“I paint what I see in America, in other words I paint the American scene.” Stuart Davis.
Born in Philadelphia, Stuart Davis grew up in an artistic environment – his father was the art director of the Philadelphia Press and his mother was Helen Stuart Foulke, a sculptor. In common with Edward Hopper, Davis studied under Robert Henri. Davis’ early works include street and bar-room scenes in the spirit of the Ashcan school, many of its exponents such as Gluckens, Luks and Shinn having worked on his father’s newspaper. In 1913 he was one of the youngest exhibitors at the influential Armory Show. After practising illustration for the left-wing journal The Masses he took up painting full-time three years later. In 1914 Davis spent the first of many summers in the port of Gloucester, Massachusetts. It was the extraordinary light there, combined with the vast array of images (signal lamps, warehouse signs, striped buoys and gas pumps) that were to inform much of his work in increasingly more abstract form.
In 1917 at the Sheridan Square Gallery, New York, Davis had his first one-man show exhibiting his watercolours and drawings. It was during the 1920s that he began to paint in a Cubist style depicting an assortment of products and packaging such as cigarette boxes, ‘Lucky Strike’ (1921) and bottles of mouthwash, ‘Odol’ (1924). By the late Twenties he was the only painter of the American Scene working on avant-garde terms. In the 1930s he worked for the Federal Art Project and became involved in the art politics of the Depression, being elected president of the Artists’ Union established to combat discrimination in the distribution of public funds to artists. In 1936 he was one of the founder members of the American Artists’ Congress but resigned disillusioned four years later. Davis was a passionate lover of jazz and the dynamism of this music was to infuse much of his work, most famously in the vibrant ‘Swing Landscape’ (1938).
Stuart Davis is regarded as the most important American painter working in a Cubist idiom. Incorporating the sights and sounds of American life, he was a witty and distinctive abstract painter. His work is a precursor to Pop Art, with Edward Lucie-Smith describing him in his book Lives of the Great Twentieth Century Artists (1986) as ‘the link between the American art world of the 1930s, in many respects still isolated and provincial, and the triumphant internationalism of the post-war epoch’.