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In 1983, Bennard B. Perlman met, by chance, one of the grandchildren of Arthur B. Davies. As a result of this meeting, Perlman was given access to the Davies family archives, a rich collection of records and remembrances about an artist who, in his lifetime, tried his best to conceal the details of his complicated and somewhat sordid existence. It is not every artist who marries a woman who murdered her first husband, and then goes on to live a double life—one with his wife and two sons and another with a mistress and her child—while along the way playing a key role in some of the most important public artistic events and activities of the first part of the century. Perlman was given an amazing opportunity.
Davies was one of the most popular American artists in the first two decades of the twentieth century. He was a member of the group who exhibited at the Macbeth Gallery as the “Eight” in 1908 and a moving force behind the famous 1913 Armory Show. It was Davies who pushed to make that event not simply a larger show of American art, but a blockbuster exhibition that introduced European contemporary art to an American audience. He was relied on for his acute insights into modern art by major collectors, including John Quinn, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, Duncan Phillips (who wrote a book about him), and especially Lizzie Bliss.
Hundreds of laudatory articles were published about Davies in his lifetime, but few were written with his cooperation, as living a double life made him suspicious and largely unavailable. The tone of these contemporary articles is largely reverent; always understood to be working very hard and therefore unable to see many visitors, Davies was admired for his apparent dedication to hard work. While his family learned about his secret life at the time of the artist’s death in 1928, Milton Brown’s The Story of the Armory Show (1963) was among the first books to mention that Davies had two homes and even two names.
Because he was so important as an artist and a leader in the art world, scholars working on all aspects of early twentieth-century American art have long felt a need for more information on Davies’s career. This is all the more true, in that the primary source material is vague and sometimes simply wrong. Just piecing together the chronology of Davies’s life has been difficult, which, in turn, has made it hard to follow the development of his style and understand how he came to play such a pivotal role in the politics of art of the era. The artist’s painting went through somewhat bizarre and extreme phases, as he developed his style influenced by the art of Albert Pinkham Ryder, Puvis de Chavannes, and the French cubist painters, to name only a few sources, as well as some rather unusual theories such as the “lift of inhalation” of Dr. Gustavus A. Eisen, who believed that Greek art looked life-like because the bodies were always depicted breathing in.
Perlman’s biography of Davies is clearly aimed to interest both a general reader and a scholar in the field of American art. Here he has succeeded in writing a book that will draw readers in both camps, though the general reader attracted by the melodramatic story and unfamiliar with Davies’s work will be frustrated by the limited number of color plates and the mediocre quality of the black and white photographs. The scholar, on the other hand (assuming that he/she already knows the visual material), will be left wishing for more precise detail in the text and more complete footnotes. A former professor in the Department of the Fine and Applied Arts at Baltimore City Community College, Perlman is the author of Painters of the Ashcan School: The Immortal Eight and Robert Henri: His Life and Art, and he edited Revolutionaries of Realism: The Letters of John Sloan and Robert Henri. As an expert in this field, he has perhaps assumed too much to be common knowledge that did not require documentation; in the case of Davies scholarship, it should be remembered that even if something was repeated in several sources, it still might not be true.
What is important in the book is the enormous amount of new information gleaned from the family documents. It is not a book that tries to analyze Davies’s complex psyche, but it gives hints that he was a strangely magnetic yet disturbed person; even his in-laws did not trust him from the start and made him sign a prenuptial agreement designed to prevent him from using their daughter, a doctor, simply as a source of support. (At times he did anyway.) Besides his hidden life with model Edna Potter, with whom he lived for twenty-three years and had a daughter, there were other liaisons and even perhaps some clandestine relationships with his female collectors. Perlman tells us that Davies told his mistress that his wife would murder his two sons (whom he said were not his children anyway) if he divorced her, and that when Edna was pregnant he told only three people: collector Lizzie Bliss, dealer William Macbeth, and artist Walt Kuhn. For these anecdotes and many, many others, Perlman fails to give a source for the information. In other cases, information should have been verified—or an attempt made to verify it—so that the reader knows that the source Perlman uses is correct. More information could also have been obtained from public and historical sources. Surely, for example, there are records to be found that could shed light on the “court case of an unspecified nature” that Davies mentioned in his letters was distracting him from his work on 1907.
In discussing Davies’s paintings, which were often of mythological, Biblical, or fantastic subjects, Perlman analyzes their content and style in relation to the life that the artist was leading at the assumed time of composition. For the scholar, these sections are particularly interesting. Perlman is able to identify the sitters and models Davies used in various paintings; most of them were people (almost entirely women and young girls) who played important roles in his life. Here the reader is hampered, however, by the quality of the reproductions in the book, which are sometimes too murky to allow the reader see the details the author is discussing. Numbering the color plates would have also been helpful.
Ultimately, while the book in all its aspects takes us much further into the complex life and artistic vision of Arthur B. Davies, there is still more to be explored. The Davies family should be commended for being so accepting as to allow access to an archive that, while opening up crucial new vistas into the American art world at a transitional moment, essentially chronicles the sadness created by this artist’s complex existence. In the era of White House sex scandals, we are not likely to reject Davies for his duplicitous behavior, but one cannot help but feel for the people whose lives were made miserable by his deceit. A deeper analysis remains to be done but, thanks to Perlman, we are farther down the road to understanding the life and art of Arthur B. Davies.
Director, Visual Arts Collection, McGill University