Stuart Davis (painter)

Stuart Davis (December 7, 1892 – June 24, 1964), was an early American modernist painter. He was well known for his jazz-influenced, proto-pop art paintings of the 1940s and 1950s, bold, brash, and colorful, as well as his Ashcan School pictures in the early years of the 20th century. With the belief that his work could influence the sociopolitical environment of America, Davis' political message was apparent in all of his pieces from the most abstract to the clearest.[1] Contrary to most modernist artists, Davis was aware of his political objectives and allegiances and did not waver in loyalty via artwork during the course of his career.[2] By the 1930s, Davis was already a famous American painter, but that did not save him from feeling the negative effects of the Great Depression, which led to his being one of the first artists to apply for the Federal Art Project. Under the project, Davis created some seemingly Marxist works; however, he was too independent to fully support Marxist ideals and philosophies.[2] Despite several works that appear to reflect the class struggle, Davis' roots in American optimism is apparent throughout his lifetime.

Stuart Davis
Stuart Davis.jpg
Davis, 1940
Born(1892-12-07)December 7, 1892
DiedJune 24, 1964(1964-06-24) (aged 71)
Known forPainting, Modernism
MovementAmerican modernism

Life and careerEdit

Stuart Davis was born on December 7, 1892, in Philadelphia to Edward Wyatt Davis, art editor of The Philadelphia Press, and Helen Stuart Davis, sculptor.[3] Starting in 1909, Davis began his formal art training under Robert Henri, the leader of the Ashcan School, at the Robert Henri School of Art in New York under 1912.[3][4] During this time, Davis befriended painters John Sloan, Glenn Coleman and Henry Glintenkamp.[5]

In 1913, Davis was one of the youngest painters to exhibit in the Armory Show, where he displayed five watercolor paintings in the Ashcan school style.[6][7] In the show, Davis was exposed to the works of a number of artists including Vincent van Gogh, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso. Davis became a committed "modern" artist and a major exponent of cubism and modernism in America.[6] He spent summers painting in Gloucester, Massachusetts, and made painting trips to Havana in 1918 and New Mexico in 1923.[6]

After spending several years emulating artists in the Armory Show, Davis started moving toward a signature style with his 1919 Self-Portrait, in the collection of the Amon Carter Museum of American Art.[8] In the 1920s he began his development into his mature style; painting abstract still lifes and landscapes. His use of contemporary subject matter such as cigarette packages and spark plug advertisements suggests a proto-pop art element to his work.[9] Among Davis' practices was his use of previous paintings. Elements of harbor scenes he painted in Gloucester, Massachusetts can be found in a number of subsequent works. Another practice was painting series, works with similar structures, but with altered colors or added geometric embellishments, essentially creating variations on a theme. Some commentators suggest that this aspect of his work parallels his love of jazz in which a basic chord structure is improvised upon by the musicians.

In 1928, he visited Paris, France for a year, where he painted street scenes. In 1929, while in Paris, he married his American girlfriend, Bessie Chosak.[10] In the 1930s, he became increasingly politically engaged; according to Cécile Whiting, Davis' goal was to "reconcile abstract art with Marxism and modern industrial society".[6] In 1934 he joined the Artists' Union; he was later elected its President.[6] In 1936 the American Artists' Congress elected him National Secretary. He painted murals for Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration that are influenced by his love of jazz.[6]

US postage stamp of 1964 featuring 'Detail Study for Cliche' by Stuart Davis

In 1932 Davis was devastated by the loss of his wife, Bessie Chosak Davis who died after complications from a botched abortion.[11] Also in 1932 Davis executed a mural commission for Radio City Music Hall which the Rockefeller Center Art Committee named "Men Without Women" (after Ernest Hemingway's second collection of short stories completed the same year). According to Hilton Kramer in a 1975 piece on the work in the New York Times the artist was happy neither with the location in which the mural was placed or the title it was given[12]


In 1938, Davis married Roselle Springer and spent his late life teaching at the New York School for Social Research and at Yale University.[3]

Along with his paintings, Davis was also a printmaker and was a member of the Society of American Graphic Artists.

From 1945–1951, Davis worked on The Mellow Pad, an abstract work inspired by jazz music.[14][15]

In 1947–52, two works by Stuart Davis, For internal use only (1945) and Composition (1863) (c. 1930) were featured in the Painting toward architecture crossover art and design exhibition, in 28 venues.[16]

He was represented by Edith Gregor Halpert at the Downtown Gallery in New York City.

One of his last paintings, Blips and Ifs, created between 1963 and 1964, is in the collection of the Amon Carter Museum of American Art.[17]

The US Post Office in 1964 issued a stamp featuring 'Detail Study for Cliche' by Davis.

Davis died of a stroke in New York on June 24, 1964, aged 71.[3]


Davis' interactions with European modernist works in 1913 had a significant impact on his growth as an artist. The realist Robert Henri had trained Davis to paint in a realist fashion since Davis' youth, however Davis' excursion with European modernists caused him to raise the modernist flag instead. Stuart Davis did not switch to modernism out of spite for Henri, but rather out of appreciation for the many forms of art that exist. The love and adoption of European modernism morphed into political and social isolationism that was a staple of American [...] in the 1920s and 1930s. Davis never joined an art group during the 1920s and became the sole author of Cubism which used abstract colors and shapes to show various dynamics of the American cultural and political environment. From 1915 to 1919, Davis spent summers in Massachusetts where his art work had intense color palettes paired with simple designs, trademarks of several artists that Davis admired at the Armory Show.[2] The early 1920s saw many American artists abandon modern art, but Davis continued to try to discover ways to implement his knowledge of shapes and colors into his art work. By the end of the 1920s, Davis had done more work and research into Cubism and its various levels of sophistication than any other American artist at the time.[2] During the 1930s and 1940s, Davis attempted to make is work with Cubism altered and more original. While working on several murals for the Federal Art Project, Davis tried to find alternatives to traditional Cubist structure. The emergence of Abstract Expressionism in the 1940s made some question whether Davis was still the greatest modernist in the country; however, this test did not shake his resolve as he continued to develop his own painting style.


Davis was first professionally trained by Robert Henri, an American realist. Henri began teaching Davis in 1909. Henri did not look highly upon American art institutions at the time, which led to him joining John Sloan and six other anti-institutional artists (known as "the Eight") to put on an exhibit at the Macbeth Gallery in 1908. Through his vocal rejection of academic norms in painting, Henri encouraged Davis and his other students to find new forms and ways to express their art and to draw on their daily lives for inspiration.[2]


Davis was born during the Progressive Era, a time when America had a growing sense of optimism about itself as a nation through its technologies and management in the material and social realm. Through this, Davis had a great sense of pride in being American and led to him creating several works centered on a "Great America". After his training from Henri, Davis would walk around the streets of New York City for inspiration for his works. His time amongst the public caused him to develop a strong social conscience which was strengthened through his friendship with John Sloan, another anti-institutional artist. Additionally, Davis frequented the 1913 Armory Show (in which he exhibited his work), to further educate himself on modernism and its evolving trends. Davis acquired an appreciation and knowledge on how to implement the formal and color advancements of European modernism, something Henri did not focus on, to his art.[2] In 1925, the Société Anonyme put on an exhibit in New York with several pieces by the French artist Fernand Léger. Davis had a large amount of respect for Léger because like Davis, Léger sought the utmost formal clarity in his work. Davis also appreciated Léger's work for the subject matter: storefronts, billboard and other man-made objects. In the early 1930s after returning from a trip to Europe to visit several art studios, Davis was re-energized in his identity in his specific work. Previously, he saw Europe as a place bursting at the seams with talented artists, but now he felt as if he was of the same caliber if not greater than his European counterparts. According to Davis, his trip "allowed me to observe the enormous vitality of the American atmosphere as compared to Europe and made me regard the necessity of working in New York as a positive advantage."


"The act of painting is not a duplication of experience, but the extension of experience on the plane of formal invention."

"[Modern art] is a reflection of the positive progressive fact of modern industrial technology."

"I don't want people to copy Matisse or Picasso, although it is entirely proper to admit their influence. I don't make paintings like theirs. I make paintings like mine."

"It was amber."[citation needed]

Public collectionsEdit

Among the public collections holding work by Stuart Davis are:

Selected worksEdit

See alsoEdit

References and sourcesEdit

  1. ^ Patterson, J. (2009). Stuart Davis's painting and politics in the 1930s. The Burlington Magazine, 151465–468.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Stokes Sims, Lowery (1991). Stuart Davis American Painter. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. pp. 17, 18, 20, 24, 26. ISBN 978-0870996283.
  3. ^ a b c d Passantino, p 441
  4. ^ Cooper, Philip. Cubism. London: Phaidon, 1995, p. 120. ISBN 0714832502
  5. ^ Wilken, Karen (1987). Stuart Davis (1st ed.). New York: Abbeville Press Publishers. p. 229. ISBN 0-89659-755-5.
  6. ^ a b c d e f Cécile Whiting, "Stuart Davis", Oxford Art Online
  7. ^ Boyajian and Rutkoski, pp. 39–40.
  8. ^ Art., Amon Carter Museum of Western (2001). An American collection : works from the Amon Carter Museum. Junker, Patricia A., Gillham, Will. (1st ed.). New York: Hudson Hills Press in association with the Amon Carter Museum. p. 188. ISBN 1555951988. OCLC 46641783.
  9. ^ Hills, Patricia (1996). Stuart Davis. New York, NY: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. p. 58. ISBN 0-8109-3219-9.
  10. ^ "Stuart Davis (1892–1964) – AMERICAN ABSTRACT PAINTER". Retrieved April 23, 2018.
  11. ^ Schjeldahl, Peter (June 13, 2016). "Stuart Davis, Modern Man". The New Yorker. Retrieved April 23, 2018.
  12. ^ Kramer, Hilton. (April 13, 1975). Art view. The New York Times.
  13. ^
  14. ^ "The Mellow Pad". Brooklyn Museum. Retrieved September 28, 2020.
  15. ^ Dobrzynski, Judith H. (May 7, 2011). "A Painting That Pulses With a Jazz Feeling". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved September 28, 2020.
  16. ^ Preece, R. J. (July / August 2017). Rethinking Painting toward architecture (1947–52). Sculpture magazine / artdesigncafe. Retrieved March 22, 2020.
  17. ^ Art., Amon Carter Museum of Western (2001). An American collection : works from the Amon Carter Museum. Junker, Patricia A., Gillham, Will. (1st ed.). New York: Hudson Hills Press in association with the Amon Carter Museum. p. 266. ISBN 1555951988. OCLC 46641783.

External linksEdit