Arthur B. Davies (1862-1928), painter and promoter, visionary, charmer, pal of Modernists and millionaires, plays a role in American art history part triumphant, part ridiculous. He championed Ce'zanne and Picasso, Duchamp and Brancus,i, and thereby changed his country's attitude toward art. Yet he painted the preposterous. His pictures make one giggle, but his career deserves a bow.
"Dream Vision," the Davies retrospective at the Phillips Collection, is full of nymphs and nonsense. Yet, as much as any man, Davies introduced the masses of America to Europe's modern art.
He was the prime organizer of the famous Armory Show touring exhibition of 1913. Works of art that he picked with high prophetic daring (for one of his wealthy patrons, Lillie Bliss) became the core collection of New York's Museum of Modern Art. Half a million viewers -- a few of them delighted, most outraged or confused -- saw his Armory exhibit. "Davies," observed painter Jerome Myers, "had unlocked the door to foreign art and thrown the key away."
Yet despite the art he brought us by van Gogh, Munch, Kandinsky, Matisse and Picasso, Davies was no radical. The pictures he painted strike the modern viewer as strenuously silly. Most portray a fey Arcadia, through whose sacred groves long-limbed maidens dance. Davies, like so many other esthetes of his day, felt it was art's duty to portray a Golden Age. He claimed he dreamed his visions. There is no reason to doubt him, but all the dreams he dreamed were pretty much the same.
There are 68 objects -- and 293 nymphs (by rough count) -- in the Davies exhibition. Most of the nymphs are naked. A few consort with unicorns. Though they wave their arms in ecstasy, most are strangely sexless. Davies thought these languid creatures conveyed to the viewer emotions of the highest esthetic intoxication.
Women, particularly very rich women, wholeheartedly believed in him. Though Davies, as one of the original members of that group of anti-academic American painters remembered as The Eight, had rebelled against the old-fashioned standards of the National Academy of Design, he was chosen to organize the Armory show because his colleagues knew Davies could raise cash.
He was fastidious, aristocratic, shy and slim and charming. His co-workers called him "Mr. Davies," or sometimes "the chief." Davies' private life, or lives, were, to say the least, peculiar. His wife and two sons lived outside Manhattan, but he only saw them on weekends. Five days each week he lived as David A. Owen with a dancer in Manhattan, who eventually bore his daughter. The daughter did not learn her father was Arthur Davies until after he died.
The rhythmic, nymph-ridden, rather roughly painted pastorals at the Phillips are full of imitations. All his life Davies borrowed from his betters, first from Adolphe Monticelli, the French Romantic painter so admired by van Gogh, then from the French Symbolist, Puvis de Chavannes, later from the Cubists (whose works he much admired but only partly understood), and lastly from Ce'zanne. At the Phillips, Monticelli's influence is most clearly seen in the clotted paint of "Breath of Autumn" (1898), that of Puvis in the nymphs who cavort throughout the show, that of Ce'zanne in a landscape from the Corcoran, "The Umbrian Mountains" (1925). Late in his career, Davies was much taken by the "Inhalation Theory" of Gustavus Eisen, who claimed the vitality of figures in Greek art was based on the fact that they were all portrayed, perhaps holding their breath, at the climax of inhalation, with their lungs full of air. No wonder Davies' maidens tend to look a little strained.
Though his images seem foolish now, there is something in his work that strikes a chord that echoes through much American art. The mythic Golden Age he dreamed of is not so very different from that suggested by the architecture of Thomas Jefferson, the dances of Isadora Duncan, or the murals of Kenyon Cox. Davies was not the last American artist to fill his work with unicorns and naiads.
Though a pivotal figure in American cultural history, Davies was a painter of the second or even the third rank. His once-high reputation has already fallen much, and will fall still more. "Dream Vision: The Work of Arthur B. Davies" was organized by the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston. It closes at the Phillips on Feb. 6.