Categories: People

Jo Davidson

Jo Davidson (Mar 30, 1883 – Jan 2, 1952) was an American sculptor Although he specialized in realistic, intense portrait busts, Davidson did not require his subjects to formally pose for him; rather, he observed and spoke with them He worked primarily with clay, while the final products were typically cast in terra-cotta, marble and bronze

Davidson lived in Greenwich Village where he became a close friend of Lincoln Steffens and other writers and artists Some of his early commissions included George Bernard Shaw, Woodrow Wilson and Joseph Conrad During the First World War he made busts of General Ferdinand Foch and Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau

Davidson was born in New York City where he was educated before going to work in the atelier of Hermon Atkins MacNeil He subsequently moved to Paris to study sculpture at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in 1907 After returning to the United States, he was befriended by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, who purchased some of Davidson’s work

In 1911 Davidson secured his first solo gallery shows He was one of a dozen sculptors invited by the oilman E W Marland to compete in his competition for a Pioneer Woman statue in Ponca City in 1927, which he failed to win In 1934 Davidson won the National Academy of Design’s Maynard Prize, and in 1947 the American Academy of Arts and Letters hosted a retrospective featuring nearly 200 of his works In 1944, he was elected into the National Academy of Design as an Associate Academician In the summer of 1949, he was one of 250 sculptors who exhibited in the 3rd Sculpture International held at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Peter Hartshorn has argued that he attended the Versailles Peace Conference in 1918: “He headed to Paris to take advantage of the historic occasion by making busts of the Allied leaders gathered there Armed with letters of introduction to French Marshall Ferdinand Foch and Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, Davidson had high hopes” Over the next few weeks he produced busts of John J Pershing, Arthur Balfour, Edward House and Bernard Baruch

After the First World War Davidson moved to Paris where he associated with Lincoln Steffens, Ezra Pound, William Christian Bullitt, Louise Bryant, Ella Winter, John Dos Passos, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Ford Madox Ford and Gertrude Stein According to Justin Kaplan, the author of Lincoln Steffens: A Biography (1974): “Despite their sophistication and internationalism, they belonged to a straggling, authentically native succession of grass-roots radicals (of the right as well of the left) and cracker-barrel sages, men with a populist hunger for drastic solutions and an inclination to spend their time and spirit cussing out the government and the banks while awaiting the arrival of the messiah”

Ella Winter was the wife of Lincoln Steffens and they spent a great deal of time with Davidson and his wife Yvonne, a dress designer In her book, And Not to Yield (1963), she wrote: “We were almost always with Jo and Yvonne The Davidsons appreciated food in the French manner, and discussed and selected restaurants all over Paris for their specialties Their thrill at discovering a new bistro, or a sauce at Chez Pierre or Le Commerce, was a curious experience for me, with my London memories of three-and-sixpenny ABC lunches, and I must confess I was at first somewhat dismayed at so much fuss about mere food”

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Steffens wrote in his memoirs, Autobiography (1931): “Jo Davidson is the only artist I have met who was consciously in the stream of life as I knew it The others, certainly the young Americans in Paris, had been in the water, some of them had been nearly drowned by the flood of the war, but they saw and felt only the waves that broke over them Jo Davidson had been at the front, though only as a correspondent, but he never dwelt on those experiences Like Jack Reed, he saw and felt the big forces that had done it once to us and might do it again His art saved the sculptor Busting generals, statesmen, financiers, he talked to them, and he listened to them, and so saw the war and the peace from the perspective of headquarters, the capitals and the markets I have heard him say that the war had no influence upon art, only on some of its themes It had turned him from nudes and decorations to heads, mostly of great men, and he often regretted that”

Davidson was a political activist and was chairman of the Independent Citizens Committee of Artists, Scientists, and Professionals (ICCASP), a group that supported the policies of President Franklin Roosevelt An opponent of the Cold War policies of Harry S Truman, he joined the Progressive Citizens of America (PCA) Other members included Rexford Tugwell, Paul Robeson, WEB Du Bois, Arthur Miller, Dashiell Hammett, Hellen Keller, Thomas Mann, Aaron Copland, Claude Pepper, Eugene O’Neill, Glen H Taylor, John Abt, Edna Ferber, Thornton Wilder, Carl Van Doren, Fredric March and Gene Kelly

Davidson supported Henry A Wallace in the 1948 Presidential Election Wallace’s running-mate was Glen H Taylor, the left-wing senator for Idaho A group of conservatives, including Henry Luce, Clare Booth Luce, Adolf Berle, Lawrence Spivak and Hans von Kaltenborn, sent a cable to Ernest Bevin, the British foreign secretary, that the PCA were only “a small minority of Communists, fellow-travelers and what we call here totalitarian liberals” Winston Churchill agreed and described Wallace and his followers as “crypto-Communists”

Among Davidson’s commissions are a design for a United States War Industries badge, a collection of pieces for the Government of France to commemorate the first victory of the Troupes de Marine, and bronze busts of the leaders of the First World War Allies His portraits of world leaders and celebrated personalities gained him international acclaim He did statues of E W Marland and his two adoptive grown children

Some of Davidson’s work is in the National Gallery of Art

He also designed a statue of Henry D Thoreau, the author of the book Walden The statue is located at Walden Pond State Reservation in Concord, Massachusetts

In 2006, The Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery opened a permanent exhibition, “Jo Davidson: Biographer in Bronze”, showcasing fourteen Davidson works in terracotta and bronze, including portraits of Gertrude Stein and Lincoln Steffens