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February 2001

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Foulke Family Member Considered One of the Great America Painters



Webmaster's note:When I was typing this article in to be put online, I was only slightly interested until I came to a line that caught my interest. It turns out that Stuart Davis' painting, Swing Landscape, is in an art museum not 100 yards from where I live. Of course, the next morning I went to see it and was pleasantly surprised to find it right between a Pablo Picasso and a Jackson Pollack. If you're ever in Bloomington, Ind., be sure to stop by the Indiana University Art Museum and see it. (Admission is free!)

Written by Bennett Schiff and originally published in the Foulke Family Herald, May 1996

It was said of Stuart Davis that he may been the least arty of the great American painters, but he was also the purely artful. Steward Davis was born in Philadelphia in 1892. His mother, Helen Stuart Foulke, and his father, Edward W. Davis, were artists. Davis' parents had met as students at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. At the time of Stewart's birth, his father was art editor of the Philadelphia Press. These were the days when news stories especially those involving disasters, accidents and mayhem in general were illustrated at the scene by quick sketch artists.

In 1901, when Davis was nine, his father took the job of art editor and cartoonist at the Newark Evening News and moved the family to East Orange, New Jersey. Davis, Sr., later became art editor of the nationally prominent magazines Judge and Leslie's Weekly, which were both published in New York. In 1909, after completing only one year of high school, Davis, with his parents' blessings, dropped out of school and began, at the age of 16, to study with Robert Henri, who had opened an art school in Greenwich Village. Stuart Davis' father, along with Robert Henri, were part of the group of eight persons who later formed the famous painters school in New York, known as the Ashcan School. It was at the Ashcan School that Davis not only mastered the tools of his trade, but also learned to look intimately and knowingly at the world he lived in.

In February, 1913, at the age of 20, Stuart Davis was selected by the American painter William Glackens to have five of Davis' watercolors included in the International Exhibition of Modern Art, known thereafter as the Armory Show held at the 69th Regiment Armory in New York City. This show included many famous modern artists from around the world, including Picasso, Van Gogh, Matisse and Baraque. It has been said that Davis started to develop his appreciation for art when his father was said to have illustrated the bedtime stories he told him as they went along and it was expected that Stuart would do the same thing for his younger brother, Wyatt. After studying with Henri for three years, he left the studio to work on his own, and, at 20, followed in his father's footsteps by doing covers and illustrations for both The Masses cartoons for Harpers Weekly and various assignments for Harpers Bazaar. Thereafter, Davis moved to Provincetown, Mass., and thereafter Glochester. This became one of his favorite places on the coast because of its clarity and the brilliance of the lights, which influenced him during his career.

Between 1916 and 1920, he used brushwork and colors for emotional expressiveness in his paintings. By the early 1920s, his work was more cubist. In developing his art for geometric shapes, Davis spent the year 1927 painting the same simple subject time and time again in order to develop the relationship of lines, plane and color. That year's work became known as the "Egg Beaters Series."

The following year, Davis, hearing that Paris was a good place to paint, took the boat from America to there, accompanied by a young woman from Brooklyn, named Bessie Chosak. The stories are that his parents did not approve of her. In 1929, Stuart and Bessie were married in Paris, but she died three years later. In 1938, Davis married Rosella Springer. In 1952, she gave birth to their son, George Earl, named for the jazz musicians George Wettling and Earl "Fatha" Heines.

The Egg Beater Series confirmed Davis' aesthetic convictions and gave him a meta-physical foundation. Davis was considered an urban man and, when he returned to New York, he took up his work of transforming the city into art. A dedicated and furious worker, from most of his materials, he did not stray far from Greenwich Village, where he lived, worked and listened to jazz. He wrote voluminously about art: 15,000 pages of his notes are now at Harvard's Fogg Art Museum, the gift of his widow.

In the Depression years, he commented he found a subsistent livelihood through the Federal Arts Projects. He painted a mural for the men's lounge at the new Radio City Music Hall, which he characteristically called the Mural (Men Without Women), now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York; a giant mural of 45 by 140 feet made for the New York World's Fair, which was subsequently destroyed; the mural for the radio station WNYC; and one called Swing Landscape, now at Indiana University. His other mural masterpiece, Allee, 8 by 33 feet, more grave, more solid, perfectly tuned, keyed and pitched, a work of the '50s, is now housed at Drake University in Des Moines.

His subject matter was all of American contemporary life. He said that although he dismembered it, exploded it, dissected it, its parts were always recognizable. Davis' art illustration was remarkably independent, innovative and specially articulating in line, plane color and symphonic organization.

With respect to his craft, Davis wrote, "...art is not a matter of rules and techniques, or the search for an absolute idea about beauty. It was the expression of ideas and emotions about the life of time." Recently, the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art mounted an exhibition for the first time in over a quarter of a century, bringing together a real portion of Davis' work in celebration of the 100th anniversary of his birth. The show also went to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where about 175 paintings, watercolors, gouaches and drawings were exhibited. The intent of the show was to demonstrate that Stuart Davis was one of the century's greatest painters. As Stuart Davis noted, "I am an American, born in Philadelphia of American stock. I studied art in America. I painted what I see in America, in other words, I painted the American scene." Davis continued to paint the authentic American scene right up to the end in 1964, when he died at the age of 71.

Section last updated February 02, 2001
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