The Hyde Collection Art Museum
Courtyard, former residence of Louis and Charlotte Hyde, Bigelow and Wadsworth, Architects, built 1912, © 1987 The Hyde Collection, Glens Falls, New York
Front page essay from the "Arthur B. Davies: Dweller on the Threshold" exhibition catalogue by Randall Suffolk, Director of the The Hyde Collection Art Museum, reprinted with permission of the author and the Museum. "Arthur B. Davies: Dweller on the Threshold" is being shown from June 17 to September 9, 2001.
Arthur B. Davies: Dweller on the Threshold
by Randall Suffolk
Furthermore one cannot pretend finality in the judgement of a secluded contemporary - for it would mean searching for matter still incomplete and also pre-judging our time and ourselves. We can deal otherwise with Blake, Giorgione or Botticelli who are seen complete with their periods, standing among certain conditions which are evident now, but which we think were not evident at their time. But a comparison with Davies and these others involves an assumption of equality not to be considered. Frankly Arthur B. Davies is a problem.
A. Burroughs, January 1923. 
Arthur Bowen Davies (1862-1928) remains an interesting "problem." I would even hazard the guess that eight of ten readers have never actually heard of A. B. Davies. Yet during his lifetime, he was hailed (at least on occasion) as the greatest living American artist. In fact, many of the most informed contemporary collectors of the avant-garde actively acquired his work, solicited his opinions, and trusted his guidance unflinchingly: among them was Lizzie Bliss, Duncan Phillips, John Quinn, Abby Rockefeller, and Joseph Hirshhorn. (left: Dweller on the Threshold, c. 1915, Oil on canvas, 17 x 22 3/4 inches, Courtesy of Cornell Fine Arts Museum, Rollins College, Winter Park, Florida, Bequest of Virginia Keep Clark)
Though not a member of the National Academy of Design, Davies nonetheless participated in their annual exhibitions. Though not a realist, he aligned himself with the so-called "Ashcan" painters as they challenged the Academy's stagnant hegemony and, as one of The Eight, exhibited with them in their highly important 1908 Macbeth Galleries exhibition. Though not among the cadre of nascent modernists attached to Stieglitz's 291, Davies nevertheless frequented the gallery often and knew them personally. Moreover, without Davies's adroit direction, his knowledge regarding contemporary artistic movements on both sides of the Atlantic, and his financial connections at home, the 1913 Armory Show - a watershed event in the history of American modernism - would not have occurred. (left: Hermes and the Infant Dionysus, c. nd, Oil on canvas, 24 x 55 inches, The Cleveland Museum of Art, The Charles W. Harkness Endowment Fund)
After Davies's death, the Museum of Modern Art's first president credited him with that museum's conception. And in 1930, The Metropolitan Museum of Art held a memorial exhibition to acknowledge that Davies was an artist of consequence and, as a man, played a central role in defining an epoch. (left: Maya, Mirror of Illusions, c.1910, Oil on canvas, 26 1/8 x 40 1/8 inches, The Art Institute of Chicago, Friends of American Art Collection)
And still, the "problem" remains. What happened to Arthur B. Davies? Since his death the perception of Davies's importance as both an artist and a defining figure in American art has steadily diminished. Indeed, he easily has been dismissed as a tragic figure whose artistic vision was overtaken by forces that he himself unleashed (i.e., the Armory Show). While this answer fits rather nicely within the story of modernism, I do not believe it provides a complete account - or rationale - of his descent into relative unconcern. (left: Sleep Lies Perfect in Them, c. 1908, Oil on canvas, 18 1/8 x 40 1/16 inches, Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, Massachusetts, Gift of Cornelius N. Bliss)
This exhibition begins to examine the legitimacy of this present categorization. The intent is not to single-handedly resurrect his artistic reputation. Rather, this exhibition hopes to develop a new platform of engagement with both his imagery and his role in securing the advent of modernism in America. Whereas previous exhibitions have attempted a general survey of his oeuvre, this exhibition instead focuses on those select paintings that established his artistic reputation. The goal is that by bringing together these thirty works at one time and in one space, they might provide a highly focused and intimate understanding of contemporary critical reception while provoking new assessments of his artistic singularity and contribution(s). (left: Homage to the Ocean, c. 1909, Oil on panel, 28 x 23 inches, Brooklyn Museum of Art, Bequest of Lillie P. Bliss)
Within this context how does one account for A. B. Davies as both an artist and agent of change? Artistically, I will argue that Davies had his finger on the pulse of a different vein. And as an agent of change, he was the third rail that sparked an irreversible shift in the currents of American art. (left: The Hesitation of Orestes, c. 1915-1918, Oil on canvas, 26 x 40 inches, The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.)
1 Burroughs, A., "The Art of Arthur B. Davies." Print Connoisseur, January 1923, p. 196.
2 This is not an insignificant group. The Bliss and Rockefeller collections ultimately provided the nucleus of the new (1929) Museum of Modern Art's permanent collection; Duncan Phillips's passion became the Phillips Collection; and Joseph Hirshhorn's collection established the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution.
3. As late as 1905 Davies was submitting work to the Academy's selection committee. For example, Davies's painting Unicorns was displayed at the Academy's 83rd Annual. He was forty-three years old at that time.
4 Goodyear, A.C., The Museum of Modern Art: The First Ten Years. Museum of Modern Art: New York (1934), pp. 13-14.
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For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.
This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 5/28/11
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