Stuart Davis would come to be known for his Cubist-derived, proto-Pop abstractions of the thirties, forties, and fifties, but in 1919, his conversion to an iconographic idiom was still under development. Davis had studied under Robert Henri from 1909 to 1912, establishing himself as an Ash Can artist in both his paintings and illustrations. In 1913, the famed Armory Show exploded the Ash Can movement, sweeping it away in the tide of Modernism. Davis himself was one of the youngest artists to show at the Armory, with five watercolors on view. The Armory’s offerings impressed him deeply, and he continued to work out the implications of what he’d seen there for decades. While he would eventually abandon figuration entirely, the first major change was his adoption of a brilliant Post-Impressionist palette, and, by mid-decade, the heavy impasto of van Gogh. Around this time, the illustration work that had formed a core of the Ash Can school (Davis himself may have been the first to coin the term) began to dry up, and Davis shifted away from Henri’s aesthetic influence. Nevertheless, he remained connected socially with the Ash Can group. In 1915, he received a fortuitous invitation to summer in Gloucester, Massachusetts, and continued to visit until 1934. He later summed up the experience:
I went to Gloucester, Mass., on the enthusiastic recommendation of John Sloan. That was the place I had been looking for. It had the brilliant light of Provincetown, but with the important additions of topographical severity and the architectural beauties of the Gloucester schooner…Another very important thing about the town at that time was that the pre-fabricated Main Street had not yet made its appearance. Also the fact that automobiles were very few and their numerous attendant evils were temporarily avoided…I would not want my reference to the evils of the automobile as being indicative of opposition to mechanical progress….I went to Gloucester every year, with few exceptions, until 1934, and often stayed late into the fall. I wandered over the rocks, moors, and docks, with a sketching easel, large canvases, and a pack on my back, looking for things to paint…[as quoted in Stuart Davis: Provincetown and Gloucester Paintings and Drawings, Grace Borgenicht Gallery, 1986]
Gloucester was a powerful incubator for Davis’s aesthetic development. Over his time there, he would streamline his painting process, flatten the depth of his images, and reduce the elements of his pictures to iconographic glyphs. His first few summers there, however, were spent painting en plein air, working directly from life. Some of his work retained the flavor of fellow Ash Can artist George Bellows as he dragged his easel around the coast, but as early as 1917, he was rendering explicit interpretations of Matisse (compare, for instance, 1917’s Studio Interior to Matisse’s Red Studio). The self-portrait he executed during this time are heavily imitative of van Gogh’s.
The present work was executed in Gloucester’s harbor toward the end of this formative decade. Davis’s use of the wet-into-wet painting technique reflects the lingering Asch Can influences. The use of a Henri-derived color system gives the work a jeweled quality which, along with its maritime subject, contributes to an atmosphere shared by some of the works of George Bellows of the same time period.