Arthur Bowen Davies.jpg (48414 bytes)

ARTHUR BOWEN DAVIES 1862-1928
Arethusa
,
1901
Oil on canvas, 27 1/2 X 22 1/2" (69.85
x 57.15 cm.)
Signed, lower left
Museum purchase, 923-0-103
 

Arthur Bowen Davies's contemporaries described him variously as the Enchanter, the Magician, and even the Alchemist in their efforts to explain the work of the most surprising advocate of modernism in America. Indeed his haunting, enigmatic paintings set him apart from the other members of The Eight, aligning him instead with the suggestive, introspective art of the nineteenth-century American visionary, Albert Pinkham Ryder, and the European Symbolists.
Arethusa
, an early nude by Davies, dates from the period following the artist's return from Europe in 1895. It was during these critical years that Davies began to concentrate his creative energies on painting idyllic pastorals, populated with lithe, female figures, the subject with which he is now most closely identified. For Davies, who was a devoted admirer of both ancient Greece and the Renaissance, the female nude remained the embodiment of the abstract ideal of beauty.
Arethusa echoes Ingres's masterwork The Valpincon Bather (1808, Louvre), which Davies could well have seen in Paris. The pose of the two figures is nearly identical. Davies has adapted the exquisite contour of Ingres's bather to create the linear grace of his own figure. Nearly a century has passed, however, and in Davies's hand, Ingres's weighty, fully-modeled nude has become a delicate, decorative figure.
Like the European Symbolists, Davies was entranced by the world of ancient myth and legend. He named his farm The Golden Bough after James G. Frazer's 1890 study of comparative mythology. Though much of Davies's work seems to take Place in a timeless, dream world, certain works are linked to specific myths. Arethusa is a nymph whose story is told in Ovid's Metamorphoses and who is the subject of the 1824 poem, Arethusa
, by Percy Bysshe Shelley. According to the myth, the river god Alpheius fell in love with Arethusa after she bathed in his waters. Pursued by Alpheius, Arethusa prayed to Artemis, the virgin goddess of the hunt, to save her. Artemis answered Arethusa by spiriting her off to the island of Ortygia and transforming her into a spring. Undeterred by Artemis's interference, Alpheius flowed under the sea to Ortygia, where he united with Arethusa by mingling his waters with hers in the spring.
From a tale filled with passion and high adventure, Davies characteristically chose to depict a moment Of idyllic calm in which the human world exists in perfect harmony with nature. Arethusa is seen seated quietly, her back turned to the viewer, as she looks out across the water. The specifics of the narrative hold little interest for the artist. He is concerned with evoking a mood of tranquility and poetic reverie, a mood which parallels Shelleys lyric: "And gliding and springing,/ She went ever singing,/ In murmurs as soft as sleep;/ The Earth seemed to love her,/ And Heaven smiled above her,/ As she lingered toward the deep."
Though frequently viewed as escapes into romantic fantasy, paintings such as Arethusa may well have possessed a contemporary resonance for the artist that has rarely been recognized. On seeing the frescoes at Pompeii for a second time in 1910, Davies exclaimed that he had seen paintings "which were perfectly thrilling-the finest things I have ever seen-as fresh as if painted yesterday. I ... feel capable of far greater expression because of my own entente cordiale with Greek painters-so archaic-so great-so modern.... I cannot tell you how much these things mean to me." If Davies believed, as proposed by Frazer in The Golden Bough
, that myth held the key to the mysteries of the human imagination, he may have seen in his own work the potential to be simultaneously "archaic" and "modern," the opportunity to create a "universe of images that make the past present, that integrated man with nature, the sense with the mind, and that thus celebrated the new possibilities for man."

NANNETTE V. MACIEJUNES