Stuart Davis (1892–1964)

American Modernist painter and printmaker who uniquely captured the American experience

By Alexandra A. Jopp

One of the foremost American Modernists to appear between the world wars, Stuart Davis became famous for cosmopolitan and remarkably bright compositions of American life

I. Biography
II. Chronology
III. Collections
IV. Exhibitions
V. Memberships
VI. Notes
VII. Suggested Resources

I. Biography

Stuart Davis’s artistic interests were heavily influenced by European Modernist works exhibited at the 1913 New York Armory Show. The splendid display of Post-Impressionist, Fauvist, and Cubist innovations kindled his interest in Modern art. Inspired, Davis developed ideas that his paintings, which included coastal views of New England, electric signs, gasoline stations, French cafés, and Parisian buildings, should “reveal a life of their own, rather than mirror reality.”1 He insisted that, “The act of painting is not a duplication of experience, but the extension of experience on the plane of formal invention.”2 Thus, Davis’s subjects came from everyday life, something he explained in his essay The Cube Root (1943):

Some of the things that have made me want to paint … are: American wood and iron work of the past; Civil War skyscraper architecture; the brilliant colors on gasoline stations, chain-store fronts, and taxi-cabs, the music of Bach, synthetic chemistry; the poetry of Rimbaud; fast travel by train, auto, and aeroplane, which brought new and multiple perspectives; electric signs; the landscape and boats of Gloucester, Mass., 5 & 10 cent store kitchen utensils; movies and radio; Earl Hines hot piano and Negro jazz music in general.3

Stuart Davis was born on December 7, 1892, in Philadelphia to Edward Wyatt Davis, the head of the art department at the Philadelphia Press, and sculptor Helen Stuart Davis. He grew up in East Orange, New Jersey, not far from Newark. Davis’s appreciation for modern and abstract subject matter originated with his exposure to the works of the future members of “The Eight” and the Ashcan School. In 1909, at the age of 16, Davis dropped out of high school and, for the next three years, studied at the new art school of Robert Henri, an Ashcan School realist, in New York. Henri’s approach was to draw from his own experience, to look not only upon art, but also at the people and situations that surround it. In 1913, Davis showed five watercolors at the Armory Show, the international exhibition of Modern art, and his interest in Modernism was born. It was obvious to him that the artists in Europe’s avant-garde, including Henri Matisse and Paul Gauguin, were working with entirely new ideas about modern forms: “I …sensed an objective order in these works which I felt was lacking in my own … I resolved that I would quite definitely have to become a modern artist.”4 From that point on, Davis’s art was characterized by a Modernist style.

Davis continued to experiment with varying styles including Post-Impressionist, Fauvism, and Cubism while working as a magazine illustrator and cartoonist at The Masses from 1911 until 1916. Many of his paintings between 1916 and 1919, such as Gloucester Street (1916; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), Garage (1917; Collection of Earl Davis, New York), and Gas Station (1917; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.) were characterized by brave colors and fluid, vigorous brushwork that had a life of its own. After two summers in Provincetown, Massachusetts, Davis was an “addict of the New England coast,” and he became a summer regular in Gloucester most years until 1934. “That was the place I had been looking for,” Davis wrote. “It had the brilliant light of Provincetown, but with important additions to topographical severity and the architectural beauties of the Gloucester schooner.”5 In Gloucester, inspired by Paul Cézanne, Gauguin, Matisse and Vincent van Gogh, he drew scenic landscapes and produced several harbor scenes. In 1927 and 1928, he also worked on his well-known Eggbeater series, a personal examination of Cubist form and space that used an eggbeater, electric fan, and rubber glove as subjects.

In 1921, Davis produced some of the most abstract drawings of his career including images of cigarette packages and labels, light bulbs, mouthwash bottles, a salt shaker, and an eggbeater––subjects inspired by the Dada movement. In Lucky Strike (1921; Museum of Modern Art), a meticulously painted image of a cigarette pack resembles a Cubist collage. The artist positions one color against another, darks against lights, verticals against horizontals.

In 1928, Davis went to Paris where, during a fourteen-month stay, he painted streetscapes with dazzling colors and details that were uniquely French, such as balustrades, shutters, mansards, and cafés. After returning to the United States, the artist, who had always been involved in social issues, focused on political work. During the 1930s, with America suffering through the Great Depression, Davis joined organizations such as the Artists Union and the American Artists’ Congress to promote artists’ interests and advocate against war and fascism. In 1934, he was elected president of the Artists Union, and in 1935–36, edited its journal, Art Front. During this time, though, Davis was careful to keep his social work separate from his artistic ventures.

In his later years, Davis, who first taught at the Art Students League in 1932, would become an instructor at the New School for Social Research, then at Yale University. He was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1956 and had a retrospective of his work tour the United States in 1957. He died of a stroke in 1964. Davis remains one of the most important American artists to emerge between the world wars. His paintings are examples of how the American experience could be presented without sacrificing boldness or ingenuity.

II. Chronology

1892 Born on December 7 in Philadelphia to newspaper art director Edward Wyatt Davis and sculptor Helen Stuart Davis
1901 Family moved to East Orange, New Jersey
1909 Enrolled at the Robert Henri School of Art in New York, where he studied until 1912
1910 First exhibition with Society of Independent Artists
1912 Left the Robert Henri School and opened a studio in Hoboken, New Jersey
1913 Showed five watercolors at the Armory Show, which kindled his interest in Modernism
1913 Published illustrations in left-wing magazine The Masses
1916 Left The Masses; started experimenting with Modern forms
1918 Painted in Havana, Cuba
1918 Served in the army but remained in the United States, working as a cartographer in the U.S. intelligence department
1919 Traveled to Cuba for a month
1925 Acquired a house in Gloucester, Massachusetts where his mother opened a studio
1928 Went to Paris, where, over fourteen months, he painted expressive scenes of streetscapes, French cafés, and old buildings
1929 Married Bessie Chosak
1932 Taught at Art Students League
1932 Bessie Chosak Davis died
1933 Joined Public Works of Art Project, a New Deal program
1934 Elected president of Artists Union
1935 Edited Artists Union journal, Art Front, for one year
1935 Started to work with other artists on establishing American Artists’ Congress, a left-wing group that promoted artists’ interest and advocated against war and fascism
1937 Married Roselle Springer
1940 Taught at New School for Social Research
1945 Retrospective at Museum of Modern Art, New York
1950 Visiting art instructor at Yale University
1952 Represented United States at Venice Biennale; son, George Earl Davis, born.
1956 Elected to National Institute of Arts and Letters
1957 Walker Art Center retrospective toured United States
1964 Died of stroke in New York

III. Collections

Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, Massachusetts
Amon Carter Museum, Texas
Art Institute of Chicago
Ball State Museum of Art, Indiana
Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University, Illinois
Brauer Museum of Art at Valparaiso University, Indiana
Brooklyn Museum
Cape Ann Historical Museum, Gloucester, Massachusetts
Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas
Currier Gallery of Art, New Hampshire
Dallas Museum of Art
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
Fleming Museum at the University of Vermont
Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art at the University of Oklahoma
Harvard University Art Museums, Massachusetts
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C.
Hyde Collection Art Museum, Glens Falls, New York
Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York
Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, Missouri
Maier Museum of Art at Randolph-Macon Woman's College, Virginia
Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, New York
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Montclair Art Museum, New Jersey
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas
Museum of Modern Art, New York
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
National Portrait Gallery, Washington D.C.
Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach, Florida
Oklahoma City Museum of Art, Oklahoma
Orange County Museum of Art, Newport Beach, California
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia
Pierpont Morgan Library, New York
Pomona College Museum of Art, California
Portland Museum of Art
Princeton University Art Museum, New Jersey
San Diego Museum of Art, California
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Sheldon Art Gallery, Lincoln, Nebraska
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.
Springfield Museum of Art, Ohio
Tacoma Art Museum, Washington
Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago
The Huntington Library, California
The Phillips Collection, Washington D.C.
Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid
U.S. Library of Congress, Washington D.C.
University of Iowa Museum of Art, Iowa City
University of Kentucky Art Museum
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond
Walker Art Center, Minnesota
Westmoreland Museum of American Art, Greensburg, Pennsylvania
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
Wichita Art Museum

IV. Exhibitions

1913 Armory Show
1917 Sheridan Square Gallery, New York
1917–18, 1920–23, 1936 Society of Independent Artists
1919–20 Whitney Studio Club

1919–20 National Academy of Design
1926, 1951, 1965 Art Institute of Chicago
1926 Society Anonyme at Brooklyn Museum
1927, 1934, 1946 The Downtown Gallery, New York
1930–64 Salons of America; Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (medals in 1945, 1956, 1964)
1935–63 Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
1944 Carnegie Institute (prize)
1941 Cincinnati Art Museum (retrospective)
1941 University of Indiana (retrospective)
1932, 1945 Museum of Modern Art
1945 Boston Institute
1945 Contemporary Art, New York (solo)
1945 Nelson Gallery
1952 Venice Biennale (solo)
1957 Walker Art Center
1957 San Francisco Museum of Art
1918–63, 1932, 1957, 1965 Whitney Museum of American Art
1965 National Museum of American Art, Washington D.C. (memorial exhibition)
1965 University of California, Los Angeles
1966 London, Paris, and Berlin
1991–92 Metropolitan Museum of Art (retrospective)
1971 Lawrence Rubin Gallery, New York
1978 The Brooklyn Museum
1978 Hirschl and Adler Galleries, New York
1979, 1983, 1986 Grace Borgenicht Gallery, New York
1985 Norton Gallery and School of Art, Florida
1985 Salander O’Reilly Galleries, New York
1986 Amon Carter Museum, Texas
1991–2 Metropolitan Museum of Art
1992 Terra Museum of American Art, Chicago
1997 Peggy Guggenheim Collection, California
1999 Cape Ann Historical Museum, Massachusetts
2002 Pierpont Morgan Library, New York

V. Memberships

American Society of Painters and Sculptors
American Artists Congress
Brooklyn Society of Artists
Modern Art Association
National Institute of Arts and Letters
Society of Independent Artists
Union of American Artists

VI. Notes

Steve Shipp, American Art Colonies, 1850–1930: A Historical Guide to America’s Original Art Colonies and Their Artists (Westport, Conn.; London: Greenwood Press, 1996), p. 40.
Matthew Baigell, Dictionary of American Art (New York: Harper and Row, 1979), p. 88.
Stuart Davis, "The Cube Root," Art News 12 (February 1943), p. 34.
Bonnie Grad, “Stuart Davis and Contemporary Culture,” Artibus et Historiae 12, no. 24 (1991): 167.
James Johnson Sweeney, Stuart Davis (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1945), p. 10.

VII. Suggested Resources

Falk, Peter Hastings, ed. Who Was Who in American Art: 1564–1975. Vol. II. Madison, Conn.: Sound
View Press, 1999. Hills, Patricia. Stuart Davis. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1996.
Myers, Jane ed. Stuart Davis: Graphic Work and Related Paintings with a Catalogue Raisonné of the Prints.
Fort Worth, Tex.: Amon Carter Museum, 1986.
Wilkin, Karen and Lewis Kachur. The Drawings of Stuart Davis: The Amazing Continuity. New York:
Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1992.
Wilson, William. Stuart Davis’s Abstract Argot. San Francisco: Pomegranate Artbooks, 1993.

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