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American National Biography Online Davidson, Jo (30 Mar. 1883-2 Jan. 1952), sculptor, was born Joseph Davidson in New York City, the son of Jacob S. Davidson and Haya Getzoff, Russian Jewish immigrants. During his childhood Davidson lived in tenement housing on the Lower East Side. Through the combined industry of family members, the children were fed and educated. Davidson began to study art at the Art Students League, where he attended evening classes with George de Forest Brush, George Bridgman, and Bryson Burroughs. Around 1902 Davidson moved to New Haven, Connecticut, ostensibly to attend medical school at Yale University. More interested in art classes than medicine, however, Davidson soon discovered clay. By 1903 he had returned to New York City, where he worked as an assistant in the studio of sculptor Hermon Atkins MacNeil. Davidson continued to take classes at the Art Students League, and in 1906 he first exhibited a sculpture in the winter exhibition at the National Academy of Design. Davidson traveled to Paris in 1907 for further study. After three weeks in the atelier of academic sculptor Jean-Antoine Injalbert at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Davidson left for the more bohemian world of his fellow American expatriate artists. It was during this time that he sculpted one of his most daring works, a bust of painter John Marin (1908, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution), but for the most part, his style was traditional, formed on that of nineteenth-century French sculptors (such as Auguste Rodin) working in terra-cotta and bronze. By 1910 Davidson had gained the patronage and friendship of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. While Davidson was still in France, Whitney purchased his Head of a Swiss Girl (1909) and later found working space for him in New York near her own studio at 23 Macdougal Alley. Whitney remained a supporter of Davidson's work through commissions for portraits, purchases, and opportunities for exhibition. During these years Davidson established a lifelong pattern of peripatetic travel, most often in France, England, and the United States. Davidson married Yvonne de Kerstrat, whom he met in France, in 1909; they had two sons. The family maintained a residence in Paris, where Yvonne became a fashionable dress designer. In 1926 Davidson purchased "Becheron," an estate near Tours, which would be his primary studio and home until his death (with the exception of 1940-1945, years he spent at Stone Court Farm in Lahaska, Pennsylvania). Davidson was given his first one-man show in 1910 at the New York Cooperative Society. This exhibition was followed by several others in New York and Chicago. By the time of his participation in the Armory Show in 1913, Davidson's work was well known. Although portrait sculpture was to become the most important and lucrative aspect of Davidson's oeuvre, his initial success was founded on a number of evocative bronze, marble, and terra-cotta male and female torsos. He continued for many years to make nude figures in the style of Rodin, but they received little critical attention. In 1914 Davidson made a number of portrait busts in London, including a likeness of Joseph Conrad. In 1916 he persuaded President Woodrow Wilson to sit for a bust, and after the close of the First World War, Davidson created a group of sculptures of men associated with the Paris Peace Conference. These busts, which included portraits of General John J. Pershing, Marshal Ferdinand Foch, and Georges Clemenceau, were exhibited in 1920 in New York City as A Plastic History of the War. In 1923 he also made one of his best-known sculptures, a large seated statue of Gertrude Stein (National Portrait Gallery). Davidson increasingly sought out subjects for his burgeoning "plastic history," although he worked on commission as well. Those who knew him admired his immense vitality and ability to befriend and sculpt the leading celebrities of any place he happened to be. Fellow artist Waldo Peirce characterized Davidson's Paris studio in 1923 as a "menagerie of busts of all the limelighters of the world." Davidson did not require lengthy sittings from his subjects. As he noted in his 1951 autobiography, "My approach to my subjects was very simple. I never had them pose but we just talked about everything in the world. . . . Sometimes [they] talked as if I was their confessor. As they talked I got an immediate insight" (pp. 86-87). Davidson used his charm and joie de vivre not only to gain sitters and commissions but to promote his own career in the emerging world of the mass media and celebrity culture. He forged friendships with a number of journalists, who made sure that his work and visage were prominently displayed in newspapers and magazines, particularly in New York City. His massive square face, with its full beard and twinkling eyes, was to be found in articles on his work, in photographs that documented his sittings with famous subjects, in the society pages, and in cartoons published in the New Yorker; his name was even a clue in crossword puzzles. >From around 1920 until his death Jo Davidson was a recognized celebrity in his own right, a designation that had more to do with his personality and self-promotion than with his gift for the fine arts. Sometimes other artists complained about Davidson's success. As George Biddle remarked in his diary in 1937, "All of us are exhausted by Jo's vitality, his conceit and complete lack of gray matter." But others understood Davidson's particular niche in the artistic world. His friend Guy Pene du Bois predicted as early as 1918 that "some time hence, people may believe that not to have been in Davidson's gallery of notables is not to have been a notable" ("Who's Who in Art: J. Davidson," Evening Post Magazine, 8 June 1918, p. 7). Davidson's traditional busts, created in marble, bronze, or terra-cotta, carried honorific, even classical connotations at a time when photography, film, and caricature were emerging as the modern media of choice for celebrity portraiture. During his long career Davidson sculpted the heads of famous Americans such as John D. Rockefeller, Charles Lindbergh, Will Rogers, Ernie Pyle, Frank Sinatra, Helen Keller, Albert Einstein, and Dwight D. Eisenhower. He also made busts of liberal politicians and radical reformers, including Andrew Furuseth, Mother Jones, Robert La Follette, Lincoln Steffens, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Henry Wallace. Davidson sculpted a number of artists and literary figures, such as George Luks, Georgia O'Keeffe, and Robinson Jeffers, as well as a series of British authors done in 1929-1931 for Doubleday, Doran and Company. In 1924 Davidson traveled with Robert La Follette to Russia, where Davidson made a series of busts of prominent Russians, all duly featured on the front page of the pictorial section of the Washington Post. He made a group of portraits of Spanish loyalists during the Spanish Civil War, which were exhibited at a benefit in New York in 1938 with a catalog written by Dorothy Parker and Ernest Hemingway. In 1941, to promote inter-American relations, Nelson Rockefeller arranged for Davidson to travel to South American nations to sculpt the heads of their presidents. This collection was exhibited at the National Gallery of Art in 1942. In the spring of 1941, while in Caracas, Venezuela, Davidson married a childhood friend, Florence Gertrude Lucius, whose acquaintance he had renewed after the death of Yvonne Davidson in 1934. By the mid-1940s Davidson's humanitarian views and immense popularity led him to be a figurehead for a group known as the Independent Citizens' Committee of the Arts, Sciences and Professions, which supported the presidential candidacy of Henry Wallace in 1948. By 1950 Davidson had been branded a Communist, even though the New York Times commented after his death that "he was no politician and no profound economic philosopher" (3 Jan. 1952). Rather, Davidson was, and kept, "the best company in the world." In 1947 he described his great retrospective exhibition at the American Academy of Arts and Letters as "some 40 odd years of plastic history." Davidson's last project was to have been a number of portraits of Israeli leaders, including David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir. He visited Israel in 1951 but did not live to complete the busts. Davidson died at Becheron, in Sache, after a brief illness. Bibliography Davidson's personal and professional correspondence, clippings, and files on many of his portrait commissions are contained in the Jo Davidson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. The largest public collection of Davidson's work is owned by the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. A thorough account of Davidson's life and work is Janis Conner and Joel Rosenkranz, "Jo Davidson," Rediscoveries in American Sculpture: Studio Works, 1893-1939 (1989), pp. 10-18. Much information may also be found in Between Sittings: An Informal Autobiography of Jo Davidson (1951), which is particularly good for understanding Davidson's gift for self-promotion. A lengthy obituary is in the New York Times, 3 Jan. 1952. Brandon Brame Fortune Citation: Brandon Brame Fortune. "Davidson, Jo"; http://www.anb.org/articles/17/17-00206.html; American National Biography Online Feb. 2000. Access Date: Copyright (c) 2000 American Council of Learned Societies. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. From American National Biography, published by Oxford University Press, Inc., copyright 2000 American Council of Learned Societies. Further information is available at http://www.anb.org.