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Stuart Davis - Biography and Legacy

American Painter

Born: December 7, 1892 - Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Died: June 24, 1964 - New York, New York

Biography of Stuart Davis


The son of sculptor Helen Stuart Foulke and art editor Edward Wyatt Davis, Stuart Davis seemed destined for a career in the fine arts. His interest in drawing was apparent by age sixteen, when he began writing and illustrating adventure stories for his brother Wyatt, thirteen years his junior. Davis's father was then the art editor and cartoonist for Newark Evening News. The family's relocation from Philadelphia, where Davis was born, to New Jersey was fortuitous for Davis's artistic development. It put him in closer contact with a number of artist-reporters who had been working with his father since the 1890s. Now known as "the Eight," these artists included Robert Henri, George Luks, and Everett Shinn.

In 1909, during his first year attending Orange High School, sixteen year-old Davis dropped out and began commuting to New York City, where he studied painting at the Robert Henri School of Art. Far from reprimanding their son for this seemingly brash move, Davis's parents encouraged him to pursue his training in the competent care of Henri, a family friend and leading figure in the American Realist movement known as the Ashcan School.

Early Training

Under Henri's tutelage, Davis learned that challenging established academic theories about art was an important component to his artistic training. Davis later recalled: "All the usual art school routine was repudiated. Individuality of expression was the keynote... Art was not a matter of rules and techniques, or the search for an absolute ideal of beauty. It was the expression of ideas and emotions about the life of the time." Henri encourages spontaneity in his students' work, urging them to capture "life in the raw." Davis did just that. During his three years with Henri, Davis depicted gritty, unsentimental urban street scenes - from Hoboken alleys to Harlem saloons - in the manner of the Ashcan School.

During his studies, Davis met two men with whom he would become lifelong friends: Glenn Coleman and Henry Glintenkamp. All three men joined the staff of The Masses, a leftist arts and literary magazine. There, they created cover art and drawings for art editor and Ashcan painter John Sloan. By 1912, Davis had left Henri's School to establish a studio with Glintenkamp in nearby Hoboken, NJ. Shortly thereafter, Davis left The Masses due to differing views on the editorial policy; but he continued producing work for Harper's Weekly.

In 1913, Davis's creative vision expanded considerably when he became one of the youngest artists to exhibit his work in the Armory Show. His five watercolors rendered in the urban realist style of the Ashcan School earned him some recognition. More importantly, the show exposed Davis to works by European modernists, including Vincent van Gogh, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso. Davis's perspective began to change accordingly. Not only did abstract art offer a striking deviation from Ashcan realism, but it also lent itself to a visual rhythm and boldness reminiscent of the jazz music Davis so adored.

Gradually, the artist began incorporating the principles of modernism into his own work. He adopted a loose brushstroke, emboldened colors, and flattened forms. His rooftops became more angular and his modeling of form minimal. He exhibited these increasingly abstract cityscapes frequently - most notably with the Society of Independent Artists in 1916 and at Sheridan Square Gallery in New York City the following year. Although drafted into the First World War in 1918, Davis was able to remain in New York where he worked as a cartographer for the Army Intelligence Department.

After the war, Davis continued working in his Cubist style with one exception. In January 1920, he travelled with Coleman to Cuba, a cheap and exotic locale, perfect for young artists in search of new subject matter. Davis's watercolors produced during this two-month sojourn reveal that he reverted back to the urban realist style of his youth to a degree. These bold, rapidly executed watercolors appear somewhat more detailed than his early Cubist abstractions. They emphasize the exotic "otherness" of Cuba, depicting dancing women on the streets, tropical vegetation, and local vernacular architecture. Davis's unexpected stylistic shift was short-lived, however. When the artists returned to New York City later that year, Davis, once again immersed in the European modernism that was taking America by storm, delved further into abstract painting and never looked back.

Mature Period

For much of the 1920s Davis painted abstractions of New York urban scenes with the exception of a few canvases inspired by his summers spent visiting family in Gloucester, Massachusetts, and travels to Santa Fe, New Mexico with painter John Sloan. By 1922, he had gained entry into New York's avant-garde circles. As an official member of Modern Artists of America, Davis cultivated close friendships with fellow artists, including John Graham, Arshile Gorky, Charles Demuth, and poet William Carlos Williams. He became particularly close with Gorky and Graham; peers dubbed the trio "The Three Musketeers."

Davis's painting style became noticeably more abstract during this decade. And yet, outside of a series of Cubist landscapes and still-life collages, the artist's favored subject of urban, vernacular structures remained relatively consistent. Following the Cubist example set by Picasso and Braque, Davis began experimenting with geometricity and simultaneity: distilling complex objects into basic shapes, patterns, and text, while depicting different, overlapping perspectives of the object. He successfully reduced familiar landmarks and structures to flat, geometric shapes arranged in colorful patterns. But as much as Davis embraced the reduction of a three-dimensional object to two-dimensions, he never gave in to complete abstraction. For Davis, it was important that something of the subject be recognizable to the viewer, otherwise the work's broader statement about American culture risked being lost entirely.

The artist's distinctly American take on European Cubism earned him a reputation as one of the first American modernists. His "squiggly lines and flashy colors" particularly enthralled viewers. The Egg Beater Series of 1927-28 is credited with catapulting him to this new level of fame in the American art scene. In the artist's own words: "I nailed an electric fan, a rubber glove, and an eggbeater to a table" and focused on that still-life exclusively for one year. Through careful study of this still-life over an extended time, Davis produced four paintings, each of which explores simplification of forms and spatial perception in remarkably different ways.

When in 1928, Juliana Force of the Whitney Studio Club (now the Whitney Museum of American Art) purchased two of Davis's paintings, the artist used the proceeds to finance a trip to Paris with his girlfriend Bessie Chosak. Though the couple eventually married while there, this was much more than a romantic getaway for Davis. It was an opportunity to engage with European modernists first-hand. He found a studio in the Montparnasse neighborhood (home to Parisian artistic circles at the time) and began developing a series of lithographs depicting local cafés, streets, and alleys. He later remarked, "I liked Paris the minute I got there. Everything was human-sized. You had the illusion an artist was a human being and not just a bum." Despite his love for Paris, a return to New York was inevitable. However, the city that Davis came home to was very different from the one he had left a year prior. His mentor, Robert Henri, had died and the Great Depression was well on its way.

The Depression years marked a period of intense political engagement for Davis, as they did for many of the nation's artists and writers. According to art historian Cecile Whiting, Davis strove to "reconcile abstract art with Marxism and modern industrial society." He painted for the easel section of the Public Works of Art Project beginning in 1933 and, later, painted murals for the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration. Well respected among his peers, Davis rose to prominence in both the Artists' Union and the American Artists' Congress. His personal life took a turn for the worse, however, when his wife died suddenly due to complications following a surgical procedure. Shortly thereafter, he began a relationship with Roselle Springer, whom he married in 1938.

The mid-1930s witnessed yet another shift in painting style. The painterly character of Davis's early work was replaced with an emphasis on drawing and line. Now more than ever Davis felt the obligation to make his abstract art accessible to viewers. Not only was the readability of his art important to conveying his observations of American political and consumer culture; it was also paramount to reaffirming abstraction's place in America. For Davis, incorporating recognizable patterns, forms, and text encouraged the viewer to visually enter the painting, explore colors, line, and spatial relations, and finally leave with an emotional response. If successful, this visual reconciliation of abstract and familiar forms would reassure the viewer that modern art was in fact relevant at a time when Regionalist painters Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood questioned the pertinence of abstraction.

Late Period

Having established his place in New York's avant-garde circles, Stuart Davis began teaching - first at the Art Student's League during the early 1930s and then at the New School for Social Research and Yale University the following decade. The artist's stable income as an instructor was much appreciated when his wife gave birth in 1952 (Davis was 60) to their only child, George Earle. By that time, Davis was a veritable icon of American art. And yet the work he produced during the 1950s - still in the Cubist style - seemed outdated in the face of the increasingly pervasive Abstract Expressionist movement.

Davis struggled to maintain his position at the forefront of American modernism during the 1950s. But at a time, with the avant-garde was moving toward complete abstraction and nonfigurative expressions of internal turmoil or emotion, Davis continued creating work rooted in the external world. He was averse to subjective content, preferring instead to address societal and cultural issues head on through his art. Withdrawing into his studio and drinking heavily, Davis produced fewer than ten major works during the last decade of his life.

Frustrated he may have been, but his work continued to strike a cord with viewers. In both 1952 and 1954, the artist represented the United States at the Venice Biennale. He also received the Guggenheim International Award in 1958 and again in 1960. These final paintings are more monumental in size, perhaps in an effort to compete with the growing canvas sizes of many Abstract Expressionists. Davis reduced his color palette as well, though his work shows his continued preference for intense colors and clarity of form. Sadly, the artist's health declined rapidly in the early 1960s until 1964 when he suffered a stroke and died.

The Legacy of Stuart Davis

It was during the last years of his life that Davis's work became newly appreciated by yet another generation of artists, who admired Davis's intermingling of advertisements with modern abstraction in a way that plainly articulated the unique character of the nation. Artist Donald Judd, then critic for Arts Magazine in 1962, voiced his appreciation for Davis's 1960s aesthetic, which he described as an important precursor to Pop art. Indeed, because Davis grappled with themes related to popular culture, consumerism, and media through his witty depictions of billboards, tobacco products and household objects, his paintings are now recognized as Proto-Pop. His influence can be seen in the bold, graphic paintings of major Pop artists in America and Britain, including Andy Warhol and David Hockney. Wayne Thiebaud's interest in mass-produced objects and the visual language of advertisements also owes a debt to Davis' art.

Other qualities of Davis's work, particularly his bold, pulsating colors and interjecting angular planes that mimic the cacophony of sounds and dissonant rhythms of jazz music, had a significant impact on his peers as well. While the artist employed these elements to convey the fast-pace of life in modern America, other artists, such as Aaron Douglas and Archibald Motley, began calling upon the musical art form in their efforts to highlight African Americans' meaningful contributions to American culture. Later, during the 1940s, European modernists, including Piet Mondrian and Henri Matisse, also looked to jazz music for inspiration as they worked in their own modern painting styles.

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Content compiled and written by Jen Glennon

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Sandy McCain

"Stuart Davis Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Jen Glennon
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Sandy McCain
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First published on 16 Jun 2016. Updated and modified regularly
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