Arthur B. Davies
A Line of Mountains, c. 1913
Oil on canvas, 18 x 40 1/8 in. (45.7 x 101.9 cm)
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, Gift of a Friend

Subject and style
Originally titled Moral Law- A Line of Mountains, this painting is a prime example of Davies’ symbolist mode; a bearded man with white hair represents Moses the law-giver and another, holding a staff, represents Christ the good shepherd. [1] The work reflects the idiosyncratic style that Davies had cultivated prior to the Armory Show. Frequently called a neo-romantic or symbolist, Davies’ compositions often feature Arcadian landscapes populated by ethereal nudes.

Though the painting contains no clear narrative, and is thus open to multiple interpretations, the original title coupled with these symbolic figures has led scholars to interpret this work as an allegory for the human quest for morality, a telling theme considering Davies’ ongoing struggle to maintain two separate families. [2]

From a pictorial standpoint, the sequential arrangement of figures in A Line of Mountains reflects Davies’ interest in Eadweard Muybridge’s studies of successive motion. [3] The frieze-like composition also recalls the work of Puvis de Chavannes, whose work Davies featured heavily in the Armory Show. [4]

Indeed, Davies’ painting has a greater affinity with the work of late nineteenth-century artists like Puvis or Albert Pinkham Ryder than with that of the early twentieth-century European modernists who captured his interest in Paris in 1912.  In the years to come, Davies grappled with the legacy of the modern art that he helped promote in the United States, experimenting with the new styles in his own work, but eventually returning to his earlier manner.

At the Armory Show
The canvas was lent by the artist and purchased prior to the exhibition by Lizzie Bliss. [5] It was well received by critics who praised its “enchanting beauty” and “classic serenity.” [6]

[1] Bennard Perlman, The Lives, Loves and art of Arthur B. Davies (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999), 223.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Lisa N. Peters, Arthur B. Davies: Painter, Poet, Romancer and Mystic, exh. cat. (New York: Spanierman Gallery, 2012), 7.

[4] Elizabeth O’Leary, ed., American Art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (Richmond: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in association with University of Virginia Press, 2010), 332

[5] Perlman, 223.

[6] Charles Henry Meltzer, “New York Sees Things,” Hearst Magazine 23 (April 1913): 635-36.

Arthur B. Davies (1863-1928)

The American painter and printmaker Arthur B. Davies began his training at the Chicago Academy of Design from 1879 to 1882 and studied briefly at the school of the Art Institute of Chicago before moving to New York City, where he attended the Art Students League and established himself as a magazine illustrator. About 1890 he devoted himself to painting, and by 1892 he was selling his work. He soon signed with the New York dealer William Macbeth and was on his way to becoming one of the most respected and financially successful painters in the United States. He traveled frequently to Europe and worked in a lyrical decorative style that many compared that of the nineteenth-century French muralist and painter Pierre Puvis de Chavannes.

As the president of the Association of American Painters and Sculptors (A.A.P.S.), Davies was the driving force behind the Armory Show. Though initially a reluctant leader (Davies was elected only after J. Alden Weir resigned from the presidency), Davies’ vision became extremely influential, if divisive. [1] While Walt Kuhn, Walter Pach, and Alfred Stieglitz lauded his contributions, others including Jerome Myers and Gutzon Borglum took issue with his authoritative leadership style. [2] Guy Pene du Bois’ take is particularly memorable, proclaiming that Davies had been “a dictator, severe, arrogant, implacable.” [3]

Davies’ promotion of European Modernism was his most important contribution to the Armory Show, though it displeased some of his American colleagues who had hoped for more visibility. [4] A week-long trip to Paris in November 1912 with Kuhn, guided by American expatriate Pach,  solidified his conception of avant-garde art, as he met with and arranged loans from the Duchamp brothers, Constantin Brancusi, Odilon Redon, and Gertrude, Leo, Michael, and Sarah Stein, and several influential dealers. [5] From Paris, Kuhn and Davies travelled to London, where they saw the Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition at the Grafton Galleries and borrowed works by Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Andre Derain, Maurice Vlaminck, and Pierre Girieud. The art that Davies saw in Europe was a far cry from the European Realists and Impressionists that he originally intended to include in the exhibition, and it changed the course of the Armory Show.

[1] “Insurgent Artists Lose a President,” New York Times, January 4, 1913, 1. A secretive man who was hiding a double life, Davies left no papers upon his death in 1928, so impressions of his role in the A.A.P.S. must be gleaned from the accounts of his fellow members. See Kimberly Orcutt, “Arthur B. Davies: Hero or Villain?” in The Armory Show at 100, Modernism and Revolution, Kimberly Orcutt and Marilyn Kushner, eds., exh. cat. (New York: New-York Historical Society, 2013), 29-30.

[2] Ibid., 30.

[3] Guy Pène du Bois, Artists Say the Silliest Things (New York: American Artists Group, 1940), 174.

[4] European modernism became the focal point of the show. Though the exhibition opened with a gallery of American sculpture, European painting was literally center stage, with American painting sidelined in disconnected galleries.

[5] Summoned by Kuhn, Davies arrived in Paris on November 5, 1912. Orcutt, 32. See also  Milton Brown, The Story of the Armory Show, 2nd ed. (New York: Abbeville Press, 1988), 68-72.

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