Arthur B. Davies

Artist Biography

Arthur B. Davies established himself as a talented pastel and watercolor painter just before the turn of the twentieth century. His role with organizing the 1913 Armory Show was integral in facilitating the shift towards twentieth century American Modernism. Created in the later end of Davies’ career, his tonalist scenes, that demonstrate a sensitive synthesis of nature with elements of classicism, are considered examples of his best works.

By Chelsea DeLay

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

I. Biography

Born on September 26, 1862, Arthur Bowen Davies grew up in Utica, New York. As a child, he demonstrated a penchant for drawing, a skill his father encouraged with drawing lessons with Dwight Williams. Noting his early skill, Williams thought it best to develop his abilities through a connection with nature; during their sketching sessions outside, Williams considered him a young genius, emphasizing that., “…he had wonderful appreciation of nature and all its beauties and very great capacity for selecting, combining, and eliminating.”[1]

When his family moved to Chicago in 1878, Davies began classes at the Chicago Academy of Design, but was lured away from his schooling only two years later by the thrilling prospect of traveling west. As a draftsman, Davies was part of a survey team for the railroad expansion in New Mexico and Mexico; riding on horseback through the western frontier undoubtedly exposed him to the mountain vistas seen in his works.[2] During a short-lived return to the mid-west, Davies enrolled in classes at the Art Institute of Chicago before deciding to move to New York City.

The city provided Davies with a wealth of opportunity. He continued classes at the Gotham Art Students School and Art Students League, while simultaneously working as an illustrator for Century Magazine and St. Nicholas.[3] While in school, Davies met and married Dr. Virginia Merriweather, and the two settled down in Congers, New York, a rugged town located just north of Manhattan. Up until this point, Davies had been largely self taught in the skill of painting, save for some of the more formal elements learned in his short academic stints. Nevertheless, the critical attention garnered by his early drawings proved the strength of his natural abilities.

Comparing Davies’ approach with the great Michelangelo, Royal Cortissoz praised his gift of using a dramatic line to reveal a delicate, contoured beauty.[4] Likewise, Benjamin Altman, a department store mogul with an eye for artistic talent, saw potential in Davies. In 1893, Altman financed a trip to Italy for him to develop his skills, a clear signal of his forthcoming success. The list of Davies notable benefactors would continue to grow throughout his career, including the likes of Lizzie P. Bliss, the Martin Ryersons, and Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney.[5]

As he gained prominence in the New York City art scene in the late 1890s, Davies became involved with exhibitions at the MacBeth Gallery, where he met and became close with Maurice Predergast and Robert Henri. In 1904, the National Arts Club hosted an exhibition of Henri and a select group of his followers, including Davies, which was a precursor for the 1908 Exhibition of the Eight held at MacBeth Gallery.[6] Members of The Eight, or the Ashcan school, became associated under Henri’s experiential approach towards painting, which had a strong inclination towards realism.

Of the Eight, Davies styling was perhaps the most distinct; he shied away from the urban realism typical of the Ashcan school, and tended to favor more romantic, serene classicism that was considered by some as post-impressionist.[7] By 1913, the talent and success of Davies, in addition to his well-connected patrons, had established him as a person of tremendous influence within the art community, and he took on the responsibility of organizing the 1913 Armory Show.

The 1913 Armory Show was America’s first major, comprehensive survey of modern art. The notion Davies had in mind was to educate American taste by showcasing European and American art together in order to highlight the progressive strides of American artists in contemporary art. With approximately seventy thousand visitors, the exhibition successfully verified America’s revived interest in art. However, Davies’ arrangement of the show was met with mixed reviews, as some criticized that the Armory show reinstituted a sense of inferiority among the national artists instead of highlighting American progress in the arts.[8]

After the Armory Show, Davies began to dabble in cubism, but it was during the 1920s that he truly came into his own as an artist. Coinciding with annual trips to Italy, Davies began to specialize in painting Northern Italian countryside vistas. These landscapes repeatedly featured an identifying landmark that was a favorite of Davies: a craggy mountaintop located in the Italian Apennines.[9] He worked primarily in watercolors and pastels, which perfectly suited his expressive and dreamy tonal style, and ultimately freed him late in his career to produce some of the finest and most innovative modern works of the day.[10]

Towards the end of his life, Davies began to cultivate an interest in decorative arts, and spent a great deal of time designing rugs and tapestries.[11] While in Italy, Davies died suddenly in 1928. Only after his death was the rumored discovery made that Davies had supposedly been leading a double life; for many years, he had apparently kept up the façade of a happy marriage to his wife in upstate New York, while maintaining a mistress in New York City.[12]

II. Chronology

1862 Born in Utica, New York
1875 Art instruction with Dwight Williams
1878 Studied at Chicago Academy
1880 Traveled to Mexico for drafting and civil engineering
1883 Moved to New York, enrolled in classes at the Art Students League
1887 Illustrator for Century Magazine and St. Nicholas
1892 Married Dr. Virginia Merriweather and settled in Congers, New York
1893 Sold his first painting, Ducks and Turkeys;
Traveled to Italy, trip financed by Benjamin Altman
1896 First one-man show at MacBeth Gallery in New York City
1900 Separated from his wife, Dr. Virginia Merriweather
1905 Traveled to California for new subjects
1908 Participated in The Exhibition of the Eight at MacBeth Gallery
1912 Traveled to Europe to organize the 1913 Armory Show
1913 Landmark Armory Show opens in New York
1914 Began to experiment with cubism in his paintings
1916 Won Corcoran Gold Medal of Honor
1928 Passed away in Florence, Italy

III. Collections

Addison Gallery of American Art, MA
Art Institute of Chicago, IL
Baltimore Museum of Art, MD
Brooklyn Institute Museum, NY
Butler Institute of American Art, OH
Corcoran Gallery of Art, NY
Detroit Institute of the Arts, MI
First National Bank, Chicago Collection, IL
Flint Institute of Arts, MI
High Museum of Art, GA
John J. McDonough Collection
Maier Museum of Art at Randolph College, VA
Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
Minneapolis Institute of Art, MN
Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, AL
Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute of Art, NY
Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, PA
Rhode Island School of Design, RI
Rita and Daniel Fraad Collection, NY
San Francisco Art Institute, CA
Susan & Herbert Adler Collection, NY
Warner Collection, PA

IV. Exhibitions

1888 American Art Galleries
1890 Academy Show
1893–1921 Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, PA
1894 Macbeth Gallery, NYC
1894–96 Boston Art Club
1896 Macbeth Gallery, NY first solo exhibition
1897 Pratt Institute, NY
1901 Pan American Exposition, Buffalo silver medal
MacBeth Gallery, NY
1904 National Arts Club
1908 MacBeth Gallery, NYC The Eight
1912 Accepted presidency of American Painters and Sculptors
1913 Carnegie Institute International,PA honorable mention
The Armory Show, NY
1918 MacBeth Gallery, NY
1962 Graham Gallery, NY
1972 Harbor Gallery, NY print exhibition
1976 Lehigh University, PA
1987 The Baltimore Museum of Art, MD
Walt Kuhn Gallery, ME
1998 Babcock Gallery, NY solo exhibition

V. Memberships

American Association of Painters and Sculptors, elected President in 1912
Boston Art Club
National Academy of Design
National Arts Club
New York Watercolor Club
Salons of America
Society of Independent Artists, President
The Eight

VI. Suggested Resources

1. Milton W. Brown, The Story of the Armory Show (New York, Abbeville Press, 1988).
2. David Cleveland, A History of American Tonalism: 1880–1920 (New York, Hudson Hills Press, 2010).
3. Phillips, Duncan, Dwight Williams, Royal Cortissoz, Frank Jewett Mather, Jr., Edward W. Root, and Gustavus A. Eisen, Arthur B. Davies: Essays on the Man and His Art (Cambridge: The Phillips Publications, 1924).

VII. Notes

1. Dwight Williams, “A Biographical Sketch,” in Arthur B. Davies: Essays on the Man and His Art (Cambridge: The Phillips Publications, 1924), 26.
2. Bennard B. Perlman, Arthur B. Davies: Drawings and Watercolors exh. cat. (Baltimore: The Baltimore Museum of Art, 1987), 2.
3. Royal Cortissoz, “Arthur B. Davies,” in Arthur B. Davies: Essays on the Man and His Art (Cambridge: The Phillips Publications, 1924), 36.
4. Ibid, 37.
5. Gertrude Dahlbert, Arthur B. Davies exh. cat. (New York, Graham Gallery, 1962), 1.
6. David Cleveland, A History of American Tonalism: 1880–1920 (New York, Hudson Hills Press, 2010), 480.
7. Richard Redd, Arthur Bowen Davies 1862–1928 exh. cat. (Bethlehem, Lehigh University 1976), 3.
8. Cleveland, 480.
9. Perlman, 4.
10. Cleveland, 253.
11. Bulletin of the Columbus Gallery of Fine Arts 1 (April 1931): 28.
12. Peter H. Falk, Who Was Who in American Art (Madison, Connecticut: Sound View Press, 1999), 835.

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