Thomas M. Stell, Jr., painter, teacher, and member of the Dallas Nine group of regionalist artists, was born on November 7, 1898, in Cuero, Texas, one of four children born to Thomas M. and Irene Galle Stell. He showed an interest in drawing at an early age, designing streamlined automobiles with his friend E. M. (Buck) Schiwetz, who also became an artist in later years. Stell was educated in Cuero public schools and was remembered as a talented young artist by one of his teachers, Walter Prescott Webb. Following his graduation from high school in 1914 Stell worked various draftsman jobs in Hollywood, Dallas, Chicago, and New York; he also spent time in Nebraska. From 1921 to 1922 he attended Rice Institute, where he was art editor of the college annual and designed sets for student plays. Following his year at Rice Tom Stell moved to New York City, where he studied under George Luks and Charles W. Hawthorne at the Art Students League from 1923 to 1925. His studies were subsidized by the Waterman Scholarship awarded to him by the league in 1924. During the same period Stell assisted muralist Augustus Vincent Tack; continued to develop his interest in the stage, designing sets for several Broadway plays; and worked as a film technician for Famous Players-Laskey Company. Stell was particularly interested in German expressionist films and innovated the double-exposure settings for the American prologue to Fritz Lang's film Metropolis. From 1924 to 1929 Stell studied at the National Academy of Design, where he received honorable mention in the prestigious Prix de Rome contest twice.
In the winter of 1928–29 Stell returned to Dallas to teach at the Dallas Art Institute and the Dallas Architectural Club. He also traveled to New Orleans with architect David R. Williams to research and sketch early indigenous architecture. He subsequently returned to New York City to study art history and art education at Columbia University. Stell taught at a junior high school in Trenton, New Jersey, from 1931 to 1932 and then returned to Dallas to teach, initially in his studio, and later at the Dallas Art Institute. Stell's disciplined approach to instruction and his enthusiasm for early Italian and Flemish painting had a strong influence on his students, among whom were William Lester, Lloyd Goff, Verda Ligon, Florence McClung, and Everett Spruce. He also participated in the Dallas Artists League and Lone Star Printmakers and contributed to Contemporary Arts of the South and Southwest, a forum for regionalist colloquy edited by Jerry Bywaters. In 1934 Stell won a commission from the Public Works of Art Project to paint murals depicting the fall of the Alamo and the surrender of Antonio López de Santa Anna for the Forest Avenue High School in Dallas. He also painted murals for the F. N. Drane Library in Corsicana and the Elbert Williams residence in Dallas and assisted Julian Garnsey and Pierre Bourdelle on mural projects in the main buildings for the Texas Centennial Exposition. Later, under programs sponsored by the Treasury Department, he painted murals for post offices in Longview and Teague, both in Texas, and in Perry, Oklahoma.
Stell was best-known, however, as a portraitist. He used simplified forms and precise draftsmanship to achieve the clarity and intensity characteristic of his work. The cylindrical limbs and studied composure of his subjects lent a monumental air to many of his portraits; this formal, occasionally chilly tone was alleviated in those works such as his Self-Portrait (1930) and Portrait of Wanda Ford (Mrs. O'Neil Ford) (1943), in which the subjects gaze directly at the viewer. Stell's interest in early Italian Renaissance painters was manifested in his meticulous brush strokes, thin paint application, and use of solid surfaces such as masonite or wood. The influence of Flemish painters on his style can be seen in the play of light and shadow on the drapery in the background of Portrait of Dale Heard (1935). In one of his finest paintings, the Portrait of Janet Kendall (1934), Stell depicted tension by countering the precise delineation of details such as Kendall's hair and eyelashes with a sensuous interplay between her warm flesh tones, the aqua color of her décolleté neckline, and the deep blue background. Stell's simplified backgrounds were outstanding, from the Cézannesque landscape of his 1930 self-portrait to the vibrant blue background that forms a shallow space in the portrait of Kendall, seemingly projecting her out of the picture plane into the viewer's space.
Stell exhibited his work at the 1933 State Fair of Texas in Dallas and at the Dallas Allied Arts exhibitions from 1933 to 1935. His Portrait of Dale Heard was one of the most popular works exhibited in the Texas room of the 1936 Centennial Exposition, and in September 1936 Stell was included in the "Thirteen Dallas Artists" exhibition at Lawrence Art Galleries in Dallas. He also exhibited his work at the 1939 Golden Gate Exposition in San Francisco. In 1938 Stell was named state director of the American Index of Design, a Work Projects Administration project. The post necessitated a move to San Antonio, where he taught at Trinity University from 1942 to 1943. In 1945 Stell taught drawing and design in the art department at the University of Texas at Austin. He entered graduate school at the University of Texas in the fall of 1947 and continued his studies there sporadically through the summer of 1955. In his later years Stell taught and traveled extensively. During this time he began making murals with glass and ceramics. In 1961 he completed fourteen ceramic mosaic plaques representing abstractions of intricate machinery for the Texas Instruments building in Dallas. Stell's major private patrons included Beatrice and Patrick E. Haggerty of Dallas and E. B. Flowers of San Antonio. He settled in San Antonio around 1966, where he stayed until his death. He made the six glass mosaic panels depicting Indians of North and South America at the base of HemisFair Plaza's Tower of the Americas in San Antonio (1968) and was working on a nine-by-thirteen-foot glass mosaic mural commissioned by Tesoro Petroleum Corporation for San Antonio's Riverwalk extension project at the time of his death on March 30, 1981. Another artist completed the mural, which departs from Stell's design and installation techniques. Stell was buried in Cuero on April 1. His work is represented in the Bywaters Collection at Southern Methodist University and several private collections.