Arethusa, 1901. Arthur B. Davies. Oil on canvas, 27 1/2 X 22 1/2" (69.85 x 57.15 cm.) 

Another influential figure in the New York City art world of the era was Arthur B. Davies (1862-1928). Although he exhibited in The Eight show of 1908, his work differed significantly from that of the realist members of the group. Critics frequently described Davies’s paintings as “innocent,” “childlike,” and “naïve” (qtd. in Craven 432). His work actually compared to the fantasy imagery of the Symbolist movement, especially in its dreamlike aspects. The Symbolists’ work emphasized subjective and emotional qualities. Paul Gauguin was one, and his friend Vincent van Gogh another. The American Symbolists developed independently of the Europeans and were represented by Albert Pinkham Ryder and Ralph Blakelock, among others. Davies work during the opening years of the new century is characterized by unicorns and maidens in a woodsy, dreamlike setting. His work typically dealt with similar themes of poetic visions far removed from the realities of urban life. When Robert Henri began to mobilize his forces in rebellion against the National academy, Davies joined the Association of American Painters and Sculptors and was instrumental in getting Macbeth’s gallery for the 1908 exhibition of The Eight. In the proceeding years, Davies also assisted Henri and Rockwell Kent when they organized the Independent Artists Exhibitions of 1910 and 1911 (Altschuler 62).

Of the original members of the AAPS, Davies had the most knowledge of contemporary developments in European art. Davies regularly visited exhibitions at “291” and had purchased from Stieglitz works by Cezanne, Picasso, and Max Weber. Although his own paintings were romantic and symbolist in style, he had a solid reputation and was considered broad-minded by his colleagues. Davies was elected president of the Association of American Painters and Sculptors because of his strong will, definite opinions, great energy and organizational ability, but the mild-mannered Davies would soon be described as a “dragon evolved from a very gentle cocoon” (qtd. in Altschuler 62).

Inspired by the immense International Exhibition of the Sonderbund in Cologne, Davies sent an exhibition catalogue and short note to his collaborator, Walt Kuhn, in Nova Scotia, saying, “I wish we could have a show like this” (qtd. in Altschuler 60). Kuhn made arrangements to see the exhibition and arrived just before the close. What he saw became the model for the most famous art exhibition of the century (Altschuler 60). The “we” Davies referred to was the Association of American Painters and Sculptors. Originally, the AAPS planned only to exhibit some foreign art along with its own work, but Davies’s goal was to show American artists and their public what Europeans were accomplishing. His aggressive inclusion of European modernism in the Armory Show changed the course of American art.

Prior to his visit to Cologne, Walt Kuhn had seen virtually no advanced European art. What he saw there was amazing.

The centerpiece of the Sonderbund was a retrospective of one hundred twenty-five paintings by van Gogh, flanked by more modest retrospectives of twenty-five Gauguins, mostly Tahitian pictures, and twenty-six Cézannes. Neoimpressionism was represented by seventeen works by Henri Cross and eighteen Signacs. The sixteen Picassos extended across the rose and blue periods into important Cubist works, and then were seven Braques. Other French entries included Bonnard, Vuillard, Matisse, Derain, Vlaminck, Marquet, Maillol, and Marie Laurencin. There was a retrospective of thirty-two works of Edvard Munch, and other Norwegian, Swiss, and Dutch painters, including Mondrian and van Dongen. The Germans were well represented, including the artists of Die Brucke, the Blaue Reiter, and the NKVM [New Artists’ Association of Munich]. (Altschuler 60)

The aesthetic education that Kuhn received that day in Cologne soon was to be provided to Americans in New York, Chicago, and Boston. However, its nature and impact was very different. The original aim of the Association was to present a show that reflected the inspiration and new confidence of American artists in the importance of their work and of art in general. Nevertheless, overlaid by another, their first exhibition became an international show in which European paintings and sculptures far surpassed in interest and overshadowed the American work. The change in the intention of the show, the idea of the president, Arthur B. Davies, was inspired while traveling a road. Davies and Kuhn were impressed by the new European art that they had known only slightly and by the great national and international shows held in 1912 in London, Cologne, and Munich. Caught up in the tide of advancing art, they were carried beyond their original aims. (continue)

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Linda M. Larson.  All rights reserved.
Revised: 29 Nov 2000 14:30:28 -0500 .