(b Philadelphia, 7 Dec. 1892; d New York, 24 June 1964).
American painter. He grew up in an artistic environment, for his father was art director of the Philadelphia Press, a newspaper that had employed Glackens, Luks, Shinn, and Sloan—the four artists who were to form the nucleus of The Eight—and his mother, Helen Stuart Foulke, was a sculptor. In 1910–13 he studied with Robert Henri in New York, and in 1913 he was one of the youngest exhibitors in the Armory Show, which made an overwhelming impact on him. After this he began experimenting with a variety of modern idioms and in the 1920s he achieved a sophisticated grasp of Cubism, but it was only after spending a year in Paris in 1928–9 that he forged a distinctive style. Using motifs from the characteristic environment of American life, he rearranged them into flat poster-like patterns with precise outlines and sharply contrasting colours (House and Street, 1931, Whitney Mus., New York). In this way he became the only major artist to treat the subject matter of the American Scene painters—extraordinarily popular at the time—in avant-garde terms: he was both distinctly American and distinctively modern—a rare combination that won him wide admiration. Later his work became more purely abstract, although he often introduced lettering or suggestions of advertisements etc. into his bold patterns (Owh! in San Pao, 1951, Whitney Mus.). The zest and dynamism of such works reflect his interest in jazz.
Davis is generally regarded as the most important American painter to come to maturity between the two world wars and the outstanding American artist to work in a Cubist idiom. He made witty and original use of it and created a distinctive American style, for however abstract his work became he always claimed that every image he used had its source in observed reality: ‘I paint what I see in America, in other words I paint the American Scene.’ He was an articulate defender of modern art, a major influence on many younger artists, including his friends Gorky and de Kooning, and a precursor of Pop art, forming an important link between the pioneering avant-garde artists of the Armory Show generation and the triumphant New York art scene of the post-war years.