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A painter, muralist, and printmaker associated with the Symbolist and romantic traditions, Arthur B. Davies is best known for imaginary landscapes inhabited by sensuous, arcadian figures.[1]  He is also renowned for his role as critical and in­fluential arbiter in the American art world in the early twentieth century, a time that he brought an awareness of modernism to the United States.

The fourth of five children, Arthur B. Davies was born in Utica, New York, to David Thomas, a successful businessman and an ardent Methodist minister, and Phoebe Loakes Davies. He demonstrated an early interest in mechanics, sports, and art, creating his first painting when he was ten and copying images from art and literary magazines in his youth. At age fourteen, he began to study art, taking private classes in nearby Cazenovia with Dwight Williams, a painter of Tonalist landscapes. Among his first influences was an exhibition he visited in 1878 of the work of George Inness, held at the Utica Art Association. Due to financial duress, the Davies family moved to Chicago in 1879. There, the young artist attended the Chicago Academy of Design for two years (1880-81) before setting out on a two-year trip in the Southwest, where he served as a draftsman and civil engineer for the Santa Fe Railroad. On his return, Davies enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago, studying under Charles Abel Corwin, a former student of Frank Duveneck, and Alice Kellogg, with whom he struck up a romance. In 1887, Davies worked on a cyclorama of the Civil War Battle of Shiloh for the B & O passenger depot on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue, along with John Twachtman and several other artists.

Arthur Bowen Davies - The Bawdy Wind
Arthur Bowen Davies - The Bawdy Wind, ca. 1906
Oil on canvas, 18 1/2 x 23 inches, Signed lower left: A. B. Davies

By 1888, Arthur B. Davies had moved to New York City, where he began producing illustra­tions for Century and St. Nicholas maga­zines. He also studied at the Art Students League. Among his teachers was Kenyon Cox, who introduced him to the work of Puvis de Chavannes, which would have a strong impact on his work. Later, Davies studied sculpture at the league with Augus­tus Saint-Gaudens.

In 1890, Davies met Virginia Meriwether Davis on the Staten Island Ferry. Davies and Davis, a medical doctor on the staff of the New York Infant Asylum who was a direct descendant of Meriwether Lewis, were married in July of 1892. The two, who shared a love of art, music, and lit­erature, soon moved to a farm in Congers, New York, about an hour north of New York City and just west of the Hudson River. Naming the farm, “The Golden Bough,” Davies demonstrated his aware­ness of the 1890 book of this title by the Scottish anthropologist Sir James George Frazer, consisting of a comparative study of religions and encompassing folklore and magic.In the book, Frazer cited a painting of 1833 with this title by James Mallord William Turner, itself inspired by Virgil’s poem, The Aeneid.

Arthur B. Davies’s first son, Niles, was born, in March 1893. Within the year, the Davies household expanded, when Virginia’s wid­owed sister, Mattie Betts, moved in with her three daughters, then ages nine, seven, and five. Davies featured the girls in many of his early canvases. In 1893, Keppel Galleries in New York held an exhibition of Davies’s lithographs. Two years later, the Chicago branch of the gallery held the first solo show of Davies’s paintings. That year also saw the birth of the artist’s sec­ond son, Arthur David, as well as a sum­mer in Europe, in which the artist visited Amsterdam, Paris, and London.

By 1896, Arthur B. Davies had become as­sociated with Macbeth Gallery, establishing a close relationship with the proprietor, William Macbeth; Davies would be af­filiated with the gallery until 1919. His initial show at Mac­beth was a group exhibition of 1894, in which the works of Robert Henri and William Gla­ckens were also included. Mac­beth held the first solo show of Davies’s work in New York in 1896. The New York Times re­ported: “There are two other men in this city whose art is closely allied to that of Davies. These are R. W. Blakelock and Albert Ryder, but while the last two succeed at times at tonal qualities of rare richness, Mr. Davies, seeing even more glo­ry of color, adds an astonish­ing naïveté that is fascinating and unique.”[2] Davies traveled abroad again in 1897, spend­ing time in Italy, North Africa, and Spain. The following years were marked with sadness for the artist. His daughter Silvia, born in June of 1898, lived only eleven month; his son Alan, born in the summer of 1900, lived only a year.

About 1900, Davies became estranged from his wife and began spending more time in New York City, where he moved his studio to 237 Fifth Avenue, in the same building as Macbeth Gallery. His work continued to receive attention for its uniqueness.

In 1902, the artist Edna Potter became Davies’s model. Three years later the two began to live together as a married couple under the assumed name of Mr. and Mrs. David A. Owen. They would retain this identity through the rest of Davies’s life.

In 1904, an exhibition was held at the National Arts Club in New York, including the work of Arthur B. Da­vies, along with that of Henri, Glackens, Luks, Sloan, and Pren­dergast, establishing a group that would expand into the Eight within a few years. The New York Times recognized the show’s sig­nificance in an article sub-head­ed “Startling Works by Red-Hot American Painters.” Davies traveled west again in 1905, taking a trip that began in Denver and continued through parts of California, Oregon, Washington, and Canada. Subsequently he be­gan depicting female figures in an elongated fashion, inspired by the redwoods of California.

In the period that followed, Arthur B. Da­vies continued to exhibit with future members of the Eight, an association that culminated in the landmark exhibition held at Macbeth Gallery in February of 1908 that brought the group to a new level of notoriety. Their work was sub­sequently seen at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the Art Institute of Chicago, and at venues in seven other cities, through 1909. In that year, Lizzie P. Bliss, the daughter of textile merchant and United States Secretary of the Interior under President William McKinley, Cornelius Newton, purchased a painting by Davies. She soon turned to Davies as a consultant as she built one of the finest collections of modern art in America in the early twentieth century. (In 1929, Bliss founded the Mu­seum of Modern Art with Mary Quinn Sullivan and Abby Al­drich Rockefeller.)Bliss also became Davies’s leading patron, creating the largest private col­lection of his work in America.

On December 19, 1911, the first meeting of the Association of American Painters and Sculptors was held. When the group’s first president, J. Alden Weir, stepped down, and Henri declined the position, Arthur B. Davies was asked to serve. He accepted, but went far beyond the organization’s initial plans for a large indepen­dent display of the work of the group, creating the most influ­ential exhibition of the era. As noted above, he was escorted by Walter Pach to the studios of the Parisian avant-garde, absorb­ing all that he saw and selecting the cutting-edge art of the time for the show. Open to all of the progressive trends of European modernism, Davies was responsible for bringing the work of Post-Impressionists, Cubists, Dadaists, and Symbolists to the attention of the American people, along with examples of art by American innovators. At the exhibition, Davies was on hand daily to greet visitors, while working to counter the horrified reactions. Of his efforts, Stieglitz wrote: “You have done a great work.”[3]He then proceeded to purchase two of Davies’s drawings from the show. Bliss was guided by Davies’s advice in her purchases from the exhibi­tion.

Davies’s interest in a wide variety of art fed his passion for collecting. Over time, he amassed nearly five hundred works, including European examples by William Blake, Georges Braque, Edgar Degas, André Derain, Juan Gris, Fer­nand Léger, Aristide Maillol, Camille Pissarro, Auguste Rodin, Georges Seurat, and Paul Signac. He also collected works by American artists, including George Bellows, Patrick Henry Bruce, Winslow Homer, George Luks, John Marin, Alfred Maurer, Maurice Prendergast, Albert Pinkham Ryder, Charles Sheeler, Joseph Stella, Max Weber, and Stanton MacDonald Wright. Additionally, Davies collected Greek and Roman sculpture, Persian and Mesopotamian pottery, and Coptic, Flemish, and English tapestries.

In the period following the Armory Show, Arthur B. Davies incorporated modernist means into his art, fusing aspects of Cubism, Futurism, German Expressionism, and Sy­chromy. He abstracted and fragmented the figure, often arranging figural forms into chromatic shapes in motion. He used this approach for his important commission in 1914, the murals he created for Lizzie Bliss’s music room (now in the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, Utica, New York). However, by 1918 Davies had re­turned to his earlier romanticized approach, finding modernist methods too avoidant of subjective feeling. Late in his career, his art showed the influence of the theories of “inhalation,” in which models posed while holding their breath.

During the course of his career, Arthur B. Davies also produced a number of works in bronze and wood and numerous lithographs, aquatints and etchings. In 1924, Davies executed a set of murals for International House in New York. That year also saw the publication of a book of collected essays on Davies’s art by Dwight Williams, Royal Cortissoz, Frank Jewett Mather Jr., and Frederic Newlin Price. Dur­ing the 1920s, Davies began to divide his time between New York and Europe, first in Paris and then in Florence. He died in the latter city in 1928. Two years follow­ing his death, the Metropolitan Museum of Art held a memorial exhibition of his work.

He is represented in many important private and public collections including the Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, Massachusetts; Art Institute of Chicago; the Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York; Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio; Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh; Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Virginia; Cincinnati Art Museum, Ohio; Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington; Denver Art Museum, Colorado; the Detroit Institute of Arts, Michigan; High Museum, Atlanta, Georgia; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Minneapolis Institute of Arts, St. Paul, Minnesota; the Montclair Art Museum, New Jersey; Musess Nationaux Paris, France; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri; the Newark Museum, New Jersey; the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia; Philadelphia Museum of Art; the Phillips Collection, Washington, DC; San Diego Museum of Art, California; Smithsonian American Art Museum, Lawrence, Kansas; Telfair Museum of Art, Savannah, Georgia; the Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio; Wadsworth Athenaeum Museum of Art, Harford, Connecticut; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York and the Worcester Art Museum, Massachusetts.


©The essay herein is the property of Spanierman Gallery LLC and is copyrighted by Spanierman Gallery LLC and may not be reproduced in whole or in part, without written permission from Spanierman Gallery LLC nor shown or communicated to anyone without due credit being given to Spanierman Gallery LLC.

[1] The most comprehensive source on Davies is Bennard B. Perlman, The Lives, Loves, and Art of Arthur B. Davies (Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1999). See also: Teresa A. Carbone, American Paintings in the Brooklyn Museum: Artists Born by 1876, vol. 1 (New York: Brooklyn Museum, 2006), 435-46; and Kimberley Orcutt, “The Problem of Arthur B. Davies,” in The Eight and American Modernism (University of Chicago, 2009), 22-31.

[2] “Pictures by Arthur B. Davies,” New York Times, March 14, 1896.

[3] Letter, Alfred Stieglitz to Arthur B. Davies, February 18, 1913, Stieglitz Collection, The Bei­necke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale Universtiy, New Haven, Connecticut. Cited in Perlman, 215.


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