On view in the exhibition "Jo Davidson: Biographer in Bronze"
The National Portrait Gallery owns more than sixty of Jo Davidson’s portraits in bronze, marble, terra-cotta, and plaster, acquired over a number of years. Born in New York to Russian immigrant parents, Davidson struggled financially at the beginning of his career. But by the 1920s, his reputation as a leading portraitist in France, England, and the United States was secure, and later he became so well known that a photograph of his jovial, black-bearded countenance served as a clue in a crossword puzzle!
Jo Davidson’s charisma endeared him to many of his famous subjects. One of my favorites is our portrait of his contemporary, the sculptor and heiress Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (1875–1942), one of those charmed by Davidson, and one of his earliest patrons. Just after she had been introduced to Davidson in Paris in 1908, Whitney began to purchase his work and to correspond with him, arranging visits when she was in France. In 1909 she wrote, “I hope you come to America. It’s good to go and look around there once in a while . . . come and look at me! too.”
During the years just after his marriage in 1909, Davidson and his wife Yvonne, a designer of fashionable dresses, did live in New York, where Whitney found studio space for him in MacDougal Alley, near her own studio and the new Whitney Studio Club on West Eighth Street. In 1917, she made a bronze portrait of Davidson. But Davidson’s 1916 portrait of Whitney was not a friendly gift; it was commissioned in order to help Davidson financially.
The portrait is very like contemporary photographs of Whitney, with her deep-set eyes, narrow brow, and thick hair. Davidson was known for capturing a likeness quickly, and he imbued his sitters with a vivacity born from conversation. As he confessed, “I often wondered what it was that drove me to make busts of people. It wasn’t so much that they had faces that suggested sculpture. . . . [It] was the people themselves—to be with them, to hear them speak and watch their faces change.”
The portrait was produced in several versions. Whitney mentioned a plaster and a polychromed terra-cotta in her correspondence from 1916 and 1917. A marble is in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art. Davidson owned two plasters, and perhaps a version of the terra-cotta bust. But no contemporary bronze is known.
In 1968, this particular bust was cast in bronze for the National Portrait Gallery, using a plaster that had remained in the Davidson family. It was cast by the Valsuani foundry in France, the foundry Davidson used during his lifetime. That we know this much about Davidson’s portrait (and there is still much that we do not know) is due to our ongoing research into his sculptural production, initiated in 1993, when we examined Davidson’s personal papers at the Library of Congress.
This research brought us into contact with Davidson’s surviving son, Jacques Davidson, who, although he has now passed away, lived in France, where Jo owned a house. Jacques, as charming as his father, had been in touch with the Gallery over the years. During a trip to America with his son, he visited the Gallery again and examined many of our sculptures, offering opinions and reminiscences, and adding to our knowledge of Jo’s work.
Jo Davidson and Whitney remained close until her death in 1942. They visited each other, traveled together, and corresponded. Whitney bought heaps of Yvonne’s designer dresses for herself and her daughters. In 1927, she wrote a long, philosophical letter to Davidson, which began, “Life is funny and you are wonderful.” Davidson’s sensitive portrait of Whitney expresses his relationship with a woman who was not only a fellow artist and his patron, but also his friend.- Brandon Brame Fortune , Curator of Painting & Sculpture, National Portrait Gallery
Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney / Jo Davidson / Bronze, 1968 cast after 1916 original / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Further reading: Davidson’s autobiography, Between Sittings (New York, 1951), is full of anecdotes about his life and his sitters. For an account of Davidson’s work, see Janis Conner and Joel Rosenkranz, Rediscoveries in American Sculpture: Studio Works, 1893–1939 (Austin, Tex., 1989). The standard biography of Whitney, with references to her friendship with Davidson, is B. H. Friedman, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (New York, 1978).