Arthur B. Davies straddled the boundaries between the 19th-century romantic tradition and early twentieth-century modernism in the United States. Born in Utica, N.Y., Davies studied at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1878 and at the Art Students League in New York in 1887. A masterful painter, lithographer and etcher, his art rejected both the realism of Bellows, Hopper, Sloan and others and early experiments in abstraction as seen in the graphic art of John Marin and Max Weber. Beginning around 1900, Davies focused his imagery almost entirely on a personal world of imaginary creatures, allegorical nudes, and dream-like landscapes.
As president of the Association of American Painters and Sculptors, Davies personally selected many of the contemporary European painting for the landmark 1913 Armory Show, in which six of his own works were exhibited. Davies was also responsible for aiding Alfred H. Barr, Jr. in the foundation of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Despite rejecting avant-garde styles in his own work, Davies remained a staunch supporter of abstract art throughout his life. Davies’s painting won numerous honors in his lifetime, among them the first Clark Prize at the Corcoran Biennial of 1916; the year Duncan Phillips began collecting his work.
Davies was one of the first American artists whose works Duncan Phillips collected. The subject of one of Phillips’s earliest essays on American art, Davies continued to be the topic of lectures and writing throughout the 1920s, including Arthur B. Davies: Essays on the Man and His Art of 1924. At that time, Phillips believed that Davies was “one of the most distinguished artists now living.” Because of his quiet, gentlemanly manner and wide-ranging knowledge, Davies also became a respected adviser and friend. “This capricious and adventurous artist, the antithesis of the cautious Academician,” Phillips wrote, “follows ever the inspiring gleam wheresoever it may lead
Technically he is a marvelous draughtsman and a sound and brilliant craftsman who cares enough about material to make his effects permanent. But his chief interest for us is the intensity of his imaginative and inventive mind.”