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Charles Harold Davis
Lyme Art Colony
(January 7, 1856–August 5, 1933)
In Lyme: 1903
While he was growing up in Amesbury, Massachusettes, Charles H. Davis first saw the works of Millet and other Barbizon artists which made him want to become a painter. He enrolled for two years at the art school of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and did so well that a wealthy Bostonian provided the money to sponsor his studies in the Academie Julian in Paris. But when Davis visited Barbizon from Paris he was so taken by the countryside that he decided to drop his Paris classes and begin painting on his own in the Barbizon area. He set to work painting lanscapes in the Tonalist style, and achieved both critical recognition and financial success that few Americans abroad attained. In 1892, Davis returned to America and settled in Mystic, Connecticut. Here his style changed dramatically; he began to use the vigorous brushwork, pure colors and strong light of the Impressionists. It is for this later work that he is best remembered.In 1890 Charles H. Davis moved to Mystic to live year round. The story is that Davis, intending to settle somewhere in his native New England, studied maps and statistics to find the place that best answered his requirements of topography and climate. It was Mystic
Davis was then thirty-four years old and just back from France. His American training had been linited to two or three years under Otto Grundmann at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in the late 1870s. His schoolteacher father had to struggle to find the tuition for the Museum School, but Davis did so well there that in 1880 a businessman from his hometown offered him a thousand dollars to study in Paris. Davis enrolled at the Academie Julian under Boulanger and Lefebvre. Soon, however, he ended his formal training and moved to the Barbizon region outside Paris, where he began painting the simple, glowing landscapes that characterize Barbizon art. One was selected for the Salon the following spring, and Davis found enough buyers for others he began to send home that he was able to stay abroad for a decade, a success few young American artists could boast of. He was married in 1884 to a Frenchwoman, Angele Lagarde.
How Davis responded to French Impressionism is still unknown, but the Barbizon style lingered in his work after he moved to Mystic. Around 1895 a change is perceptible to purer color, more light, and what Davis himself called an "eloquent arrangement" more faithful to mood than to naturalistic detail.
Once in Mystic, Davis was content to stay. (There were a few trips, however, including the one in 1928 to Wales.) An art critic reported that, "With a walking stick and a bit of grass between his teeth, he may be seen almost any day, summer or winter, wandering over hill and dale, storing his memory full of choice spots . . . where the spirit of beauty dwells." He painted about nine hundred landscapes in the Mystic area during his career, usually recording them as numbered miniature sketches.
In a period when artists joined social clubs, kept winter and summer studios, and travelled widely, Davis belonged only to the Lotos Club and never had a city studio. While Davis stayed home, however, his scenes of Mystic travelled to Macbeth Gallery in New York, Doll & Richards in Boston and museums and major exhibitions in places as far flung as San Francisco, Chicago, Atlanta, St. Louis, and Paris, where they regularly won prizes. Davis’s 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 of 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.
On home ground, Davis could be outgoing. Early on he held art classes in Mystic that attracted so many students that Connecticut Magazine commented in August, 1899 that "The pallet and easel have become familiar sights along the river, and the village streets, and among the hills." In 1900 two years after his wife died, Davis married one of his students, Frances Thomas, who exhibited regularly in Mystic art exhibitions and was, for a time, a paid reviewer of those at Old Lyme.
Davis was good friends with Henry Ward Ranger of Noank and with artists at Old Lyme. He persuaded other artists to settle in Mystic and is credited with starting several on their careers. In 1913, with his doctor friend, George Leonard, Davis founded the Mystic Art Association, which was initially financed by a tearoom run by townswomen on exhibition afternoons. "Uncle Charlie" was apparently never too busy to listen to and encourage younger artists in Mystic. Always interested in spreading the good word about art, he 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. Davis died in Mystic in 1933.
"Charles H. Davis – Landscapist," International Studio, 75 (June 1922), 176-83.
Gillet, Louis Bliss. "Charles H. Davis." American Magazine of Art, 27 (March 1934), 105-12. Also in Memorial Exhibition: Paintings by Charles H. Davis (Exh. cat., Macbeth Gallery, New York City, 1934).
"Charles Harold Davis N.A. 1856-1933" Mystic Art Association catalogue, retrospective exhibition 1982.