Jo Davidson was born in the ghetto of New York's Lower East Side to immigrant parents who had fled the Russian pogroms. Despite parental opposition, in his teens Davidson studied drawing in New York at the Educational Alliance's art school and at the Art Students' League. At 18 his parents sent him to New Haven to prepare for entrance to Yale Medical School. While in New Haven an admirer of Davidson's work showed the young man's drawings to the director of the art school. Impressed, the director allowed Davidson to take art classes at Yale free of charge. After accidentally walking into a sculpture room Davidson realized the direction his art was to take, and returned to New York to study sculpture. Further studies were undertaken in Paris, but he only remained at the École des Beaux-Arts for three weeks.
He received acclaim early on. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, who later founded the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, purchased a bust of a young girl in 1906. In 1909 Davidson had his first one-man show in New York, and in 1910 his 8-foot nude La Terre was exhibited and well received at the Salon d'Automne. Davidson soon began executing portrait busts of famous personalities, including military and political leaders. He sculpted presidents Woodrow Wilson (1916, bronze), Herbert Hoover (1921, bronze), Dwight D. Eisenhower (1948, bronze), and Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933, bronze; 1951, stone). These works demonstrate Davidson's desire to provide a likeness of his sitter, and also to explore and distill the sitter's personality. His naturalistic approach combines with lively surface effects. Indeed, the vigorous and rapid modeling of clay remains apparent even after the sculpture has been cast in bronze.
Once established, Davidson traveled the world making bronze busts of figures as diverse as Gertrude Stein (1923), Charlie Chaplin (1925), Mahatma Gandhi (1931), Albert Einstein (c. 1937), and Helen Keller (1942 and 1945, half length). His nine-foot full-length bronze of the poet Walt Whitman is located at Bear Mountain State Park in New York (1936–39). Davidson visited Israel in 1951, at which time he made bronze likenesses of the country's major leaders, including Golda Meir (c. 1951), Chaim Weizmann (1951), and David Ben-Gurion (1951).
A large retrospective of Davidson's work was held in 1947, when 200 sculptures were displayed at the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Davidson's autobiography, Between Sittings, was published in 1951.
Jo Davidson Comes to Ponca City
by Hugh Pickens
Everyone in Ponca City knows about the artist's studio at the Marland Mansion that EW Marland constructed on the grounds of his "Palace on the Prairie" in the 1920's and many know the story of how the studio came to be constructed for the use of Jo Davidson, one of the leading American sculptors of his time.
According to Jo Davidson's autobiography, "Between Sittings," EW came to France and met with Davidson on one of EW's European trips and visited Davidson at his Paris studio. EW asked Davidson to come to Oklahoma for ten years and embark on vast project to create monumental sculptures depicting the settlement of the American West. This was at the apex of Marland's career as an oilman when he controlled 10% of the world's oil reserves and was one of the wealthiest men in the United States.
According to the story, Davidson had no interest in abandoning his cosmopolitan life in Europe for ten years on the Oklahoma prairie until EW sat down and wrote a check and showed it to Davidson. Davidson supposedly told EW that he was not interested but that if Marland would add another zero to the check and construct him an artists studio, then he might come to Oklahoma for a year or two. That's the story anyway.
In any case, whatever the truth of the matter, Jo Davidson did indeed come to Ponca City in the 1920s and lived and worked in the artist's studio on the grounds of the Marland Mansion for several years. There is even a rumor which was explored in the recent play "Lydie Marland in the Afterlife" (put on by Ponca Playhouse in 2017), that Davidson and Lydie Marland (E.W. Marland's adopted daughter and later his wife) may have had a relationship.
Among the most famous works that Davidson completed during his stay in Ponca City were the statue of EW seated that is now on display on the town square of Ponca City and the two life size sculptures of Lydie Marland and her brother George that are at the mansion. Davidson also submitted one of the twelve Pioneer Woman models to EW's competition, and although it did not win the competition (losing to Bryant Baker's "Confident") the Pioneer Woman Model submitted by Davidson, titled "Trusting", was said to be EW's personal favorite in the competition.
Now another work that Davidson completed while in Ponca City has surfaced after 89 years and the mystery of its provenance and the subject of Davidson's portraiture has only deepened.
"In 2017, I found out that a previously unknown sculpture by Jo Davidson titled "A Bust Portrait of a Gentleman" was coming up for sale in an international art auction," says Hugh Pickens, Executive Director of Pickens Museum of Turquoise Jewelry and Art. "I contacted Joseph Gierek at Gierek Art Gallery in Tulsa and asked him to attempt to acquire the bronze on the museum's behalf."
Gierek was successful in acquiring the sculpture but when the bronze was shipped to Ponca City and Pickens opened the box and looked at the life-size bust, he got the surprise of his life. "I looked at the sculpture carefully and saw Jo Davidson's signature inscribed on the bronze. Then I looked more carefully and saw the words 'Ponca City 1929' next to Davidson's signature."
Who is the Man in the Bust?
Jo Davidson evidently completed the bronze while he was in residence in Ponca City in 1929 in the studio EW Marland had created for him. But the mystery only deepened. "I cannot identify who the man is," says Pickens. "I have looked at photographs from that period. The subject of the sculpture is not a governor, he is not a mayor of Ponca City, he is not a prominent oil man."
Perhaps he is a wealthy citizen of Ponca City from that period. "It would have been expensive to commission a personal bronze from Jo Davidson in 1929," says Joseph Gierek. "Whoever had this bronze commissioned must have had a lot of money."
Lori Henderson has suggested that the man may be Daniel Donahoe, a prominent Ponca City resident who built a fortune through ranching, grain milling and real estate development and died in 1946. However Donahoe would have been 64 in 1929 and the bronze seems to be of a man in his 50's. Also the man in the bust has a broken nose. Perhaps he was a golden gloves boxer which was a common sport in that era. Does anyone know if Donahoe had a broken nose?
"By the way, this bust is a beautiful example of Jo Davidson's work," adds Gierek. "The Pickens' bronze is every bit as accomplished as any of the other commissions that Davidson executed during his lifetime including the famous bronze of Walt Whitman at Bear Mountain or the extremely well known bronze of Will Rogers in the National Statuary Hall in the United States Capital that you see in the background in many television news reports with interviews with Senators and Congressmen."
In the hopes that we can identify the subject of Jo Davidson's sculpture and start to trace the sculpture's provenance, we are publishing this story as well of photos of the bronze.
Biography of Jo Davidson
by John Simkin, May 2013
Jo Davidson was born in New York City on 30th March, 1883. He worked under Hermon Atkins MacNeil before moving to Paris to study sculpture at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in 1907. His realistic busts soon gained him commissions from wealthy patrons such as Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney.
Davidson lived in Greenwich Village where he became a close friend of Lincoln Steffens and other writers and artists. Some of his early commissions included George Bernard Shaw, Woodrow Wilson and Joseph Conrad. During the First World War he made busts of General Ferdinand Foch and Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau.
Peter Hartshorn has argued that he attended the Versailles Peace Conference in 1918: "He headed to Paris to take advantage of the historic occasion by making busts of the Allied leaders gathered there. Armed with letters of introduction to French Marshall Ferdinand Foch and Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, Davidson had high hopes." Over the next few weeks he produced busts of John J. Pershing, Arthur Balfour, Edward House and Bernard Baruch.
After the First World War Davidson moved to Paris where he associated with Lincoln Steffens, Ezra Pound, William Christian Bullitt, Louise Bryant, Ella Winter, John Dos Passos, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Ford Madox Ford and Gertrude Stein. According to Justin Kaplan, the author of Lincoln Steffens: A Biography (1974): "Despite their sophistication and internationalism, they belonged to a straggling, authentically native succession of grass-roots radicals (of the right as well of the left) and cracker-barrel sages, men with a populist hunger for drastic solutions and an inclination to spend their time and spirit cussing out the government and the banks while awaiting the arrival of the messiah."
Ella Winter was the wife of Lincoln Steffens and they spent a great deal of time with Davidson and his wife Yvonne, a dress designer. In her book, And Not to Yield (1963), she wrote: "We were almost always with Jo and Yvonne. The Davidsons appreciated food in the French manner, and discussed and selected restaurants all over Paris for their specialties. Their thrill at discovering a new bistro, or a sauce at Chez Pierre or Le Commerce, was a curious experience for me, with my London memories of three-and-sixpenny ABC lunches, and I must confess I was at first somewhat dismayed at so much fuss about mere food."
Steffens wrote in his memoirs, Autobiography (1931): "Jo Davidson is the only artist I have met who was consciously in the stream of life as I knew it. The others, certainly the young Americans in Paris, had been in the water, some of them had been nearly drowned by the flood of the war, but they saw and felt only the waves that broke over them.... Jo Davidson had been at the front, though only as a correspondent, but he never dwelt on those experiences. Like Jack Reed, he saw and felt the big forces that had done it once to us and might do it again... His art saved the sculptor. Busting generals, statesmen, financiers, he talked to them, and he listened to them, and so saw the war and the peace from the perspective of headquarters, the capitals and the markets... I have heard him say that the war had no influence upon art, only on some of its themes. It had turned him from nudes and decorations to heads, mostly of great men, and he often regretted that."
Davidson was a political activist and was chairman of the Independent Citizens Committee of Artists, Scientists, and Professionals (ICCASP), a group that supported the policies of President Franklin Roosevelt. An opponent of the Cold War policies of Harry S. Truman, he joined the Progressive Citizens of America (PCA). Other members included Rexford Tugwell, Paul Robeson, W.E.B. Du Bois, Arthur Miller, Dashiell Hammett, Hellen Keller, Thomas Mann, Aaron Copland, Claude Pepper, Eugene O'Neill, Glen H. Taylor, John Abt, Edna Ferber, Thornton Wilder, Carl Van Doren, Fredric March and Gene Kelly.
Davidson supported Henry A. Wallace in the 1948 Presidential Election. Wallace's running-mate was Glen H. Taylor, the left-wing senator for Idaho. A group of conservatives, including Henry Luce, Clare Booth Luce, Adolf Berle, Lawrence Spivak and Hans von Kaltenborn, sent a cable to Ernest Bevin, the British foreign secretary, that the PCA were only "a small minority of Communists, fellow-travelers and what we call here totalitarian liberals." Winston Churchill agreed and described Wallace and his followers as "crypto-Communists".
During his lifetime Davidson produced busts of Arthur Conan Doyle, Clarence Darrow, Charlie Chaplin, Lincoln Steffens, Israel Zangwill, Albert Einstein, Emma Goldman, Frank Harris, Hellen Keller, John D. Rockefeller, Dolores Ibárruri, Franklin Roosevelt, Henry A. Wallace, Walt Whitman, W. Averell Harriman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, H. G. Wells, Gertrude Stein, Josip Tito, Carl Sandburg, Edward Willis Scripps, George Bernard Shaw, Mahatma Gandhi, James Joyce, Rudyard Kipling, Robert M. La Follette, D. H. Lawrence, Henry Luce, Andrew Mellon, James Barrie, Joseph Conrad, Charles G. Dawes, Will Rogers, Anatole France, André Gide, Robinson Jeffers, John Marin and Ida Rubinstein.
Jo Davidson died on 2nd January, 1952.
- Armstrong, Craven et al., 220 Years of American Sculpture, Whitney Museum of Art & David R. Goodine, Publisher, NY 1976
- Compilation of Works of Art and Other Objects in the United States Capitol, Prepared by the Architect of the Capitol under the Direction of the Joint Committee on the Library, United States Government Printing Office, Washington D.C. 1965
- Connor, Janis and Joel Rosenkranz, photographs by David Finn, Rediscoveries in American Sculpture: Studio Works, 1893 - 1939, University of Texas Press, Austin TX 1989
- Craven, Wayne, Sculpture in America: From the Colonial Period to the Present, Thomas Y, Crowell Company, NY 1968
- Davidson, Jo, Between Sittings: an informal autobiography, The Dial Press , NY 1951
- Homepage of the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC: Permanent Exhibitions.
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Articles about Pickens Museum
- Ponca City Monthly publishes story about Pickens Learning Center at NOC
- Pickens Learning Commons Opens at NOC Tonkawa
- Pickens Museum Acquires "War Club" by Yatika Starr Fields January 20, 2022
- Pickens Museum/NOC Mural Dedication Set for June 16th
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- Osage Warrior in the Enemy Camp (Counting Coup) by John Free March 29, 2021
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- Pickens Museum Opens Exhibit of Sculpture by Donald De Lue at NOC March 24, 2021
- Pickens Museum partners with NOC February 23, 2021
- Three Faces of the Pioneer Woman February 21, 2020
- Letter from a Birmingham Jail by Faith Ringgold February 21, 2020
- Exhibition: "Winter in New York" January 22, 2020
- The Turquoise Guitar by Jolene Bird November 26, 2018
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2015 and before
- Sculptor Bryant Baker's Lost Masterpiece November 3, 2015
- Pioneer Woman Models Come Home February 26, 2010
- Pioneer Woman Models Should Return to Ponca City July 13, 2007
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