Jo Davidson’s “Plastic History,” Featuring His Village Friends
Jo Davidson may not be a household name, but his work is familiar to many New Yorkers. Born on March 30, 1883, Jo Davidson grew up on the Lower East Side, his parents having immigrated to New York after fleeing the Russian pogroms. They started their son on the path to a medical career, but by his teenage years Davidson already demonstrated an interest in art. He studied drawing at the Educational Alliance art school and the Art Students’ League, both institutions that trained some of the most successful artists of the 20th century. And like many of the great artists of the 20th century, he made a home for himself in Greenwich Village.
At age 18, Davidson’s parents sent him to Yale University, still hoping he would get his degree in medicine. But the director of Yale’s art school saw his work and was so impressed that he offered free classes to the young artist. Davidson then left Yale in 1903, returning to New York to continue his studies at the Art Students’ League.
Just a few years later, Davidson started to flourish. He sold a piece to Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, marking his debut in the city’s major art scene. Davidson also went to Paris in 1907 to study for three weeks at the École des Beaux-Arts and met Gertrude Stein. Both Gertrudes surely helped connect Davidson with the Village’s great thinkers and creators of the day.
A Friendly Practice
Davidson’s early work focused mainly on nude figures in elegant, dynamic poses, conveying a great understanding of movement and expression in the body. From his extensive artistic training and frequent travels, Davidson’s style is described as primarily “traditional, formed on that of nineteenth-century French sculptors” but, as a bohemian, a bit more experimental than the masters.
Though these nudes helped begin his rise to fame, he made his most lasting mark with his countless portraits of international writers, politicians, businessmen, and more. He gained a wonderful reputation with his “plastic history” collection, befriending his famous subjects before/while sculpting them. Davidson rejected long, quiet sittings with his subjects. Instead, the artist and sitter would engage in friendly conversation. He explained, “I never had them pose but we just talked about everything in the world…Sometimes [they] talked as if I was their confessor. As they talked I got an immediate insight.” Because of this approach, his sculptures indeed have a very living quality to them. The faces almost appear ready to talk, with furrowed brows and soul in their eyes.
In the Village
After World War I, Davidson further immersed himself in the Village art scene by establishing his studio at 23 MacDougal Alley (now No. 12) in the Greenwich Village Historic District, with the help of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, whose own studio was also nearby on the alley. Whitney actively supported Davidson’s career, purchasing, commissioning, and including his work in many exhibitions.
Davidson’s list of subjects is a bit of a who’s who of great Villagers. His portraits include Fiorello La Guardia, Walt Whitman, Emma Goldman, Helen Keller, and, of course, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, among others. A number of his works remain in the Whitney’s collections and in public spaces around New York. Perhaps most familiar to us, his “Buddha-like” sculpture of Gertrude Stein sits in Bryant Park, at the east end just behind the Library — one of the very few public sculptures of women in New York City. An enlarged version of Davidson’s 1934 bust of President Franklin D. Roosevelt now resides at Four Freedoms Park on Roosevelt Island, a four-acre memorial to the 32nd U.S. President opened in 2012. The two developed a lifelong friendship, with Davidson saying that FDR “won me completely with his charm, his beautiful voice and his freedom from constraint.”
A bit farther from home, about 40 miles north of Manhattan, at Bear Mountain State Park in Rockland County, Davidson’s Walt Whitman appears to walk along the Appalachian Trail. Emma Goldman’s gravestone in Forest Park, IL features Davidson’s portrait of her in bas relief and another casting of the full-size Whitman can be found in Philadelphia.
Jo Davidson passed away on January 2, 1952, after publishing his autobiography, Between Sittings. In 1951 he also began what would be his last project, a series of portraits of Israeli leaders. He unfortunately didn’t complete the collection. His January 3, 1952 obituary in the New York Times lists his incredible achievements throughout his life. Clearly, though his name may not be known to many today, the artist “was, and kept, ‘the best company in the world’” during his prolific career.
Jo Davidson is one of the many artists found on our Greenwich Village Historic District, 1969-2019 map, in the Artists’ Homes tour.