Arthur Bowen Davies
(1862 - 1928)
The Armory Show, held in 1913, changed the cultural landscape in the United States by introducing French avant-garde art to the American public. The primary champion of that important exhibition was Arthur B. Davies, then the president of the Association of American Painters and Sculptors, and an artist who had repeatedly struggled against the status-quo politics of the New York art world. Davies pursued a painting career that allied him with the most progressive artists of his day; however, the idiosyncratic character of his work prevents ready categorization within any movement or school.
In 1886 Davies relocated from Chicago to New York, where he studied at the Art Students League and contributed illustrations to Century Magazine and St. Nicholas: An Illustrated Magazine for Young Folks. He made his first foray to Europe in 1895, and in 1900 he met Robert Henri, a painter, teacher, and theorist who would have significant impact on his career as an artist and advocate for Modernism. In 1904 Davies exhibited with Henri and other realist artists at the National Arts Club; this show led to the more famous exhibition at Macbeth Galleries in 1908 of the group called The Eight. Two years later, in 1910, Davies worked with Henri, Walt Kuhn, and John Sloan to organize another installation of dissidents, the “Exhibition of Independent Artists.” These activities culminated in Davies’s major personal and professional accomplishment, the Armory Show, which confirmed his leadership role in the art world. It also affected his work, which after 1913 incorporates a Cubist idiom, interpreted through the artist’s distinctive sensibility. Davies’s subjective, figural compositions, forged in the realm of the fantastic, are quite different from the earthy, urban scenes favored by his contemporary American colleagues such as Henri and Sloan.
Davies maintained two residences: a farm called The Golden Bough in Congers, New York, a town overlooking the Hudson River, where his wife and children lived; and a studio in New York, located in the same building as his dealer, the Macbeth Galleries, where he routinely spent weekdays. (1) His subjects derived from the landscape around the farm and from a poet’s love of imagination and beauty. As he established his career, Davies attracted wealthy, socially prominent patrons, including Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, Lizzie Bliss, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, Duncan Phillips, and Stephen Clark. For each of these supporters, he was an art adviser as well, and the collections he helped them build became the basis for this country’s first museums of modern art. (2)
(1) After 1905, Davies maintained an extramarital relationship with dancer and model Edna Potter, with whom he lived in New York City. They had a daughter in 1912. See Bennard B. Perlman, The Lives, Loves and Art of Arthur B. Davies (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999), pp. 128–32.
(2) Dream Vision: The Work of Arthur B. Davies (Boston: Institute of Contemporary Art, 1981), n.p.; and Perlman, p. 317.
American Paintings from the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, 2006, cat. no. 41.
Image credit: Gertrude Käsebier, Arthur Bowen Davies, 1904, platinum print, Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; acquired through the generosity of Elizabeth Ann Hylton, NPG.2015.126, CC0