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Jo Davidson


DAVIDSON, JO (1883–1952), U.S. sculptor. 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.

Sources:Jo Davidson: Portrait Sculpture (1978); Jo Davidson: American Sculptor, 1883–1952 (1983).

[Samantha Baskind (2nd ed.)]

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