Deep in the Smithsonian archives there’s a box of photographs labelled “Miscellaneous photographs circa 1845-1980”. Around 150 sepia toned images of artists in their studios, with their models, with their finished artworks, with their work in progress or simply posing in their studios as in the photo of Ibram Lassar above. Putting work to the faces in the Miscellaneous collection reveals a wonderfully random array (an authentic miscellany even) of American art & artists for the equally arbritary 1845-1980 period. Shining the briefest of investigative light onto some of them reveals genuinely undersung fringe artists. Other photos give us new glimpses & insight on more known artists.
We’ve picked three and put some art to the faces.
So. The art behind the face in Miscellaneous Box photo No. 2. : Randall Davey.
This photo itself is special. It was taken in Davey’s Santa Fe studio in early 1949 by “perhaps the single most important American photographer in the development of the editorial photo essay,” the legendary American photojournalist William Eugene Smith.
Randall Davey (1887-1964), was born in East Orange, New Jersey but settled down early in life into an old desert barn two centuries old (with a studio) on Upper Valley Road, Santa Fe, New Mexico.
There’s a typical horse racing scene underway on an easel in the middle of the photo. An initial foray into the main substance of Davey’s work flings up endless paintings of horses & horse racing. That’s what he did. He was an avid & well known horse breeder in the South West and would rather paint horses than anything else in the world. Other than nudes (he painted heaps of nudes) he painted plenty of flowers in vases too.
But dig deeper on the pages of auction houses large and small all over the US and amongst all those horses there are some of his portraits. A certain kind, the dark ones are really good.
Eugene Smiths photo of Davey was taken for a colour spread (above) in Life Magazine of 14 March 1949. Life did a feature, “The South West. Sun and scenery attract new colonists.” and the photograph that ended up in the Miscellaneous File at the Smithsonian was one that wasn’t selected. The photo on above left is the one that ran/ Our one didn’t make it. The caption to the chosen studio read :
“RANDALL DAVEY, famous for his paintings of horse racing scenes, came to Santa Fe 30 years ago, has become a leader of the art colony.”
Randall Davey (1887–1964), American painter and art educator, taught art at several institutions, amongst them the University of New Mexico. The Santa Fe Randall Davey House, (above) is now something of a shrine to him, preserved exactly how he left it. It’s an artwork in and of itself.
Randall Davey wasn’t unknown to Life magazine when Eugene Smith arrived at the beautiful orange painted Santa Fe desert house in early 1949. Five years before Davey had painted his wife for them. Nude. It was one of four fluffy soft core nude paintings by various artists, each one depicting a slightly different aspect of humourous nudity. There was “A workaday nude with awkward charm”, “An amusing nude”, “A satiric nude” and beneath the picture Davey painted of his wife someone at Life wrote :
“An unromantic nude, sprawling in an ungraceful pose still has a merit as art, especially for its design and color. Model is the wife of the artist, Randall Davis of Santa Fe.“
Whilst on the subject of Davey’s nudes, it’s worth looking at another of of his (done in 1942, the same year as “The Unromantic” one for Life magazine) before returning to those darker portraits.
Davey painted commissioned portraits very much in the style of this one he made for the glowing & rosy Miss Taylor (left).
When he applies this same portrait style to people he’s not being paid to paint, something special happens.
In these darker portraits; of old men, invalids, alcoholics, nuns, and of Latinos and the like, he wins the style meets subject matter lottery.
Magic happens. He produces something quite haunting and, for him with his horses, his rosy cheeked ladies, his fullsome (and very rosy) nudes and his flowers in vases), something quite leftfield.
In 1915 “Man and Monkey” was featured in the December issue of Arts and Decorations magazine. It was exhibited at the 1916 Art Institute of Chicago’s 29th Annual Exhibition of American Oil Paintings and Sculpture. It was also displayed, in 1916 at the National Academy, and later, on loan, to the Corcoran Gallery in Washington D.C.
On Saturday 8 November 1964, the 77 year old Davey walked out of his beautiful 200 year old desert studio & home. He’d never see its painted walls, nude paintings and chequered wooden floors again. He was headed for Santa Barbera, California to visit friends. He almost made it.
Davey was found dead on a highway in his overturned car just east of Baker, between Barstow California and Las Vegas, Nevada. California highway Patrol thought it was a long drive for a 77 year old & he’d likely fallen asleep at the wheel. At any rate he had evidently lost control of the car which hit a centre divider on US-91-466, spun up and crashed down.
His works can be found in the The Whitney Museum of American Art, Chicago Art Institute, Cleveland Museum of Art, the Detroit Institute of Art and in many private collections.
His studio, the one in the Smithsonian Miscellaneous Box photograph, can be found too. Still there, exactly as he left it.
Smithsonian “Miscellaneous Box” No.1 : Ibram Lassar.
Smithsonian “Miscellaneous Box” No.3 : Walt Kuhn.