of Richard Lack, Don Koestner and himself. It was the last exhibition to feature the work of his distinguished colleagues during their lifetimes.
With the marginalization of contemporary traditional realism by many museums and the art press, and the current proliferation of photo-generated realism, Gjertson has held to the fundamental ideals underlying five centuries of Western art, ideals that transcend the whims of taste and fashion. He has been intimately involved with organizations that promote the work of artists who share these values, particularly The American Society of Classical Realism. He was a founding member of its Guild of Artists and acted as an editorial adviser to their publications, the Classical Realism Quarterly and the Classical Realism Journal. He was the final president of The ASCR and editor of the Classical Realism Newsletter. He is the author of many articles and essays in those and other publications. The book Realism in Revolution: The Art of the Boston School contains his essay “The Necessity of Excellence.” He is the author of Richard F. Lack: An American Master and is co-author, with Kirk Richards, of For Glory and For Beauty: Practical Perspectives on Christianity and the Visual Arts. He also wrote the expanded biography for Richard F. Lack Catalogue Raisonné: (1943-1998).
Gjertson dislikes labeling his work, preferring to simply call himself a traditional artist. However, he is known as a “Classical Realist,” a designation that has passed into general usage in the art world. His teacher, Richard Lack, used the term in 1982 to differentiate the realism of the heirs of the Boston tradition from that of other representational artists. The Boston tradition was unique, in that it combined the best of the 19th century French academic tradition with the best of the American impressionist tradition. The term was used in the title of the traveling exhibition, Classical Realism: The Other Twentieth Century. Classical Realism is a broad artistic point of view characterized by a love for the visible world and the great traditions of Western art, including classicism, realism and impressionism. Such a love, usually present by an early age, produces a desire to create work that incorporates the finest qualities inherent in the art of these traditions. It is classical because it exhibits a preference for order, beauty, harmony and completeness; it is realist because its basic vocabulary comes from the representation of the visible world. Classical Realism is grounded in the subtle representation of nature, a representation possible only by a person with a trained and sensitive eye. This representation is lifelike, but not photographic. Classical Realism is idealized or stylized for the sake of beauty and harmony. Great care is given to the elements of composition and design. Every effort is made to acquire the technical skills necessary to create work that compares favorably to that of the masters of the past.
When Gjertson’s work is seen within this context, he is content to be called a Classical Realist. His work is a personal, visual response to the circumstances of his life and world as viewed by a man who loves his family, admires the great art of the past, and believes the profound truths of biblical Christianity. Though rare in our age of cultural iconoclasm, he wants his work to display those qualities that are present in all works of art considered valuable throughout the centuries: aesthetic beauty and skillful workmanship. His goal is to express simple, but universal themes.