David Walling Humphrey
2-28-1872 in Elkhorn, Wisconsin to 6-11-1950 in Stamford, Connecticut at age 78
David was the fourth child of Benjamin Blodgett and Mary Jane Walling Humphrey born in Elkhorn, Wisconsin at Sunny Slope Farm. His mother died just 41 days after he was born. Who cared for him and his five-year-old sister Hattie? It would appear that the paternal grandparents Hiram and Mary Blodgett Humphrey also lived on the farm, and with a ‘hired girl’ to help with the children (1860 and 1880 US Census records) the family functioned.
David was educated in Elkhorn public schools in the southeast Wisconsin community. Art was his love and passion. On 11-18-1889 a Warranty Deed (Vol. 102, p 49) was recorded for $1,000 from David to his sister Hattie on a piece of jointly-owned property inherited from their father Benjamin Humphrey. He could then afford to study at the Chicago Art Institute which was called the ‘Mecca of the Middle West' at that time. As an honor student in Chicago and a serious student of contemporary art, he worked hard to establish himself in the art community. David chose for his subjects figures, genre (human activities) and nude figures.
He concentrated on monotypes that create an original painting with each impression. This is a slow, labor-intensive process that produces perfection rather than quantity. Frequently, David went to the countryside and did sketches with pastels, then returned to his studio to paint the monotype metal plate. Monotypes were a spontaneous approach developed soon after the etching revival of the late 1870s. Although monotypes are classed with graphic arts, David’s work was superior in quality and was referred to more often as a painting.
David continued to study at the Academie Julian and Whistler for two years in Paris, France. On January 15, 1900 he wrote the following letter his sister Hattie in Wisconsin (excerpts):
Your very interesting letter reached here the sixteenth just a month after the date of my Last letter which is a long month.
I shall answer a few of the questions. I received Mr. Hooper’s letter at Kendaville and so I did not expect the Snyders and also cousins Hiram’s and Judge Lyons. I did not succeed in getting a passport it being too late when I received the letter. Since I have come here I have registered at the prefecture de police which is required of all foreigners within fifteen days after arrival or pay a fine. He gave me a paper which answers the same purpose as a passport as long as I remain in Paris.
It is more difficult to come here a perfect stranger than I imagined though as it turned out I could hardly have done better if I had been with someone. Sunday morning as I was standing in the front entrance of my hotel, an old Art Institute man (Mr. Hoehn) came down stairs with whom I was well acquainted. He took me to the school Monday and I was started in without any difficulty. I attend the Julian’s Academy under J.P. Laurens and Benj Constant one half day mornings. There are four divisions of the school and two of them are in the same building (Laurens and Constant) on the second floor with (Bouguireau and G. Ferrier) on the ground floor. In the afternoons I have to see the city and its galleries and in the evenings I study at Academe Colorossi’s from seven until ten. Both schools are the strongest in drawing and in academic painting. In another month I expect to change Julian’s for Whistler's school and paint.
Paris is now having its rainy season which makes it very disagreeable to tramp around. It seldom freezes but the atmosphere is so damp that you feel the cold. The time I arrived it was the coldest that it had been for years. Men sweep the streets here with switch brooms. The streets here remind me of a spider’s web. There is hardly a street that is parallel to another or at right angles with it or of the same width or straight. Paris is artistic--it has variety. Some of the Rus’s and Passa’s are so narrow that it would squeeze a load of hay. They are all paved and have their stores and hotels. Most of the houses and buildings do not open on the street but in a little court which faces the street–but separated from it by a high stone wall with a great massive iron gate which in times past was used for protection.
During the holidays the Bd. were lined with gay booths of Christmas toys. Men stand on the corners and sing the songs they have to sell and peddlers galore. Every restaurant has a row or two of small tables and chairs out on the sidewalk, and in the afternoon and evening ladies and gentlemen sit and sip their wine. It is seldom that they get drunk for they will spend hours over one glass.
The Latin quarter is old Paris but it is gradually being built new and its narrow streets changed into wider ones. Near the Julian Academe (sic) is an old church which is of the fourteenth century. Some of it is so old they hardly know when it was built. The Music Cluny (sic) is on the sight of an old Roman Palace. The ruins of the baths are still standing. It was built about 260 when the Romans came north here for their summer resort. I have been in Notre Dame and while there witnessed a funeral service which is very simple. The coffin was brought in by two pall bearers and set down. The audience some standing and some sitting waited for the priest who came out of a side door and after reading several prayers to himself and blessing some water sprinkled the coffin and so in turn each of the audience passed up and sprinkled it and passed out and the priest passed back through the side door. The pall bearers picked up the coffin and passed out and the procession all on foot proceeded to the cemetery. Every man meeting up the procession on the street takes off his hat and the women make the sign of the cross on their breast and head. The wealthy have a horse.
I spend a good deal of my spare time in the Louvre and Luxembourg. I want to make a few copies from there after a while.
Cliff Snyder came in to the school Julian’s one morning to see me. He is working by himself most of the time. He says that he is going to paint the portrait of his cousin and that he is going to try for the salon again this year. I met him again on the street and we went into the Luxembourg together. He invited me to call on Maud which I tried to do but I could not find her.
I have a very pleasant room and from my window, which is a large double one that opens like a folding door in the middle, I can look down two streets; and from four to five in the afternoon processions of students march past with their broad-rimmed hats and gowns. The furniture here is built to last. The beds are great massive ones with canopies over then. Most of the furniture is second hand or handed down for generations. Nothing is ever thrown away. Along the river are rows of second hand book stores and on the river wall for a mile or more large boxes full of old books, bottles, and knick nacks (sic) that you would think would not be worth anything. Curiosity shops abound everywhere. The butcher has his pile of chicken feet for soup.
The Eiffel Tower is also in plain view from my window!
Sunday evening I attend a service held in a large studio for Americans. It is a branch of a large American church on the other side of the river. My Christmas and New Years was very quiet.
The schools went on just the same except New Year’s Day. Mr. Widney and his wife, a Chicago student, invited Mr. Hoehn and myself up to their room Christmas night.
Your affectionate brother, David W. H.
At the approximate age of 45 David exhibited about 20 paintings in the Art Institute of Chicago, National Academy of Design, Society of Independent Artists and one of the leading New York galleries. His paintings have a dream-like quality with nymphs or spiritual figures, but still depict strength and action.
David lived and worked in New York for many years per U.S. Census –1910 New York, NY; 1920 New York, NY; and 1930 Richmond, NY. He also later taught art at Stamford (Conn.) High School.
David Humphrey was associated with the Silvermine Guild/Art Colony and a member of the Society of Independent Artists. His works were shared with family members and one entitled "The Rivals" ca.1900 was purchased by the Smithsonian Museum of American Art. Numerous times he is mentioned in writings of artists. At the time of his death, two of his works were hanging in the New Jersey Art Gallery and the Brooklyn Art Gallery. (Source: David’s obituary published in the Stamford Advocate, Conn., June 12, 1950)
Compiled and submitted by Sylvia Holt, wife of artist's grand nephew, Benjamin Humphrey Holt.