Artist Biography

Stuart Davis

(1892 - 1964)

Table of Contents

    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

    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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