Unicorns: Legend, Sea Calm Essay Sample
Biography and Analysis – Arthur B. Davies
Arthur Bowen Davies, born in Utica, New York in 1863, was one of the most fascinating modernist painters of 19th century American, evincing a decidedly ahead of his time approach to painting. He showed himself to be incredibly interested in drawing at a young age; when he was fifteen, he was inspired to become an artist at an exhibition of George Inness and other landscape painters. After that, he chose to pursue art and design, which he did after moving with his family to Chicago, Illinois; in 1879, Davies studied at the Chicago Academy of Design and, later, did a brief stint at the Art Institute of Chicago. After moving to New York he studied at the Art Students League, and found work as an illustrator for magazines before focusing more intently on painting.
Davies’ family life was made all the more intriguing by his decision to be an artist; the family of his wife, Virginia Meriwether, whom Davies married in 1862, forced him to sign a prenuptial agreement to ensure that he did not get his wife’s money if they were to divorce. Their particularly spotty family history further colors the marriage – Meriwether had killed an earlier husband on their honeymoon when she was young, and kept this information from Davies (Perlman 45). Davies himself would keep his own secrets, including two other wives and children elsewhere, which he did not divulge to Virginia by any means.
While he was an impoverished young artist when he got married, Davies’ painting career began to take off after the first year of his marriage to Victoria Meriwether (Wright 26).
Among Davies’ primary influences is the aforementioned George Inness, from whom Davies is said to have appreciated the tonalist nature of his landscapes (Perlman 7). Having made frequent trips to Europe in his travels, he exposed himself to a great deal of art and other culture, particularly the works of Dutch painters like Millet and Corot. Finding great success in his life, he became one of the most prolific and skilled painters of the early 20th century, his paintings going for incredible sums and finding a lot of financial success.
In addition to his individual success, Davies found himself organizing a great number of art shows himself, contributing greatly to the arts community in America. He was the chief organizer of the Armory Shot in 1913, which was an international exhibition of modern art that took place in the 69th Regiment Armory in New York City – this was the first large exhibition of modern art in the history of the United States (Wright 85). He was also a member of The Eight, a cabal of artists and painters who protested the National Academy of Design for its limiting rules for exhibitions. Davies also supported contemporaries like John Flannagan and Marsden Hartley, giving them funding to keep going in times of dire straits (Perlman 314).
Davies would end up dying far too soon, in Florence, Italy in 1928, at the age of 66, and leave a tremendous amount of discomfort for Virginia Davies, who would have to find out about it through one of Davies’ other wives, which she did not know about at the time (Perlman 352). Still, Davies left behind a legacy of incredible, modernist art works and success in the American art world.
Italian Hill Town
One of the hallmarks of Arthur Davies’ style is its endless inventiveness which was masked in a relatively restrained, sedate style. His Italian Hill Town (circa 1925) is an oil on canvas painting, 65.7 x 101.3 cm in size, and currently stands at the Metropolitam Museum of Art. In this painting, a wide vista of a hill in Italy can be seen to the left of the painting under a cloudy blue sky, with roads, houses and buildings adorning the top of the hill snaking down along its ridges While the top of the mountain features a clock tower and other tall buildings, further down the mountain there are a number of small, red-roofed cottages peppering the landscape. Small tufts of trees also decorate the mountain in the distance, growing larger as they grow further down the mountain. At the bottom, a pair of white bulls can be seen grazing. To the right half of the painting, a greater, plains landscape is seen, with trees, small lakes and grass stretching out intermittently until the background fades into a grey fog.
With all of these elements, Davies creates a relatively serene, yet moody and evocative scene – the dark, muted colors of the landscape and the foggy nature of the air in the painting evokes a sense of smallness and dread. Davies utilizes a great amount of texture in his brushstrokes, using millions of tiny brushstrokes to create a textured look that makes the work seem Impressionistic, slightly unreal. The fog contributes to this, the plains to the right of the hill fading away into nothingness, while the overcast sky dominates the top half of the painting. The deliberately asymmetrical nature of the landscape makes us understand the height and complexity of the hill as compared to the relatively uncivilized nature of the plains (in which there are few houses and little hint of civilization). The perspective is incredibly deep, with a clear sense of depth being found within this particular work due to the use of perspective and scaling to simulate the distance between objects.
The focal point of the picture itself is the top of the hill, given the subtle lines of the hillside and the weaving, zigzagging roads that line the hill itself. The use of muted colors contributes to the foggy feeling of the painting, making it a location that is devoid of humanity yet undeniably alive. The only animal life in the painting are the two bulls, but the viewer gets the impression they are simply part of someone’s livestock in this simple town, evincing civilization without showing anyone. The stratification of housing also showcases a tremendous amount of character within the town of the work itself; the denser, taller buildings of the town proper show a different mood than the isolated farmhouses, showing the divide between the hustle and bustle of city life and the serenity of rural, pastoral farming.
All of these elements combine to create a suitably ominous and fascinating exploration of the divide between civilization and nature. Davies’ primary focus on the natural landscape, and the untamed nature of the plain, contrasts deeply with the densely populated hill town, which bustles with activity that cannot be seen through the fog. Only the rural houses and the bulls can be viewed in any comparative detail, offering an atmospheric work that combines both the splendor of the lovely Italian landscape with the melancholy that comes with a foggy, overcast day.
Perhaps one of Davies’ most famous works, Unicorns: Legend, Sea Calm (1906) is a decidedly different style of work than Italian Hill Town, though no less evocative in its nature. An oil on canvas painting, it measures 46.4 x 102.2 cm, and also resides at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Here, a trio of unicorns is seen on the lower right-hand corner of the painting, effectively standing in single file in front of a nude woman who is taking her hands out of a basin. Another woman, clothed in a flowing white dress with a blue shawl, stands a few feet n front of the horses at the edge of a lake. This lake spans the majority of the painting, ending only with the horizon line in the top third of the painting (which is largely interrupted by a rocky embankment on the other side), and with a smaller rock formation standing out of the water to the left of the standing woman. A group of thinly-branched trees seemingly twist in the coastal winds behind the unicorns.
Unlike the deep perspective and muted colors of Italian Hill Town, Unicorns: Legend, Sea Calm showcases a comparatively flatter perspective. Little sense of depth is created through shadow, shaping and texture, making much of the painting look like it is happening along the same plane. The painting somewhat evokes the flat planes and simple line drawings of Oriental art, with deeply symbolic uses of trees, unicorns and water to showcase a purity of nature that is present throughout the work. Davies painted very thinly in this particular work, focusing on horizontal lines to give the impression of a wide vista and vast scale. Unlike the jagged texturing of Italian Hill Town, Unicorns demonstrates a smoother, longer brushstroke on the part of Davies, making his shapes and figures seem more elegantly composed and shapelier. Some shading is still used, but it is modest and broad – the rocks themselves are largely devoid of texture, apart from broad strokes of different shades of brown to give the suggestion of texture. So too is the lake devoid of texture, being flat, featureless and still, being effectively empty, as is the sky (unlike Italian Hill Town’s textured clouds). The figures, trees and unicorns, however, are drawn in explicit and fine detail, making them the focal point of the painting itself. Even so, the faces of the women are blank, if not completely hidden by their position with their backs to the viewer, leaving them somewhat enigmatic – this helps the focus be further placed on the unicorns and the large lake that dwarfs them. By placing them in the corner of the painting, and dwarfing them with the vastness of the lake and the rocks around it, the figures in question look small and insignificant.
The effect of this flat, planar focus in Unicorns, and the change in textures and brush styles depending on the subject showcases a work that is focused on the unicorns as magical creatures inhabiting a majestic land of serenity and beauty. The lake itself is flat, with no stirring in the water, indicating a sense of peace and tranquility. The two women are in relaxed poses, contemplating the lake and the unicorns themselves, while the unicorns stand relatively single file to showcase their majesty and the profile of their horns against the water. As unicorns are fantasy creatures, their presence within the painting provides a sense of majesty and whimsy to the work, and yet their smallness and asymmetrical placement within the frame indicates a need to place them in their proper context. The unicorns are the focus, to be sure, but it is important to understand the world that they make majestic; with this and Italian Hill Town, Davies seems to favor comparing unique, tranquil settings or figures in a grander, natural context.
Burroughs, A. "The Art of Arthur B. Davies". Print Connoisseur (January 1923), p. 196.
Czestochowski, Joseph S. The Works of Arthur B. Davies. Chicago, University of Chicago Press,
Davies, Arthur B. Italian Hill Town, ca. 1925, Collection Lillie P. Bliss donated to the
Metropolitan Museum of Art. Oil on canvas, 65.7 × 101.3 cm,
Davies, Arthur B. Unicorns: Legend, Sea Calm. Metropolitan Museum of Art. (1906)
Perlman, Bennard B. The Lives, Loves, and Art of Arthur B. Davies.Albany: State University of
New York Press, 1998.
Wright, Brooks. The Artist and the Unicorn: The Lives of Arthur B. Davies, 1862–1928. New
York: Historical Society of Rockland County, 1978.
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