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Park at Blois

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Park at Blois

Artist: Arthur B. Davies (American, 1862-1928)

Date: 1924
Medium: Gouache and graphite on dark-blue moderately textured, moderately thick laid paper with deckle edge along left, bottom, and right edges, with top edge cut
Dimensions:
Overall: 9 3/8 x 12 1/4in. (24.1 x 32.4cm)
Signed: Recto, lower left (white gouache): 'A. B. Davies'
Inscribed: Verso, upper center (crayon): 'Miss B' (upside down)
Credit Line: Gift of Cornelius N. Bliss
Object number: 41.4
Label Text
Arthur B. Davies painted hundreds of watercolor landscapes in Europe between 1923 and his death in 1928; these accomplished works are among his most beautiful. Davies probably painted this watercolor in 1924, when he visited several Renaissance châteaux on the River Loire southeast of Paris.

Davies painted this watercolor on a piece of high-quality, dark blue paper. He used the dark paper for the sake of contrast rather than the more traditional role of highlights and middle tones. Working from the background forward, Davies applied white pigment to block out the sky. Before the white gouache dried he added passages of blue pigment which bled into the white. If Davies had used a white- or cream-colored sheet of paper for this scene, the white gouache would not have been necessary; he could have simply moistened the paper to create a similar blue effect in the sky. After this layer dried Davies traced the outline of the château’s roof and the crowns of the trees, which he subsequently rendered in muted greens and grays. The work’s subtle harmonies reveal Davies’ exquisite sense of color.

Paul D. Schweizer
2000

Text Entries

Arthur B. Davies enjoyed considerable notoriety in 1924 when the pioneering collector Duncan Phillips published a collection of essays about him by Royal Cortissoz, Frank Jewett Mather Jr., Edward W. Root, and others.  Phillips noted in his foreword that this was the first book devoted exclusively to the artist, whom he regarded “as one of the few men of original and authentic genius among the painters of our contemporary world.” “Our book may seem premature,” Phillips added, “since Mr. Davies is, we hope, very far from the end of his brilliant career.” (1)

There is more truth in this statement about the longevity of Davies’ career than Phillips probably intended.  His lavishly illustrated book featured forty full-page illustrations of Davies’ paintings, including one of the principal wall of Lillie P. Bliss's music room (MWPI)—the only Cubist work by Davies that Phillips admired. (2)  However, the book is less than a comprehensive survey of Davies’ art because it lacks any discussion or illustrations of the landscape watercolors he started painting in Europe the summer before it was published. 

Davies’ heart problems, which began in the early 1920s, appear to have played a role in encouraging him to travel overseas.  Moreover, the double life he was leading during these years with his mistress Edna Potter and their daughter Ronnie, with its constant threat of discovery, made the prospect of spending several months overseas an attractive alternative to life in New York City. (3)  The hundreds of outdoor studies Davies painted in France, Italy, and Spain during six summers between 1923 and his death in 1928 were well received by critics and the public. (4)  These works do not reinforce the general view of Davies as a modern day-visionary, nor do they reflect any of the avant-garde tendencies he experimented with ten years earlier.  They are nevertheless some of his most accomplished, visually appealing works. 

The MWPI watercolor is not dated, but its title suggests that Davies painted it when he was overseas during the summer of 1924, the same months Phillips's book was published.  Davies left for Europe in June and settled in Paris with Edna and Ronnie.  Before returning to New York early that November he visited several of the Renaissance chateaux on the River Loire southeast of Paris.  Traveling down the south side of the river, he made watercolors at Chambord, Chaumont, Chenonceaux, Loches, and Azay-le-Rideau.  North of the river he visited the royal chateau of Blois, the site traditionally identified as being depicted in the MWPI watercolor. (5)

Davies painted the work on a piece of high-quality, dark blue paper cut down from a larger sheet.  By using dark paper Davies created a set of aesthetic problems different than those he would have faced if he had used a lighter-toned sheet.  It is unclear if, knowing that it would require an opaque medium, he chose the dark paper first, or if he first decided to work in gouache and then chose a paper that could not readily be used with watercolors. (6)

Working from the background forward, Davies used white pigment to block out the sky.  He applied this to the top half of the sheet, using the rough texture of the paper to create an irregular effect.  Before the white gouache dried he added passages of blue pigment which bled into the white.(7)   If Davies had used a white- or cream-colored sheet of paper for this scene, the white gouache would not have been necessary; he could simply have moistened the paper to create a similar blue effect in the sky.  After this layer dried Davies traced the outline of the chateau’s roof and the crowns of the trees, which he subsequently rendered in muted greens and grays.  The work’s dramatic color harmonies reveal Davies’ exquisite sense of color.  Moreover, the paper, as the darkest tone in the composition, was used for the sake of contrast rather than in its more traditional role for highlights and middle tones.

In the winter following his return to the United States Davies exhibited about one hundred of his recently executed watercolors at Feragil Galleries in New York.  They sold well, at prices ranging from $275 to $500.  A newspaper review described the exhibition as “one of the most shining episodes” of Davies’ career and compared the quality of the watercolors to Winslow Homer’s fishing studies and John Singer Sargent’s Venetian views.  It was either at this exhibition or on some other occasion before her death in 1931 that Davies’ close friend and patron, Lillie P. Bliss, purchased the MWPI watercolor. (8)

Paul D. Schweizer

1  Duncan Phillips et al., Arthur B. Davies:  Essays on the Man and His Art (Washington, D.C.:  Phillips Memorial Gallery, 1924), viii, 3.

2  For Phillips’s opinion of Davies’ Cubist phase see Phillips et al., Arthur B. Davies, 3, 6-7, 17-18.  For a discussion of the Bliss murals, see Bennard B. Perlman, The Lives, Loves, and Art of Arthur B. Davies (Albany:  State University of New York Press, 1998), 258-62.  See also Nancy E. Miller, “The Bliss Music Room and Modernism,” in Dream Vision: The Work of Arthur B. Davies (Boston, Mass.:  Institute of Contemporary Art, 1981), unpaginated.

3  For Davies’ angina, see Perlman, Davies, 321; for his relationship with Edna Potter, see ibid., 128.

4  There is no evidence that Davies traveled to North Africa during these years, as was claimed in the version of Davies’ obituary published in the New York Herald Tribune, Dec. 18, 1928.  Bennard B. Perlman to the author, Apr. 1, 1999, MWPI Artists’ Files.

5  For mention of Davies’ visit to Chambord and Loches and illustrations of watercolors painted at Chaumont and Chenonceaux, see “Arthur B. Davies.  His Water Colors Done in the Chateau Country,” New York Herald Tribune, Mar. 1, 1925, sec. 4.  For Azay-le-Rideau, see Perlman, Davies, 329.  From what is known of Davies’ travels in France, this was the only summer he painted in the Loire Valley.

6  Davies’ use of colored paper dates from the beginning of his career.  See Perlman, Davies, 19, 253, 313, 322, 336.  He shared this interest with his early teacher and lifelong friend, Dwight Williams (1856-1932), one of whose pastels, executed on black paper, is in the MWPI collection (ex coll.  Edward W. Root).  A large number of Williams’s pastels on colored paper, in a private collection in Cazenovia, N.Y., were examined by the author in Sept. 1988.

7 The sky in the MWPI picture may have been prepainted.  Davies used this technique in other watercolors of this period.  See Perlman, Davies, 336, 349.

8  New York Herald Tribune, Mar. 1, 1925, sec. 4.  For the commercial success of this exhibition, see Perlman, Davies, 334.  For Lillie Bliss’s watercolor purchases at the Feragil Galleries exhibition (Mar. 25-Apr. 8, 1929), held shortly after Davies’ death, see ibid., 366.

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