Part of an extensive series of paintings of the 1930s inspired by Gloucester, Massachusetts, Stuart Davis's Sunrise depicts objects and elements that would be recognized by any visitor to this port city. In a composition divided into two parts, Davis creates a Cubistic collage of overlapping forms which includes, on the right-hand side, seagulls, a church steeple and a rope, and on the left, the gables of a house, apples, and an old-fashioned cart of the kind used by fishermen to haul their nets. As is often the case with his work in the 1930s, these objects are painted against a white ground, which enhances the vivid colors and forms used by Davis, and creates a visually bold and dramatic composition. Some pictorial elements in Sunrise are more elusive, which conforms to other works painted by Davis. At the time, he frequently painted objects which were ambiguous and sometimes difficult to identify, underscoring how the subjects painted by Davis are in these works a point of departure to render color and form in a modern idiom, which he developed over long years of painstaking innovation.
As noted by Lowery Stokes Sims, "Stuart Davis spent time in Gloucester, Massachusetts, every year from 1915 to 1934. He had featured its topography, piers and wharfs, harbor, residences, schooners, and fish-processing plants as central and recurring themes in his art. This habit intensified in the 1930s even as his seasonal visits were ending. As seen in the Gloucester landscape scenes executed in the 1930s, with the passing of the decade Davis's depiction become less empirically based and display a greater interest in abstracting the elements of the Gloucester environs. More importantly, they demonstrate Davis' working method of balancing the dynamics of recognizable phenomena with the will to engage a modernist vocabulary of his own." (Stuart Davis: American Painter, New York, 1991, p. 224)
In 1933, by the time Davis created Sunrise he was fully immersed in the imagery of Gloucester, a city which he began to paint in a Realist style as early as 1910. The port fascinated Davis, and he often explored its byways, hauling with him cumbersome artist's equipment, as he notes in his autobiography: "'I wandered over the rocks, moors and docks, with a sketching easel, large canvases, and a pack on my back, looking for things to paint.' He gradually began to change his working method: 'After a number of years the idea began to dawn on me that packing and unpacking all this junk...was irrelevant to my purpose...Following this revelation my daily sorties were unencumbered except by a small sketch book...and a...fountain pen.'" As noted by Sims, "Davis would then use these drawings to compose his pictures, combining different views into a single composition. He no longer needed to follow the narrative set by reality, but would 'select and define the spatial limits of these separate drawings in relation to the unity of the whole picture,' by which means he 'developed an objective attitude towards size and shape relations.'" (Stuart Davis: American Painter, pp. 224-225)
Holger Cahill, Dorothy Miller's husband and a close friend of the artist, purchased this painting directly from Davis in the mid 1930s. Davis, in turn, asked Cahill if he would write the catalogue essay for his exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1945. Although he turned him down due to a conflicting deadline, Cahill wrote in a survey the following year: "Davis symbolizes the objective world with color-shapes disposed on a flat surface which he does not break up into foreground or background, near and distant, but which he presents as a unity of simultaneous happenings...Davis says that 'they are never pictures of some particular place in a superficial sense.' They only 'look like certain color-shape relations which are inherently there. These color-shape relations are beautifully independent of the objects they are associated with." ("In Our Time", Magazine of Art, November 1946, p. 322)
The painting Sunrise is, in the words of John Lane, "A painted paradigm of Davis's formal theory...the culmination of the artist's quest for a visual solution to the problems of narrative landscape and a depiction of the idea of simultaneity." (Stuart Davis, Art and Theory, Brooklyn Museum, 1978) Davis strove with Sunrise, and indeed with all his works in the 1930s, to integrate form with line, shape and harmonious color, creating landscapes suggestive of space while at the same moment negating that space with the flatness of the forms. At times the proportions are disjunctive and the objects are recognizable and at other times, more ambiguous, but the artist always strove for an art of distinct, formal, aesthetic moment, which is the hallmark not just of his 1930s work, but also for the art Davis would produce in his career to follow.
This painting will be included in Ani Boyajian's and Mark Rutkowski's forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the artist's works.