On a November morning in 1928, Virginia Davies, wife of artist Arthur B. Davies, answered a knock at the door of her farmhouse in upstate New York. On the doorstep stood a middle-aged woman and a teen-age girl. She had never seen them before.
The woman proceeded to tell Mrs. Davies that Arthur Davies had died several weeks before in Florence, Italy, of a heart attack; that she, Edna Potter, had been with him; that she and Davies had lived together in New York City as man and wife for more than 20 years, using the name Mr. and Mrs. David A. Owen; and that the girl was their daughter, Helen Ronven "Owen," known as Ronnie.
During all that time Arthur B. Davies had been one of the best-known artists in America. Although his wife lived upstate with their children and he only saw them on weekends, he had a wide circle of friends and acquaintances in New York and was often written about in the newspapers. But so completely did he protect the secret of his double life that aside from Davies and Potter only three people knew that he lived with a mistress: his dealer, William Macbeth; his patron, Lizzie P. Bliss; and his artist friend Walt Kuhn. His daughter didn't even know his real identity until after he died.
The life of Arthur B. Davies makes one of the most bizarre stories in the history of American art. It is told more completely than ever before in a new biography by Baltimore artist and art historian Bennard Perlman. The first full-length Davies biography, titled "The Lives, Loves, and Art of Arthur B. Davies," was published last month.
"If I had wanted to write a novel, I could not have written anything like this," Perlman says. "I'm still not sure if I believe it, but at least I have everything footnoted."
Although one would never guess it from his soft-spoken and unassuming presence, Perlman, now 70, is a pretty amazing person himself. He has had three concurrent careers: artist, educator and scholar.
Since 1951 he has had 73 one-man shows, including the one now on view at Galerie Francoise in Lutherville; he is the former professor and chairman of the department of fine and applied arts at Baltimore City Community College; and he has published six books, specializing in early 20th-century American artists.
Perlman is especially well-known for his meticulous and exhaustive research. "Bennard is an absolute terrier with facts," says New York art historian Avis Berman, who specializes in the same period. "He digs and digs and doesn't let go." Of the Davies book she says, "The fact that somebody has finally sorted this out is extremely useful."
Perlman spent 15 years on the Davies book, poring over long-unread letters and papers in university archives. He also visited the Davies farmhouse, where the artist's grandson Niles Meriwether Davies Jr. still lives, and interviewed other family members previously reluctant to talk.
Other books have dealt with aspects of the art and life of Davies (1863-1928), and the fact that he had a mistress and child has been published before. But the whole story has never been told, including the details of how Edna confronted Virginia after Davies' death. And that the women concocted a story to hide the truth.
They traveled to Italy together, Virginia pretending to go out of concern for her husband, whom she had not heard from for some time. There she "discovered" that he had died, and sent her son David a radiogram (written before she left America) to release to the press. But the scant information made the press suspicious, and the "mystery" of Davies' death caused speculation for years.
Today it may seem strange that the death of an obscure artist should provoke such a reaction, but in 1928 Davies had been one of the most famous artists in America for a quarter of a century.
Perlman, in fact, considers that the book's principal accomplishment is to bring to light Davies' importance in the art world of his time. Contemporary critics placed him at the top of his profession. And the great collector Duncan Phillips, founder of Washington's Phillips Collection, wrote of him in 1924, "Arthur B. Davies is already recognized, not only in this country but in Europe, as one of the few men of original and authentic genius among the painters of our contemporary world."
Although he had a cubist period in the 1910s, Davies was best known as a romantic and symbolist painter. His typical images were of nudes and sometimes animals in dreamy, idealized landscapes. "He felt, maybe more strongly than any other
American artist, that it was important to paint what you feel, what you think, rather than just what you see," Perlman says.
But his work was different from the prevailing trends - impressionism, realism, the "Ashcan" school of gritty urban scenes. The Depression followed closely on his death, and its hard realities made his fantasies seem irrelevant. He never taught, so he had no disciples. Ultimately, his personal style had little effect on American art.
During his lifetime, though, he was a major influence as a champion of other artists and the cause of modernism. He was a member of The Eight, a group of avant-garde artists in the first decade of the century, and a chief organizer of the ground-breaking 1908 show of their work.
As president of the Association of American Painters and Sculptors, he was the main force behind the 1913 New York Armory show that introduced European modernism to an American audience. He also helped many artists who went on to significant careers.
But Perlman makes it clear that admirable as Davies' artistic life was, he was a thoroughgoing cad to the two principal women in his life. Not only did he neglect his wife and children in favor of another liaison, he was so intent on keeping the liaison a secret that he kept Edna almost a prisoner.
He took his favorite model out to the opera or the theater once a month or so, but not Edna Potter. "She could go out by herself, but they couldn't go out to dinner. They couldn't go out with friends. He couldn't bring friends over." And in letters of later years to the Davies family, Edna - who wanted, and got, a third of Davies' estate for Ronnie - claimed that Davies kept the two of them in virtual penury though he was well-to-do.
Perlman thinks that he was able to get so much new information from the Davies family because Ronnie, who mostly kept her real identity to herself, died in 1978. "I think at that point the family felt a little more relieved in terms of letting all this come out," Perlman says.
Perlman has also been at work for three years editing the letters of Walter Pach, another early
20th-century artist, friend of Davies and co-organizer of the Armory show.
And he's delighted to be having the Galerie Francoise show just as the book comes out. Called "On the Waterfront," it contains 28 of his landscapes that include water, created from the mid-1940s until now. "It's the third time I've had a one-man show coincide with the publication of a book," he says.
Bennard Perlman doesn't let the grass grow.
Pub Date: 9/20/98