This portrait represents Florence Sittenham Davey, the wife of George Bellows’s friend, the artist Randall Davey (1887–1964). Described as “beautiful, generous, and strong-willed,” Florence Davey was a modernist sculptor who had been a pupil of Alexander Archipenko. The Daveys’ son William related the unusual circumstances that led Bellows to paint the portrait: “George Bellows and Randall Davey used to shoot a lot of pool together and although Bellows was a good baseball player he lost a lot of money to Randall Davey attempting to beat him at pool. That is why he painted a portrait of Randall Davey’s wife and ‘presented’ it to him. It was in payment of a gambling debt.”
In this work Bellows has created a fresh and direct likeness in which he has emphasized his elegantly attired sitter’s charm. Represented in three-quarter length and seated in a wicker chair, Florence looks directly at the viewer from under her fashionable wide-brimmed hat. The bravura brushwork treatment of the white dress is illuminated by a harsh light that enters the composition from an unseen source on the left. The bright whites of the dress and the vivid flesh tones of the face are heightened by the darker turquoise drapery in the background, the sitter’s green belt, and her blue and green striped hatband.
Bellows had been prompted to reevaluate his approach to color in part after seeing works by Henri Matisse and the European avant-garde at the 1913 Armory Show the previous year. In a shift that mirrored changes in his mentor Robert Henri’s style, by early 1913 Bellows was already moving away from the system of musical equivalents advocated by the color theoretician Hardesty Gillmore Maratta and had begun to experiment with theories developed by the Harvard University professor Denman Waldo Ross. In his book On Drawing and Painting (1912) Ross explicates the “set-palette” system of a limited selection of colors and emphasizes the importance of value—a color’s range of lightness and darkness. A critic remarked on the color of this work when it was exhibited at the Hackley Art Gallery in 1915: “In the portrait of Mrs. Randall Davey, a young woman in white seated against a dark background of green and purple, the green in the background and in the belt of the dress is assertive to the extent that it carries a delicious coolness throughout the portrait.”
Florence Sittenham Davey is one of more than 15 portraits of women that Bellows completed while staying on Monhegan Island in Maine in 1914. That summer Bellows counted among his sitters his wife and personal friends, as well as local residents of the small, isolated outpost. Among this remarkable outpouring of images are Emma at the Piano (Chrysler Museum, Norfolk, VA), Geraldine Lee No. 2 (Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, OH), and Julie Hudson (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). In this extensive group of paintings the artist achieved a new expressive power and intensity through the use of assertive frontal poses, geometric compositions, brilliant color, and intense light.
August 17, 2018