Charles Walter Stetson was born at Tiverton Four Corners on March 25, 1858, to an ailing mother and an impoverished father, a Baptist preacher who dabbled in herbs. He was raised from age eleven in Providence, in an unhappy household of economic worries; he died in Rome at age fifty-three having gained recognition as a distinguished painter and an incomparable colorist. The year after his death, critics at his large memorial exhibition said, “few paintings convey such majesty and sublimity of feeling.”
Self-taught, Stetson was painting by the age of 14 and was quickly admired for his colors and his landscapes, patterned after his favorite–the British art critic, essayist, and watercolorist John Ruskin. At age 20, Stetson opened his own studio in Providence and befriended the talented Afro-American artist Edward Bannister and George Whitaker, the so-called “dean” of the Providence Art community, who taught at the Rhode Island School of Design. Their professional meetings, beginning in 1879, resulted in the founding of the Providence Art Club on February 19, 1880.
In the fall of 1881, Stetson was not only developing his art of landscapes, portraits and etchings, but beginning a love relationship with Charlotte Anna Perkins, a young lady connected through her mother to the famed and powerful Beecher family, of whom the grand dame was the best-selling novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Charles and Charlotte were married in 1884, and the following year had a daughter, Katherine Beecher Stetson. In 1888 he and Charlotte separated, and she went to California. Two years later Charles went west to reconcile the marriage, but to no avail. The couple was amicably divorced in 1894. Charles soon married Charlotte’s cousin and closest friend, Grace Ellery Channing, a poet. The triangular relationship between the three remained friendly through the years.
Stetson stayed in Pasadena after his marriage to Grace, living there long enough for the California arts community to claim him as their own. In 1901 he and Grace went to live in Rome, where Charles had many artist friends and did considerable painting, but was never active in artistic organizations. He remained a loner, mostly because of his deafness and many illnesses.
Stetson was highly praised in Europe by artists and critics alike. He was considered one of the greatest Symbolists of his time, a painter who could heighten the experience of nature, and one who could paint softly contoured landscapes and figure studies to evoke moods of reverie and nostalgia. Stetson’s most prominent feature was color. A critic said: “There is no color comparable in art for his splendor and beauty.”
– Dr. John A. Worsley