Elegant women wept openly, angular young men struggled to blink back tears. An old man stared as if hypnotized at the stripes in a huge shimmering canvas called "Plato's Parachute."
Admirers of those thin vertical stripes and their creator, the late Washington painter Gene Davis, gathered by the hundreds yesterday at the Corcoran Gallery of Art to remember and to grieve.
"The Washington art world has gone into shock," said artist Jacob Kainen, a friend and mentor of Davis' for more than 40 years and the first to speak at yesterday's ceremony. "We know we have lost a towering figure, and we know we have lost him in his prime."
Davis died Saturday of a heart attack. He was 64 and self-taught, one of the city's foremost painters, a leading figure in the art movement known as the Washington Color School and best known here and abroad for his striped paintings. But at the Corcoran yesterday it was the loss of his genius as a teacher and friend that was mourned most.
"He was so interested, so open-minded when it came to other artists," said Steve Kruvant, a teacher at the Corcoran and a one-time Davis student. "No one else could have called forth this kind of crowd."
"His students became his friends," recalled painter Ann Purcell, a Davis student. "He was very accessible, and his house was like a Renaissance salon. There'd be wonderful food, conversation and people. He always enriched you. He gave you the confidence to believe in yourself."
"Plus, he was a hell of a nice guy," Kruvant said.
Davis gradually abandoned a career in journalism to take up painting. He made his first painting in 1949, and had his first show three years later. He didn't take up painting full time until 1968. He was zealous, going to bed at 8 p.m. to be able to get up at 4 a.m. to paint before work. He kept those hours long after he'd left journalism. That drive and discipline inspired and reassured his students.
"He set an example," said Purcell. "Being an artist is difficult. He taught you how to live, and how to get to bed on time."
The genius of Davis' stripes may elude the novice viewer. A problem, said Corcoran director Michael Botwinick, but one that is easily addressed.
"His work demands time from us," Botwinick told the crowd. "It takes a while for that rhythm to establish itself. The intervals, the colors, the edges don't all announce themselves at once. Gene's work is the very opposite of instant gratification."
After the ceremony, Washington art dealer Franz Bader, who gave Davis his first commercial gallery show in 1955, explained his own deep affection for the works. "The design, the color -- particularly the color -- is like a symphony to me," Bader said. "The first time I bought one of his paintings I took it in the living room and I looked at it all day."
Davis always steered his students away from his own invention. "The first thing he said in class was 'You can do anything, but don't paint stripes,' " said former student Purcell, who fought back tears as she spoke.
"And I never did. But it's interesting, I feel like painting stripes now."