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Kerry Roeder, “Arthur B. Davies/Stars and Dews and Dreams of Night/c. 1927,” American Paintings, 1900–1945, NGA Online Editions, https://purl.org/nga/collection/artobject/195201 (accessed August 24, 2019).

 

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Overview

This painting’s lyrical, rhythmic composition is echoed in its title, drawn from a line in "Atalanta in Calydon," Algernon Charles Swinburne’s 1865 poem about a virgin huntress in Greek mythology. Despite Arthur B. Davies’s allusion to a specific subject, like many of his works this scene of a female nude against a backdrop of dense, starlit vegetation is highly enigmatic. The figure’s delicate beauty, opalescent skin, and graceful, yet unusual, pose—she might be dancing, floating, or pausing to gaze at the flower near her foot—suggest an ethereal being rather than a real or mythological person. At least one contemporary critic writing for the Christian Science Monitor noted the painting’s mystifying qualities, leading him to describe Davies as the "'American poet painter' [who has] visions and dreams that we cannot always follow."

While depictions of women as otherworldly creatures were not uncommon in late 19th- and early 20th-century American painting, Stars and Dews and Dreams of Night stands apart from works by artists such as Thomas Wilmer Dewing and Abbott Handerson Thayer. It aligns more closely with the allegorical pastoral scenes of the French painter Pierre Puvis de Chavannes and the Italian Renaissance master Giorgione, whose works Davies admired. Among the many works in his own eclectic art collection was a small painting of Venus then attributed to Giorgione that may have provided direct inspiration for the present canvas. The famously reticent and eccentric Davies also was obsessed with attempting to depict the human body at the moment of inhalation, evidenced here in the figure’s uplifted chest and ribcage.

Entry

Arthur B. Davies adapted this painting’s title from a line in “Atalanta in Calydon,” a poem by Algernon Charles Swinburne written in 1865: “O fair-faced sun, killing the stars and dews and dreams and desolation of the night!”[1] The poem concerns a tragic figure in Greek mythology; likewise, the painting exudes an air of melancholy. Like its title, the composition of Stars and Dews and Dreams of Night is lyrical and rhythmic. It features a nude woman against a backdrop of dark, dense vegetation. Turning to gaze over her left shoulder, she cranes her neck. This action creates a curving line that is continued by her right arm and leg, culminating in a delicately arched foot. The extension of the head and the toe mirror each other, defining the curve that is in turn bisected by the vertical line of her left arm and standing leg. The artist cropped the top of the figure’s head and her standing foot, a decision questioned by at least one critic, who noted, “Stars and Dews and Dreams of Night is arbitrarily—rather perversely, one may feel—cut into by the top and bottom of the frame.”[2] Yet the cropping introduces an element of tension. This pushing back against the borders complicates the muted reverie of the scene.

The nude’s creamy skin tones are subtly and richly modulated, and the pale figure appears luminous against the shadowy background. The subject of the painting does not connect with the audience, rather she gazes downward with a faraway expression. Contemporary critics wrestled with Davies’s mystifying compositions while lauding his technique: “the strange attenuated nude figure . . . arrests attention and one feels that the ‘American poet painter’ has visions and dreams that we cannot always follow except to appreciate the delicacy of flesh tints and drawing.”[3]

American artists of the late 19th century, including Abbott Handerson Thayer (American, 1849 - 1921) and Thomas Wilmer Dewing (American, 1851 - 1938), favored depictions of woman as ethereal creatures, pure and untouchable. However, Davies’s interpretation owes more to Continental sources, including Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (French, 1824 - 1898), whom the American artist admired for his subtle allegories that integrated figure and landscape. The symbolic landscapes and Arcadian pastorals of the Renaissance Italian painter Giorgione (Venetian, 1477/1478 - 1510) also left a strong impression on the artist. Perhaps Davies looked to his own art collection for inspiration when conceiving this painting. Among his two hundred drawings, paintings, and watercolors was a small painting of Venus then attributed to Giorgione featuring a profile of a woman gazing over her shoulder against a backdrop of dark vegetation [fig. 1].

Davies’s art collection and his love of antiquities resulted in a collaboration with the archaeologist Gustavus Eisen in the early 1920s. The two men developed a “theory of inhalation,” which maintained that ancient art achieved its vitality by depicting the body at the moment of inhalation.[4] Davies attempted to render this moment repeatedly in his own work. Stars and Dews and Dreams of Night visualizes inhalation through the figure’s raised chest and ribcage as well as her outflung arms.

Davies’s romantic leanings were out of step with his contemporaries, though he was very supportive of the new directions of his fellow artists. He was, for instance, largely responsible for bringing modernism to America through his role as the chairman of the committee that organized the infamous Armory Show of 1913. Walter Pach once wrote that “modern art in America owes more to [Davies] than to anyone else.”[5] His advocacy of modernism extended to advising major collectors like Lillie Bliss, whose collection was pivotal to the formation of the Museum of Modern Art, New York. His own collecting practices were highly eclectic; he amassed Etruscan vases and Egyptian relics as well as works by Constantin Brancusi (Romanian, 1876 - 1957) and Paul Cézanne (French, 1839 - 1906). Davies briefly experimented with cubism immediately after the Armory Show (see, for example, his Great Mother of c. 1913 [fig. 2]). However, for the remainder of his career he returned to his deeply personal and evocative vision. Davies was both of his time and removed from it, finding equal inspiration in Pompeian murals and Picasso’s drawings. With otherworldly works like Stars and Dews and Dreams of Night, Davies makes quiet demands of the viewer, rewarding patience and introspection.

Four days after Davies died while abroad in Italy, the 11th Corcoran Gallery of Art biennial exhibition of contemporary American paintings opened to the public. Among the offerings of 1928 were Stars and Dews and Dreams of Night and the landscape Umbrian Mountains [fig. 3], both of which were purchased by the museum. The artist was no stranger to the Corcoran: 17 of his paintings had appeared in 11 biennials, and he had received the First William A. Clark Prize and the Corcoran Gold Medal at the sixth biennial in 1916. In 1930 Davies’s career was commemorated in a large exhibition organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which traveled to the Corcoran. Despite recognition earned during his lifetime and immediately after his death, the artist’s critical standing diminished dramatically in the decades following his death. In later years his reputation was resuscitated, as scholars and critics began to recognize the complexity and singularity of his artistic vision as well as his formative role in the introduction of modern art to America.

Kerry Roeder

August 17, 2018

Provenance

Acquired from the artist by (Ferargil Gallery, New York); purchased 1928 by the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington; acquired 2014 by the National Gallery of Art.

Exhibition History
1928
The Eleventh Exhibition of Contemporary American Oil Paintings, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 28 October - 9 December 1928, no. 100.
1962
Arthur B. Davies (1862-1928): A Centennial Exhibition, Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute, Utica; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Memorial Art Gallery, University of Rochester; Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond; Cincinnati Art Museum; City Art Museum of Saint Louis; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1962-1963, no. 39.
1972
Conservation in the Museum, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 1972, unpublished checklist.
1976
Corcoran [The American Genuis], Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 1976, no checklist.
1981
Dream Vision: The Work of Arthur B. Davies, Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston; Marion Koogler McNay Art Institute, San Antonio; Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute, Utica; The Phillips Collection, Washington, 1981, unnumbered checklist.
1998
The Forty-Fifth Biennial: The Corcoran Collects, 1907–1998, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 17 July - 29 September 1998, unnumbered catalogue.
2004
Figuratively Speaking: The Human Form in American Art 1770-1950, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 2004-2005, unpublished checklist.
2005
Encouraging American Genius: Master Paintings from the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Parrish Art Museum, Southampton, New York; Mint Museum of Art, Charlotte; John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, 2005-2007, checklist no. 86.
2009
American Paintings from the Collection, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 6 June - 18 October 2009, unpublished checklist.
Technical Summary

The wax resin-lined painting was executed on a fine, plain-weave, medium-weight canvas and was stretched onto a modern, five-member replacement stretcher. The tacking margins have not been retained. A thin, off-white ground was probably commercially applied, but since the tacking margins have been removed it is difficult to be certain. The painting was built up in multiple layers alternating between opaque paint and fluid semitransparent glazes. It appears that the artist sketched the figure first and then surrounded her with the blue and green background. The flesh tones were built up in multiple layers as Davies made modifications to the modeling and drawing of the woman’s body. There are many changes in the outline of the figure—particularly in the proper left leg, the proper right hip and thigh, and the proper left arm—that are now apparent because the flesh-colored paint has become more transparent over time. Although the foliage was painted freely, wet into wet, the artist waited for the paint to dry before adding the final details of the woman’s face. The painting has old natural resin varnish layers as well as several more recent layers of synthetic resins that have an even, moderate gloss. The painting is in generally good condition, although the woman’s pubic area has been scored by vandalism. The texture of the paint layer has also been significantly flattened by lining. The surface is slightly yellowed, probably from the discoloration of the varnish.

According to the Corcoran Museum’s conservation files, in 1949 the painting was treated by H. F. Cross after it was vandalized. He removed grime and pencil marks and then varnished the painting with Dammar followed by a coat of wax. The painting was vandalized again in 1970 and treated by Robert Wiles in 1971. Wiles removed an old glue lining and replaced it with a wax resin lining (with an interleaf of polyester web). Ballpoint pen marks were removed, the old varnish was re-formed, another coat of Dammar followed by two coats of different synthetic resins were applied, and the damages were inpainted.

Bibliography
n.d.
Corcoran Gallery of Art Archives, Special Collections Research Center, George Washington University Libraries, Washington, DC: correspondence between Robert Halsband and Hermann Warner Williams, Jr., 7 and 11 December 1962; RG2, Office of the Director records; Series 2, Minnigerode and Williams records, 1908-1968.
1928
"Corcoran Show." Christian Science Monitor (19 November 1928): 7.
1928
Jewell, Edward Alden. "Eleventh Corcoran Exhibit and German Primitives." The New York Times (4 November 1928): 10: 12.
1928
Rainey, Ada. "Corcoran American Exhibition." The Washington Post (28 October 1928): Editorial and Society: 10.
1928
Rainey, Ada. "Exhibitions Engrossing Washington." The Washington Post (4 November 1928): Editorial and Society: 10.
1931
Davies, Virginia M. "The Known Works of Arthur B. Davies." In Royal Cortissoz, Arthur B. Davies. New York, 1931: 33.
1933
Corcoran Gallery of Art. Illustrated Handbook of Paintings, Sculpture, and Other Art Objects. Washington, 1933: 39, 42, repro.
1933
Poe, Vylla Wilson. "Beauty of Line Explained by Corcoran Director Minnigerode." The Washington Post (19 July 1933): 30, repro.
1935
Wilson, Vylla Poe. "Fourteenth Biennial Exhibition Focuses Art World's Eyes on Corcoran Gallery Here [exh. review]." The Washington Post (3 March 1935): SA: 5.
1937
Index of Twentieth Century Artists. 4, no. 5 (February 1937): 398.
1947
Corcoran Gallery of Art. Handbook of the American Paintings in the Collection of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Washington, 1947: 69.
1961
Ahlander, Leslie Judd. "Backbone of the Corcoran Gallery." The Washington Post Times Herald (25 June 1961): G: 6.
1963
"The Collection, The Ninety-second Annual Report." The Corcoran Gallery of Art Bulletin 13, no. 2 (May 1963): 7, 33.
1973
Phillips, Dorothy W. A Catalogue of the Collection of American Paintings in the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Vol. 2: Painters born from 1850 to 1910. Washington, 1973: 51, repro.
1991
Falk, Peter Hastings, ed. The Biennial Exhibition Record of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, 1907-1967. Madison, Connecticut, 1991: 17, repro., 19, repro., 106.
1998
Dorsey, John. "Framing the Century: Corcoran Gallery Highlights the Best Works from Its Forty-four Biennials [exh. review]." Baltimore Sun (3 September 1998): F:3.
1998
Lewis, Jo Ann. "The Corcoran Biennial: Delivery on Collection [exh. review]." Washington Post (19 July 1998): G:1, repro.
2005
"Curator's Choice: Hidden Treasures of American Painting." Forbes Collector 3, no. 3 (Marsh 2005): 4, repro.
2007
Bennett, Lennie. "The Coming of Age of American Art [exh. review]." St. Petersburg Times (18 February 2007): 9L.
2011
Roeder, Katherine. "Arthur B. Davies, Stars and Dews and Dreams of Night" In Corcoran Gallery of Art: American Paintings to 1945. Washington, 2011: 236-237, 281, repro.
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