Part of a series of four 1940 paintings of the same abstracted landscape composition in different color schemes, Autumn Landscape is a key work in Stuart Davis’ experimentation with how deliberate manipulation of color influences emotional impact.
The initial inspiration for this work is a view of Rockport, Massachusetts, which Davis originally drew in 1930. The typical marina view of ship masts, water and buildings is complicated by the obscuring foreground elements, including a telephone pole dividing the scene at right and a bushy tree and tall chimney at left. Davis then created a 1930 oil painting Summer Landscape (Private Collection; formerly Museum of Modern Art, New York), which he described in 1940: “It was designed from a sketch made in Rockport, Mass., looking east of the town square, across the harbor and Bearskin Neck toward Pigeon Hill…The prospect was arresting and beautiful, and my desire was to make a permanent record of it as a profound souvenir of the occasion…I knew that the interest which really existed in the scene was the result of a coherent and various order of space relations which the particular lighting of the hour made visible.” (as quoted in A. Boyajian, M. Rutkoski, Stuart Davis: A Catalogue Raisonné, vol. 3, New Haven, Connecticut, 2007, p. 216)
Perhaps as an “anniversary work,” as Eugene C. Goossen has suggested, Davis revisited this 1930 composition ten years later in a series of four paintings: Landscape in the Colors of a Pear (Montclair Art Museum, Montclair, New Jersey), Summer Landscape (Private Collection), Summer Landscape #2 (Nevada Museum of Art, Reno, Nevada) and the present work. Explaining his new focus when revisiting this scene, Davis wrote in a September 1941 letter about Landscape in the Colors of a Pear, “These forms are executed in the colors which I observed in a pear hanging on a nearby tree. The yellow-green and red were local colors in the pear, and the white, black, and blue were suggested by the light and shadows on it. A picture of this kind has no literal intention. It expresses an emotion felt by the artist in front of a certain scene in nature. This emotion came not only from the immediate scene itself, but also from the memory of other scenes and objects, in Nature and Art, which aroused in his memory. The transference of the colors of the pear to the scene itself was inspired by the knowledge that such transference is possible, and the desire to know what such transference would produce. In other words it was an exercise of the imagination given concrete expression. Everyone knows that the light and color of a landscape are constantly changing with the hour of the day, and with the character of the clouds in the sky. With the change of light the whole formal structure of the scene changes, at least from its visual aspect. It should not surprise anyone, therefore, that an artist learns to make changes in a scene, according to his own experience and imagination.” (as quoted in Stuart Davis: A Catalogue Raisonné, vol. 3, p. 315)
In Autumn Landscape, rather than evoke the colors of a pear, Davis imbues the scene with the hues and feelings of fall through his use of bright orange, yellow and burgundy pigments. The artist’s focus on color reduces the landscape elements to the barest suggestion of their landscape origin, creating an emotional perspective rather than a translation of reality. Lowery Stokes Sims explains, “the internal designs of the forms is not totally extranged from textural mimicry, as seen in the diagonal striping of the trees at the left side of the picture. All details of fences, ships’ rigging, and masts…are now rich, globular daubs of color. By varying the palettes of these…compositions…Davis hints at season changes, but, more pertinently, he explores the spatial implications of assorted combinations and juxtapositions of hues of different values and saturation.” (Stuart Davis: American Painter, New York, 1991, p. 255)