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Artist Biography

 Charles Harold Davis was born in Amesbury, Massachusetts, in 1856. His father was a school teacher and his mother was a cultivated woman who counted the poet John Greenleaf Whittier (1807–1892) among her friends. Davis’ youthful interests included music, art, and literature, and by his early teens he had become an avid draftsman. In 1877, he enrolled in the school of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, where he studied drawing for two years under the German artist Emil Otto Grundmann (1844–1890). Davis then spent a year in Amesbury doing portraits and painting landscapes inspired by an exhibition of French Barbizon paintings in Boston. A wealthy Amesbury carriage manufacturer, Jacob R. Huntington, took an interest in Davis’ work, and offered him one thousand dollars to finance further study in Paris.

In September of 1880, Davis and Edward Simmons, a friend from his Boston art school days who would later become a member of “The Ten,” sailed for Paris to enroll in the Académie Julian. Davis studied under Gustave Boulanger and Julius Lefebrve, but soon decided to leave the academy and moved to the Barbizon region outside of Paris, where he would concentrate on landscape painting. Within a few months he had completed a large landscape that was accepted for exhibition at the Paris Salon in May of 1881. Encouraged by his success at the Salon, Davis settled in the village of Fleury near Barbizon, where the flat, open countryside bears a striking resemblance to the tidal lands and meandering marsh rivers of his native Amesbury. During the summers Davis was joined in Fleury by a number of artist friends from Boston, including Charles Henry Hayden (1856–1901), Charles Herbert Barnard (1855–1909), and Gaines Ruger Donoho (1857–1916). It was also in Fleury that he met and married Angele Genevieve Legarde in 1884. Later settling in Saint-Leger in Normandy, Davis remained in France for ten years, exhibiting each year at the Salon, where he won honorable mention in 1887.

Davis would become one of the most highly respected and original interpreters of Tonalist landscape painting in the 1880’s. His works were admired by his colleagues, promoted by the leading dealers of his day, and actively sought by major collectors and museums. The Tonalist landscapes and subtle twilight scenes that he sent home sold so well that he was able to stay abroad for a decade, a success which few young American artists could claim. Davis’ celebrated, large six by ten foot entry to the Paris Salon of 1890, The Brook: Effect at Evening, the most focused and emblematic of his major exhibition pieces, was perhaps the culmination of his work in France. When the painting was exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1890, a reviewer commented that “taken in connection with its size, the simplicity of the conception and treatment is daring” and an observer standing before the painting was overheard to say “if I owned that picture I should feel that I had eighty beautiful acres that no one could interfere with.”

Davis returned to America in 1890, at the age of 34. After visiting Amesbury, he settled in the seaside village of Mystic, Connecticut in the fall of 1891. Davis chose Mystic for its picturesque hills and forests, which reminded him of Barbizon, and because of its central location on the train line between his Boston and New York galleries.

Davis continued to paint in the quiet, poetic, tonalist style of his French landscapes until about 1894. By 1900 his style had changed dramatically, and his focus had shifted from a concentration on the land to the sky. His tonalist skies had been softly glowing planes that silhouetted the low-lying landscapes; his Impressionist skies were brilliant cobalt or ultramarine blue, within which monumental cumulus clouds floated, creating dramatic shapes and vivid color contrasts that endowed the scenes with the characteristic Impressionist sense of the momentary.

From the mid-1890’s to the mid-1920’s Davis gradually but steadily evolved toward a broader, more expressive brushwork, and a simpler, stronger sense of design. Davis published an article on cloud painting in 1909, entitled “A Study of Clouds” written for the instruction of art students. His “cloudscapes”, which were highly respected among critics, collectors, and his colleagues, eventually gave way to a focus on the themes of spring, summer, autumn, and winter, and a more expressionistic angular style in his final years.

After his beloved wife’s death in 1897, Davis began teaching. His art classes and instruction attracted many artists to the area and led to the development of Mystic as an art colony. In 1913 he founded the Mystic Art Association, and in 1931 he helped fund the construction of an exhibition hall, which is still in use today. Davis painted some nine hundred landscapes in the Mystic area, where he lived for over 40 years. In a period when artists joined social clubs, kept winter and summer studios, and traveled widely, Davis belonged only to the Lotos Club in New York and never had a city studio. While he stayed home painting and teaching his scenes of Mystic traveled to Macbeth Gallery in New York, Doll and Richards in Boston, and museums and major exhibitions in San Francisco, Chicago, Atlanta, St. Louis, and Paris, where they regularly won prizes. Davis’ prize list is exceptionally long and impressive, beginning with the 1887 Paris Salon and continuing almost annually until his death in 1933. He was a member of the National Academy of Design and the Society of American Artists. He also became a member of the Grand Central Art Galleries in New York, a pioneer cooperative organized by artists and businessmen in 1923. Upon his death in Mystic, in 1933, Davis willed his library of more than eight hundred art reference books to the nearest major public library in Westerly, Rhode Island, where the books are still in circulation. In 1934 a memorial exhibition of Davis’ painting was held at the Macbeth Gallery in New York City, who had represented the artist since 1906.