painted scenes of New York City, including its landmark buildings, parks, beaches, streets, and people. While often filled with minute detail, the patterned, rhythmicorder in Davis’s pictures seems to suspend time, allowing and encouraging the viewer to take in the details of the vignette. Painted in a flat, compositional style with ashallow picture plane, generalized lighting and pure color, Davis’s New York is a bright, merry place. In an interview, he said, “You’ve got to make a song of a painting, you’ve got to give it a sweet melody.” In
a four-car train filled with people, on a dense track network, is momentarily frozen in midair over anelevated peak, about to experience a dramatic descent. At ground level, passengers wait for the next ride, and in the foreground, people are watching, buying tickets, promenading, or purchasing frozen custard, hamburgers, and frankfurters from concession operators.His
Coney Island Boardwalk with Parachute Jump
(1972) is one such structured horizontal composition that includes sunbathers in the left portion of the composition and boardwalk strollers on the right. Towering over this scene of minutiae is the parachute jump ride of the title, a gold embellished structure topped withan American flag. Tiny figures appear to float to the earth in their brightly colored parachutes.Davis was born in Maryland in 1904. He joined the navy for seven years, and in 1928 he went to live in New York. He worked many jobs, among them trainconductor, circus barker and ticket taker, undertaker, church organist, and subway newsstand operator. From childhood Davis showed an aptitude for art, but like somany other self-taught artists he postponed painting until later in life. About 1947, he recalled that while walking on 57th Street in New York, as a middle-aged adult,he saw paintings of barnyard scenes in a gallery window, and mused, “I can paint like that.”In 1950, Davis participated in the Washington Square Outdoor Art Exhibit, and his work hung on a fence on Washington Square South. Morris Weisenthal, a NewYork City gallery owner, saw the paintings and decided to represent Davis among his stable of artists.Davis worked predominantly in oil on canvas, but he also created drawings that, on several occasions, he traded with his friend Sterling Strauser for Strauser’s own paintings. In letters he wrote to Strauser, Davis described his drawing and painting methods. Before making a sketch, he studied each location he chose to paint, andtook a series of photographs to help compose what was often a panoramic scene. Using the photographs for reference, he spent hours drawing on canvas. Oncesatisfied with the general outlines, he filled in details, such as windows, the bricks of buildings, and people. Habitually working from left to right, Davis outlined thedrawing in india ink before applying color. He did not mind repeating subjects.One Coney Island painting of Davis’s was used as the cover for the September 6, 1958, issue of
The New Yorker. Newsweek
published a feature article aboutDavis on June 6, 1960. His obituary ran in
The New York Times on
November 15, 1978.
Painting, American Folk; Sterling Strauser
Hemphill, Herbert W.Jr., and Julia Weissman.
Twentieth-Century American Folk Art and Artists.
New York, 1974.Miller, Gloria Bley. “Vestie Davis Brooklyn Painter in His Own Words.”
Folk Art Summer,
vol. 28, no. 2 (summer 2003): 40–51