b. Rawlins, WY, 1907–d. San Jose, CA, 1988
John Francis Stenvall was born in Wyoming in 1907 to parents of Swedish- Scotch- Irish ancestry. He earned a bachelor’s degree in fine arts at the University of Nebraska in 1931. The university awarded him a Riordan Morey fellowship to study for one year at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC).
Stenvall traveled and worked odd jobs throughout the country—working on a milk route, picking apples, arranging department store window displays, as well as being employed as a clerk, a sign writer, a farmer, and a piano player in a dance orchestra. Eventually he settled in Chicago, working under the Works Progress Administration (WPA) as a painter and designer. He garnered early success for his artwork at the Art Institute annuals. In 1936, his oil painting, Home Sweet Home, was shown in the Chicago Artists 40th Annual Exhibition at the Art Institute, where it won the Robert Rice Jenkins Memorial Prize (given to an artist who had not won any previous awards and in recognition of an artwork regardless of subject or medium). The painting shows a typical Chicago street with wooden sidewalks and rising telephone poles—emblems of the city’s transition to modern technologies. His early work shows a strong sense of design and mastery of the techniques that characterize American scene painting.
Later that same year, in November, New York gallerist Edith Halpern discovered Stenvall’s work in a WPA exhibition, and included him in her Downtown Gallery’s 10th anniversary exhibition. The show was divided into two sections: the first displayed work by six well-established American artists, including John Marin, Georgia O’Keefe, and Charles Sheeler. Stevall’s work was featured in the second section alongside twelve other emerging artists from around the country. He was given a solo exhibition at the Downtown Gallery in 1937 and continued to show there until 1940. His association with the Downtown Gallery helped him gain prominence in the New York art scene.
Stenvall’s talent was equally recognized in Chicago. As critic Eleanor Jewett wrote in 1938: “John Stenvall is one of our younger artists on whom it will be wise to keep an eye. He seems to have greater ability, better taste, and a more wholesome viewpoint than the majority of the young moderns.”
After serving in the military from 1942 to 1945, Stenvall attended Stanford University in California under the G.I. Bill, receiving an advanced degree in art education in 1952. He then returned to Chicago to resume teaching. In the early 1960s, Stenvall moved to Santa Cruz, California, remaining there until his death in December 1998.
Berney, Charlotte. “American Journey: The Art of John Stenvall.” Reprinted by the Thunderbird Foundation for the Arts.
Jewett, Eleanor. “Critic Raises Appraisal of Stenvall Art.” Chicago Sunday Tribune. March 6, 1938, pg. G4.
John Stenvall. Exh. cat. New York: Downtown Gallery, 1937.
Stenvall, John, papers. Pamphlet file, P 20885. Ryerson Library. Art Institute of Chicago.