Editor's note: The following essay was rekeyed and reprinted on October 8, 2002 in Resource Library Magazine with permission of The New Bedford Art Museum. The essay was previously included in an illustrated brochure for the exhibition Cecil Clark Davis: A Woman Ahead of Her Time, held June 6 through September 27, 2002 at The New Bedford Art Museum. Images accompanying the text in the illustrated brochure were not reproduced with this reprinting, except for the cover page image. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or if you have interest in obtaining a copy of the illustrated brochure please contact The New Bedford Art Museum through either this phone number or web address:


Cecil Clark Davis: A Woman Ahead of Her Time

by David B. Boyce


Cecil Clark Davis loved sports, animals, and painting. Her oil portraits of handymen, hired models, servants, and friends were as painstakingly crafted as those she painted of flyer Charles Lindbergh, actor Lionel Barrymore, Antarctic explorer Roald Amundsen, and Admiral William Sowden Sims.

She viewed her rarified life as an adventure, yet in 1899 she entered into a marriage blanc with the dashing young journalist, war correspondent, author and playwright, Richard Harding Davis. The Marion ceremony, held at St. Gabriel's Chapel, was reported nationally as a prestigious social event. Thirteen years later, after touring the world for his writing assignments, the couple divorced a decade before American women could vote. Subsequently, Cecil devoted herself to her dogs, to travel, and to her artwork, becoming an award-winning portraitist of some repute. (left: Self-Portrait, 1911, oil on canvas, Marion Art Center)

Her work and life exemplify the independence and proto-feminism that led to the shattering of traditional gender roles for women. Indeed, Cecil Clark Davis was a woman ahead of her time.

Born in 1877 to wealthy Chicago industrialist John Marshall Clark and his wife Louise, young Cecil summered with her family in Marion, MA. Though its summer homes hardly rivaled the opulent retreats of Newport, the Clark's 23-room cottage on 14 acres of Water Street property permitted a privileged enjoyment of the little port town's seaside beauty and leisure amenities. Notable summer residents and visitors during the Gilded Age included illustrator Charles Dana Gibson, theater luminaries Fritzi Scheff, John Drew, Maude Adams, Cissie Loftus, and Ethel Barrymore, educator Booker T. Washington, and the highly influential editor of the Century Magazine, Richard Watson Gilder and his wife.

Helena de Kay Gilder was an artist of some renown in social circles, and the couple often entertained such cultural luminaries as artist Augustus Saint-Gaudens, actor Joseph Jefferson (known for his portrayal of Rip Van Winkle), architect Stanford White, Polish tragedienne Helena Modjeska, and novelist Henry James. The Gilders were also responsible for luring to Marion its most notable summer residents, President and Mrs. Grover Cleveland.

An athletic and intellectually curious girl of 16, Cecil Clark attended the exhibits of the Columbian Exposition of 1893, held in her native Chicago. A celebration of the quadracentennial of Columbus's landing in the Americas, the speakers and displays represented the highest American aspirations and achievements. At the Women's Pavilion, Cecil heard speeches about women's rights, working and living conditions for children, immigrants, and the downtrodden. Progressive social ideas were planted that would mold her into a spirited modern woman -- the epitome of illustrator Charles Dana Gibson's "Gibson Girl."

Encouraged by her doting father through her childhood, Cecil had an innate talent and affinity for art. She attended the Art Institute of Chicago, the Farmington School in Connecticut, and studied independently with painter Ellen Emmett Rand (cousin of Henry James). Some years later in London, Cecil met and befriended John Singer Sargent, and subsequently felt free enough to call upon him for artistic advice, to the surprise of her husband. Despite her education and access to world-class artists, Cecil always claimed to be a self-taught painter.

Often doubtful of her artistic abilities, she nevertheless persevered to improve them. Cecil was a confirmed practitioner and devotee of the traditional Romantic painting style pervasively popular in the U.S. during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, yet her diaries reveal she saw and thought about more daring work. Among her many art books was the catalog for the 1913 Armory Show in Manhattan, the first exhibit to provide major exposure to European avant-garde art. Its influence on future American art and culture was enormous.

Several of Cecil's paintings were recognized and honored over the course of her career. She won the Prize for Portraiture of the Municipal Art League of Chicago in 1918, the Gold Medal at the Rio de Janeiro Salon in 1920, the Gold Medal at the Philadelphia Arts Club in 1925, the Portrait Prize of the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors in 1926, the Popular Prize of the Newport Art Association in 1932, and the Portrait Prize of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1934.

According to her New York Times obituary, until she fell ill 12 years before her death in September of 1955, Cecil maintained studios in London, Rio de Janeiro, Chicago, and Marion.

As a woman and artist, Cecil Clark Davis said what she meant, lived how she wanted, and painted what she knew. Over the course of her life, she created a legacy of portraits that now stand as documents of a bygone era and way of life.

About the author:

David B. Boyce writes on the arts for The Standard Times and lives in New Bedford, MA.

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