1943 Pastel Painting by Gladys Rockmore Davis
Dividing art by the gender of its creator usually results these days in something akin to the square-root of zero. Changing social conditions have made it no longer true that while each period produces at least one famous woman painter - Rosalba Carriera, Rosa Bonheur, Vigée Le Brun, Angelica Kauffmann, Mary Cassatt - these artists never adventure beyond the fashion of their periods. As Leon Kochnitsky claims, to prepare today a lexicon of famous woman artists, “would have no more significance than the Diatriba de Georgiis which the Jesuit, Leo Allatius, dedicated to all Byzantine writers whose first name was George.”
So, beyond noting that Gladys Rockmore Davis is one of the very few American woman artists who can paint a nude that does not resemble a Bonwit-Teller mannikin, let us merely consider the personal factors that she is petite, brunette, vivacious, wife of famous illustrator Floyd David and mother of two chip-off-the-block children. What is significant is that she is one of the strongest painters on the contemporary American art stage, and must be ranked with those leaders who are producing an art indigenous to the spirit of their time and native land.
Gladys Rockmore Davis first broke into the New York exhibition field at the Whitney Museum Annual in 1937, at a time when the “American Scene” revolution was losing its crusading impetus and the art public was still weary of the fumbling form and washed-out pigment of the American imitators of Ecole de Paris internationalists. Her art - robust in form, full-bodied in its rich sensual color, professional in its draftsmanship - caused a stir among the critics, brought substantial relief to lovers of “paint quality.”
Here was an artist, solidly grounded in the tradition of the past masters (particularly Renoir), who was unafraid to venture into individual conceptions of plastic form and color splendor, to paint the beauty, instead of the squalor, in the life around her. It little mattered that she usually found her subjects within her own intimate circle, rather than the backyards of Astoria or the ugliness of Coney Island. While some objected to her “hot” color, the consensus from the beginning was that Mrs. Davis was a mature professional who combines to an unusual extent direct strength and high sensitivity. Consequently, her acceptance as a fine artist sought by museums in less than a decade has been rather meteoric, unattended by the usual struggle for recognition.
The Art Institute of Chicago, the artist’s alma mater, was the first to honor Gladys Rockmore Davis with a prize (the William R. French Gold Medal in 1937 for The Lute). Two years later the Corcoran Biennial, following its habit of rewarding new talent, voted her the Clark Fourth Prize and Honorable Mention for the richly pigmented Morning Papers, one of the finest figure studies exhibited in 1939. The jury of the Virginia Biennial in 1938 was keen enough to recommend her exhibit for purchase. That same year the Pennsylvania Academy awarded an honor to The Music Lesson, a tender rendition of the mother-and-child theme which Mrs. Davis finds so responsive to her brush.
A growing list of United States museums owns paintings signed G.R.D. The Metropolitan Museum’s Hearn Fund purchased in 1940 August Afternoon, a pensive, colorful canvas revealing the artist at peak performance. The same may be said for the Swope Art Gallery’s two Davis pictures: Deborah, a charmingly appealing portrait of her daughter; and the enticing, beautifully modelled Nude in Interior, attesting to the artist’s love for painting “flesh infused with the glow of life.” Her pastel portrait of son Noel was acquired in 1942 by the Nebraska Art Association (Hall Collection), which is carefully building a representative collection of living American art. In the permanent collection of the Pennsylvania Academy hangs her Seated Figure. The rich-toned End of Summer, showing her two children in informal brother-and-sister pose, was acquired by The Toledo Museum a short while ago.
Gladys Rockmore Davis was born in New York City, May 11, 1901. Because of the demands of her father’s business she lead a travelling childhood, including periods in Canada and San Francisco, before the family settled in Chicago. There she studied for three years at the Art Institute, graduating in 1920 well trained in those prerequisites to becoming an artist - anatomy, drawing, color values and perspective. Her best loved teacher was John Norton, while the exciting highlight was one lecture from George Bellows. For the next 11 years she enjoyed considerable success as a commercial artist, but was never quite happy; meeting “deadlines” might be excellent discipline, but it checked her inborn desire to paint creatively.
In 1932, after the birth of Noel and Deborah and the eternal problem of food, shelter and clothing was conquered, Floyd and Gladys Davis decided to take a sabbatical year from their busy drawing boards and visit Europe. They toured France, Germany, Italy and Spain in an old Citroen, and then settled in a little house in Cannes not far from where Renoir spent the last 25 years of his life. There Gladys Davis had an ideal opportunity to study the oil medium, doing countless sketches but not attempting finished paintings. Upon her return to New York, she enrolled for several months at the Art Students League and worked for a time under George Grosz, in whom she found a fine teacher and friend. After that she felt it necessary to try her own wings, working hard both in her spacious New York apartment and at her sea-side summer home at Harvey Cedars, N.J.
Not until she was firmly convinced she was ready to fly on her own did Gladys Davis permit the public to share her paintings. The instant acclaim she received perhaps proves that today it is almost impossible for “big-league” talent to develop in American unrecognized by the critics (on the contrary, it sometimes appears that they praise everything in the hope of praising the right thing).
Gladys Davis’s is an emotional art, and yet one is conscious that disciplined thought must have gone into each picture before brush ever touched canvas. Unlike so many of her contemporaries, Mrs. Davis does not like to violate virgin canvas just for the sake of painting something, anything; every Davis picture has a definite reason for being, sometimes the solution of an aesthetic problem, sometimes the creative excitement of catching the “action” of a model in exactly the right pose.
“All I want to do is make a fine picture,” is the way the artist sums up her artistic credo. And that, I feel, is purpose enough. That she sometimes misses, only goes to prove that the artist is human.
Characteristic of the true artist in Gladys Davis is her impatience with those content to rest on their laurels. After achieving her reputation in oil, in 1940 she turned to pastel, mastered that difficult medium and held an exhibition that won critical and popular approval. Throughout her career one finds this constant experimentation, the further development of her individual expression and exploration into all possibilities of color harmonies.
On the evidence, it may be said that Gladys Rockmore Davis has style but no stencil.
-Peyton Boswell, Jr., Editor, The Art Digest