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Monday, 8 March 2010

Stuart Davis (1892–1964)

Stuart Davis.  Smithsonian American Art Museum

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
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 his idea 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

Electric Lights and Buildings, c. 1931, Art Institute of Chicago

T-View, (1932/REPAINTED 1951) Oil and pencil on canvas, Gift of Joseph H. Hirshhorn

Lucky Strike, 1924 Oil on paperboard Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

Fishing Equipment, 1931, Gouache, over touches of graphite, on cream wove paper, Art Institute of Chicago

Egg Beater, V, 1930, Oil on canvas. Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Fund, MoMa

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.

Blue Café, 1928. The Phillips Collection

Boats, 1930. The Phillips Collection

Corner Cafe, 1930. The Phillips Collection

Place des Vosges, 1928. The Phillips Collection

Spar, 1932–33. The Phillips Collection
Still Life with Saw, 1930. The Phillips Collection
 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.

New York Mural, 1932. (Courtesy Norton Museum of Art)

Landscape with Garage Lights, 1931-32. Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester

House and Street,1931. Whitney Museum of American Art


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.

1. 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.
2. Matthew Baigell, Dictionary of American Art (New York: Harper and Row, 1979), p. 88.
3. Stuart Davis, "The Cube Root," Art News 12 (February 1943), p. 34.
4. Bonnie Grad, “Stuart Davis and Contemporary Culture,” Artibus et Historiae 12, no. 24 (1991): 167.   
5. James Johnson Sweeney, Stuart Davis (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1945), p. 10.



  1. What an interesting blog, introduced by a thought-provoking photo. The unusual wall painting of the dwellings is also a strangely modern interpretation. Something like this hieroglyphic view of a park by Swiss painter Paul Klee,
    The image can be seen at who can supply you with a canvas print of it.

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