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Jo Davidson (AKAJoseph Davidson)

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Jo Davidson
Art Students League in New York City Sculptor
American, (3/30/1883–1952)
Jo Davidson, the son of Russian immigrants was born in 1883 and began his life on New York’s Lower East Side ghetto. He dropped the “e” from his given name, ‘Joe’, at an early age, embarrassed by the teasing of his friends, who imitated his mother calling him home for supper, “Joeeeeee!” His life and talent for observation would take him on an artistic journey that allowed him to engage with and render in sculpture some of the most influential and powerful people in the world.

Although self-described as a poor student, his drawing talent as a teenager landed him at the Art Students League. His parents encouraged him on another path, and he enrolled at Yale University to pursue a medical career. Unhappy with his medical studies, he persuaded his family to allow him to return to New York. In 1930, he was once again at the Art Students League where he studied painting with George DeForest Brush and sculpture with Herman Atkins MacNeil. In 1907, he attended the École des Beaux-Arts, Paris, France, exhibiting at the Salon d'Automne.

A meeting with Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney in 1908 gained him a patron and friend. She gave major assistance to Davidson, both financial and emotional, from their meeting until her death in 1942. Upon returning to New York, 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. She went so far as to buy designer dresses for Davidson’s young wife, Yvonne, whom he married in 1909. In 1916, Davidson sculpted a portrait of Whitney that was produced in several media including polychromed terra cotta, plaster, and a marble, which is in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art.

His first one-man gallery exhibition took place in 1911, and he was an exhibitor in the revolutionary 1913 Armory Show that introduced modern art to America. Following World War I, portraiture became an "obsession" for Davidson. He was interested in people and how they thought. He wanted to create a sculptural history of the people of his time. During 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, and James Joyce. His reputation as a portrait sculptor was firmly established in America as well as England and France. Lincoln Steffens wrote in his memoirs that war changed the arc of Davison’s life.

“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."

One of Davidson's most attention-getting sculptures, both for the persona of the sitter and the artist's conception, is the massive bronze figure of 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. Highly 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, "that's Gertrude Stein, that's all of Gertrude Stein, that's all of Gertrude Stein there is."

He created a bronze head of Charlie Chaplin in 1925, which is now at the Smithsonian Institution. He was taken with the actor’s malleable face and how his expression changed 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 plaster head of Andrew Furuseth (1923) in the Museum at Hofstra University, Hempstead, New York; a standing bronze of humorist Will Rogers (1939), and a seated marble of Senator Robert M. La Follette (circa 1929), in the National Statuary Hall, Washington, D.C.; and marble portrait busts of Charles G. Dawes, Vice-President under Calvin Coolidge (1930) and Henry A. Wallace (1947) in the United States Senates Vice Presidential Bust Collection; and Helen Keller (1942 and 1945, half length). A full length statue of poet Walt Whitman stands in Bear Mountain State Park, Rockland County, New York.

He won the Maynard Prize of the National Academy of Design, New York City, in 1934, where he was elected an Associate in 1944. Davison worked in a variety of materials, including terra cotta, marble, and bronze. He sculpted portrait busts in a realistic, strongly modelled and psychologically perceptive style. His keen powers of observation and his own personality aided his understanding of his subjects. He preferred to sketch while in conversation rather than have a staid sitting with those he portrayed, transferring the passion and animation of the subject to his work.

Davidson sculpted bronze busts of the Allied leaders during World War II, including a bust of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, made in 1947. The future President is portrayed in uniform just before he resigned his commission.

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. 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.

A retrospective of nearly 200 of Davidson’s works was held at the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1947.

Davidson, a practicing Jew, visited Israel in 1951, at which time he made bronze likenesses of the country's major leaders, including Golda Meir (circa 1951), Chaim Weizmann (1951), and David Ben-Gurion (1951).

Although he was often in the States, Davidson lived in Tours, France for most of his adult life. He died in Tours in 1952.

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.

Davidson, Jo. Between Sittings: An Informal Autobiography of Jo Davidson. New York: Dial Press, 1951.
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