On December 7, 1892, Stuart Davis was born to two Philadelphia artists. His mother, Helen Stuart Foulke, was a prominent sculptor who exhibited at the annual exhibitions of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. His father, Edward Wyatt Davis, was a newspaper art editor who employed many of the period’s great American Realists– John Sloan, William Glackens, George Luks, and Everett Shinn. In the company of his parents and their famous artist friends, the young Davis grew up surrounded by art.
At the age of 16, Davis dropped out of high school to study with Robert Henri at the artist’s school in New York City. His parents weren’t the least bit worried over his decision, as they were close friends of Henri and could not have thought of a more experienced mentor for their son. For the next three years, Davis remained at Henri’s school, where he learned above all, to capture “life in the raw.” Under the direction of artist John Sloan, the teenage Davis gained additional experience as an illustrator for the socialist weekly, The Masses.
In 1913, he was invited to participate and attend the International Exhibition of Modern Art (also known as the Armory Show). Davis later recalled that he was “enormously excited by the show” and was deeply affected by the post-Impressionist works by Gaugin, Van Gogh, and Matisse that were on display. Upon his return from the exhibition, the young artist vowed to become a “modern” artist.
After the Armory Show, Davis redeveloped his style by loosening up his brushwork and perspective. Shortly after, he held his first solo-exhibition which was then followed by a string of shows at the Whitney Studio Club. In 1922, he became a member of the Modern Artists of America. As an established, “modern” artist, Davis gained entrance into the circles of the New York avant-garde. Over the years, he became close friends with abstract painters Charles Demuth, Arshile Gorky, John Graham and the poet William Carlos Williams.
In 1927, Davis encountered a crossroads in his career when he mounted an electric fan, a rubber glove and an eggbeater to a table. The Eggbeater Series, was then debuted at the Valentine Gallery. Upon the success of the show, benefactor Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney urged Davis to travel to Paris. With her financial help, he was able to go abroad for a year with his girlfriend Bessie Chosak. Once in Paris, he found a studio in the Montparnasse district, painted many Paris street scenes, and married Bessie Chosak.
In 1929, Davis returned from Paris to a changed New York. His mentor Robert Henri had passed away that year and the Great Depression was at hand. Amidst these hardships, his wife, Bessie Chosak Davis, died in 1934 from an infection that was brought on by a botched abortion.
Like many Americans of his time, Davis also suffered financially from the Great Depression. When President Roosevelt announced the debut of the first federally supported art program in 1933, Davis was one of the first artists to sign up. Between 1933-39, he completed several government commissioned murals under the auspices of the Public Works of Art Program (PWAP), the Federal Art Project (FAP), and the Works Progress Administration (WAP). With the financial support of the government, Davis was able to continue his exploration in formalism and American subject matter.
Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, he taught at the Art Students League and at the New School for Social Research to supplement his income and promote his ideas on art theory. By the 1950s, Stuart Davis was already a fixed icon in American art. He was enjoying international success and married his second wife, Roselle Springer, who would later give birth to his only child, George Earle. Together, Davis and his wife would frequent local jazz nightclubs. Davis, a longtime fan of jazz and swing music, drew inspiration from the genres and was even friends with famous musicians, such as Duke Ellington.
Stuart Davis continued to enjoy success as an artist well into his later years. He received honors as a representative of the United States at the Venice Biennale in 1952 and 1954. In addition, he was awarded the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum International Award in both 1958 and 1960. On June 24, 1964, he died suddenly from a stroke, leaving behind a legacy of paintings and a reputation as one of America’s first modernists.
II. AN ANALYSIS OF THE ARTIST’S WORK
When the teenage Stuart Davis first moved to New York City, his talent in the American Realist tradition was exceptional. Robert Henri praised his work, and he was often compared to his colleague, Thomas Hart Benton, who was five years older than he. However, Davis’ artistic direction took a different course after he witnessed the Armory Show of 1913. From this point forward, it can be said that Stuart Davis and Thomas Hart Benton became lifelong rivals, artists of polar opposites. Whereas Benton became famous as a leader of the Regionalist movement, Davis would go on to paint abstract paintings and become a forefather of the Pop Art movement.
Davis’ shift to abstraction was not an immediate one. He took time in his quest to become a “modern” artist. He explored both Post-Impressionist and Fauvist canvases. It was not until the 1920s that Davis first began to truly research the European techniques of abstraction and Synthetic Cubism. The crown of Davis’ attempts to master Cubism occured during 1927 and 1928, when he mounted an eggbeater, electric fan, and a rubber glove to a table. He then called the Eggbeater Series and the paintings that followed, his “formula pictures,” claiming that the formula involved stripping down his observations of nature to their very core. In doing so, he could paint the same subject matter over and over again, with triumph.
For Davis, every object played an important role in perceiving the modern world, right down to the eggbeaters, gas pumps, matchbooks, and billboards used and seen in everyday life. His subjects come right out of the Jazz nightclubs that he visited and the metropolitan streets of New York City that he enjoyed. Even the specific language of American life during the 1940s and 1950s comes through in his paintings. Phrases such as “The Mellow Pad” and “Swing Landscape” are apt titles for his compositions of squiggly lines and flashy colors.
By painting the jargon and images of American life, Davis was one of the rare painters of the 20th century who successfully transformed a European style of painting (Cubism) into something truly American. However, by the time the Abstract Expressionists took the New York art world by storm in the 1950s, Davis’ art struggled to maintain its modernist edge. Another decade would pass before Davis’ visionary presence would be cemented in art history. In the1960s, artists of the Pop Art movement admired his attention to mass culture. Long before painters such as Andy Warhol and Ed Ruscha, Davis was painting soap boxes, billboards and gas pumps with a tongue-in-cheek wit that was ahead of his time.