Stuart Davis was a child of the Ashcan School. His parents, Helen Stuart Foulke and Edward Wyatt Davis, met as students at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Helen Foulke Davis was a sculptor; Edward Wyatt Davis was the art editor of the Philadelphia Press when Stuart was born. The elder Davis supervised, at various times, John Sloan, George Luks, William Glackens, and Everett Shinn. In 1901, Edward Davis joined the Newark Evening News, and the family moved to East Orange, New Jersey. In these surroundings, there was no surprise or family opposition when Stuart Davis decided to leave high school after one year to seek serious art training. His parents entrusted the fifteen-year-old to their old Philadelphia friend, Robert Henri, who ran the Robert Henri School of Art in New York City.
Davis’s first work was in the realist/impressionist Ashcan style; his first mentors were artists of the Ashcan school, and among these he was particularly close to John Sloan. Davis studied with Henri from 1909 to 1912. In that year he set up a studio in Hoboken with Henry Glintenkamp and went to work for The Masses, a socialist journal where John Sloan had assembled a young group of artists that, in addition to Davis, included Glintenkamp, George Bellows, and Glenn Coleman. Davis showed five watercolors at the 1913 Armory Show. The significance of the show for him, however, was not his own participation, but the opportunity it afforded to see the latest currents in European art. He wrote, in a 1945 autobiographical manuscript:
I was enormously excited by the show, and responded particularly to Gauguin, Van Gogh, and Matisse, because broad stylization of form and the non-imitative use of color were already practices within my experience. I also sensed an objective order in these works which I felt was lacking in my own. . . . I resolved that I would definitely have to become a ‘modern artist’ (as quoted in Diane Kelder, ed., Stuart Davis , p. 23).
Though the revelation did not immediately transform his art, the experience of the Armory Show set Davis on a path of self-directed exploration that he systematically and consciously pursued for the rest of his life.
Davis first went to Gloucester, on Cape Ann, Massachusetts, in the summer of 1915, drawn by the enthusiastic reports of John Sloan. The small fishing village proved a seminal spur to his artistic imagination, from his early realist images, to the tentative experiments with modernist forms of 1917–18, to the frequent use and reuse of motifs with Gloucester associations throughout his career. The reappearance of the same motifs in different configurations strikes a note of constancy in an oeuvre characterized by periodic style shifts. Through the decade of the 1920s, Davis experimented with the formal language of cubism, combining European-derived artistic methodology with iconic American visual images. This period culminated in his famous “eggbeater” series. In 1928, through the patronage of Juliana Force (and the funds of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney), Davis went to Paris for a year. He returned to continue his exploration of paintings created by the use of snippets of recognizable images abstracted and juxtaposed in deliberate fashion to become other than the sum of their parts. (Davis, who was a passionate lover of music, and jazz in particular, can be seen, in this respect, as a forerunner of today’s hip-hop DJs, combining diverse grooves.) Davis was, throughout his career, a conscious creator of art. In diary form, he recorded a running commentary on what he was doing—on the relationship between theory and practice. On December 30, 1922 he wrote, under the exclamatory heading “ART”:
The subject of a work of art may be of the most trivial nature or it may be of the highest moral and social significance, but in either case it is of secondary importance from the standpoint of the artist. I see all expression in terms of color. The work COLOR includes, AREA, PLANAL BALANCE, TEXTURE. A work is built by the superimposing of colored planes. . . . ART IS ART, that is to say, a work of art can only be such by intention (quoted in Kelder, pp. 36–37).
The present watercolor and pencil work, which was never given a title by the artist, has been known by a number of descriptive names. It bears witness to Davis, long before his trip to Europe, experimenting in his own art with applications of cubism. It has been suggested that the backward transcription of the word “Greek” indicates a position for the viewer inside a Greek restaurant, seeing the word as it would appear from the interior of a plate glass window.