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Jo Davidson

 (1883 - 1952)
Jo (Joseph) Davidson was active/lived in New York / France.  Jo Davidson is known for portrait sculpture, sketches, genre.

Jo Davidson

Biography from the Archives of askART

Biography photo for Jo Davidson
The son of Russian parents, Jo Davidson was born in 1883 in New York City's Lower East Side. He was an exhibitor in the revolutionary 1913 Armory Show that introduced modern art to America, but became essentially an academic portrait sculptor in marble, bronze and terra-cotta. Davidson apparently did not have his subjects pose, as such; rather it is said that he was an outgoing personality who preferred to observe and speak with them, getting to know them as people.

His family intended him for a career in medicine at Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, but he was attracted to art there. As a teenager, he had studied art at night at the Art Students League in New York City. Leaving Yale in 1903, Davidson again studied at the League, this time with Herman Atkins MacNeil. In 1907, he attended the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Paris, France, exhibiting at the Salon d'Automne.
Davidson received major help in his career, saving him from financial distress, with his meeting of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, sculptor and heiress, who became his patron and friend. The two met in Paris in 1908, and were good friends until her death in 1942. Whitney's letters of regard and emotional feeling for Davidson seem to imply a closer relationship, at least on her part.

After Davidson married his wife Yvonne in 1909, Gertrude Whitney found studio space for him in New York City's MacDougal Alley, near her own studio and the new Whitney Studio Club on West Eighth Street. Whitney helped the Davidson's financially not only by purchasing his sculpture, but also buying Yvonne's designer dresses. By the 1920s, however, Davidson's reputation as a portrait sculptor was firmly established in America as well as England and France.

In 1916, Davidson sculpted a portrait of Whitney that was produced in several media including poly-chromed terra-cotta, plaster and a marble in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York city. In addition to two plaster versions Davidson owned, he may have had a terra-cotta bust. But there was no known contemporary bronze. In 1968, the Gertrude Whitney bust was cast in bronze for the National Portrait Gallery, in Washington, D.C., using a plaster bust belonging to the Davidson family.

His first one-man gallery exhibitions took place in 1911. Following World War I, portraiture became an "obsession" for Davidson. He was interested in people and how they thought, wanting to create a sculptural history of the people of his time. In the 1920s, he sculpted political figures, writers, and artists. He became internationally known for portraits of Gandhi, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Albert Einstein, Anatole France, Marshal Foch, Rudyard Kipling, James Joyce and Gertrude Stein.

Davidson sculpted bronze busts of the leaders of the Allies during World War II, including a bust of General, later President, Dwight D. Eisenhower after the War in 1947, in uniform just before the Chief of Staff resigned his position.

He won the Maynard Prize of the National Academy of Design, New York City, in 1934, and was elected an Associate there in 1944.

In 1941, Davidson was commissioned by the United States Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs to visit ten South American Republics and sculpt portrait busts of their presidents. He actually sculpted eleven portraits, including one each of the outgoing and incoming presidents of Venezuela. The bronzes were exhibited at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. in 1942. Portraits of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Vice President Henry A. Wallace were also exhibited. A catalog, Presidents of the South American Republics, Bronzes by Jo Davidson, was printed in English, Portuguese and Spanish by the National Gallery of Art.

In 1947, a retrospective exhibition of nearly two hundred of Davidson's sculptures was held in New York City by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. During Davidson's lifetime, all of his sculpture was cast in France by the Valsuani Foundry.

One of Jo Davidson's most attention-getting sculptures, both for the persona of the sitter and the artist's conception, is the massive bronze figure of the avant-gardist Gertrude Stein sculpted in 1920. Casts of the piece are in the collections of the Smithsonian Institution, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and in Bryant Park, New York City. The work was praised at the time of its completion. "Vanity Fair" magazine reproduced it in the February 1923 issue, and published Stein's prose portrait of Davidson. When the portrait was finished, Stein commented, in characteristically pungent fashion, "that's Gertrude Stein, that's all of Gertrude Stein, that's all of Gertrude Stein there is."

Davidson's bronze head of silent film star Charlie Chaplin, sculpted in 1925, is in the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. The sculptor described the actor's face as "constantly changing. He would look gay or sad, wise or silly at will."

Davidson's sculpture in other collections include a 1927 marble relief portrait of Ailsa Mellon Bruce, a 1927 bronze bust of Andrew W. Mellon, and a 1941 marble relief portrait of Mellon, all in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; a 1925 portrait bust of a woman in the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, California; a 1923 plaster head of Andrew Furuseth in the Museum at Hofstra University, Hempstead, Long Island, New York; a standing bronze of humorist Will Rogers, 1939, and a seated marble of Senator Robert M. La Follette, c. 1929, in the National Statuary Hall, Washington, D.C.; and marble portrait busts of Charles G. Dawes, Vice-President under Calvin Coolidge, 1930, and Senator Henry A. Wallace, executed in 1947. A statue of poet Walt Whitman stands in Bear Mountain State Park, in New York.

The National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C., has, in its collection, more than sixty of Jo Davidson's portraits in bronze, marble, terra-cotta, and plaster. In 2001, a bronze bust of French President and General Charles de Gaulle was unveiled on the square of the Maison Française at the Embassy of France in Washington, D.C. Davidson had completed the sculpture in America in 1944 during a World War II visit by de Gaulle, his first to this country. Jo Davidson, who lived extensively in Tours, France, had died there in 1952.

Jo Davidson's autobiography, "Between Sittings, was published in 1951. In 1989, Janis Conner and Joel Rosenkranz authored a book on Davidson's work in "Rediscoveries in American Sculpture: Studio Works, 18931939". In 1978, B. H. Friedman wrote of Whitney and her friendship with Davidson in Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney.


Biography from The Columbus Museum of Art, Georgia
Jo Davidson was born into a poor Russian family on New York's Lower East Side in 1883.  Early on, he showed a talent for drawing, and at age 16, he won a scholarship to the Art Students League.  Davidson began the study of medicine at Yale University but returned to art soon after.

In New York, he studied painting with George DeForest Brush and sculpture with Hermon McNeill.  He continued his studies at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris where he became accomplished at portrait modeling.

Working in a variety of materials, including terra cotta, marble, and bronze, he sculpted portrait busts in a realistic, strongly modeled and psychologically perceptive style.  His engaging personality aided him in understanding and winning the cooperation of his subjects, including Gertrude Stein.  His autobiography, Between Sittings, was published in 1951.  Jo Davidson described his impressions of Stein succinctly, "Gertrude would stand…watching the crowd like a Cambodian caryatid, wearing a smile of patience, looking as of she knew something that nobody else did…Gertrude's was a very rich personality.  Her wit and her laughter were contagious." (1)

Davidson's portraits of such contemporary notables as Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Anatole France, Marshal Foch, and Albert Einstein won him an international reputation.

1. Jo Davidson, Between Sittings (New York, NY: Dial Press, 1951), 174-175. staff, Columbus Museum

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About  Jo Davidson

Born:  1883 - New York City
Died:   1952 - Tours, France
Known for:  portrait sculpture, sketches, genre

Essays referring to
Jo Davidson

New York Armory Show of 1913