Skip to main content
COLLECTION Identifier: 1967.79; drawings 1967.79.1-1165

Papers of Stuart Davis, 1918-1964 Digital

Papers, 1918-1964


Approximately 10,000 pages of notes by Stuart Davis, including observations on art theory, politics and social commentary, along with discussion and analysis of some of his paintings. Included are ca. 1,200 diagrams and drawings.


  • Creation: 1918-1964

Conditions on Access

Access: Originals are closed to research. The microfilm of the collection is available at Houghton Library, Harvard University (*69M-153).

The drawings have all been digitized in color; images of them can be seen on the Harvard Art Museums' website. Thirty of the drawings have been matted and are available to view by appointment at the Harvard Art Museums.

Conditions on Use:

Copying: Original papers may not be copied.

Copyright: The donor has transferred any copyright held in these papers to the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Researchers must obtain the written permission of the Harvard Art Museums Archives before publishing images or quotations from any material in the collection.


63 linear feet (82 9x13 folio boxes, 1 14x19 folio box)

The collection consists of Davis's notes, largely written on individual sheets of highly acidic 8.5" x 11" paper over a period of over 40 years. The pages have been kept in the order in which they were received, which appears to be roughly chronological (although some sheets are undated). Davis used a variety of writing materials: graphite, ink, ballpoint pen, felt marker, crayon, and colored pencil. Some of the papers are typed, and some include textual diagrams and drawings; these are noted in the Index below. The papers chronicle the evolution of the theoretical underpinnings of Davis's art, and address such topics as art theory, politics and social commentary. Also included are lectures, drafts of letters, sketches,diagrams, and studio notes accompanied by detailed studies for over 75 of his gouaches, caseins, and oils, including such major paintings as Report from Rockport, Arboretum by Flashbulb, Ursine Park, Ultra-Marine, The Mellow Pad, Visa, Rapt at Rappaport's, American Painting, Deuce, Cliché, Ready-to-Wear, Pochade, and Unfinished Business.

Beginning with a consideration of the radical implications of Cubism [Index 1918], the notes are a record of his analysis of the problems he encountered as a modern painter. His inquiries led to his methodical examination of the fundamental components of painting, from the basic divisions of a plane (defined as Types A and B configurations) to investigations of the color solids of Wilhelm Ostwald, angle theory, and the development of his multi-faceted Configuration Art theory. In these pages, Davis refined his ideas regarding Color-Space [Index 17 December 1941 (a)], and produced detailed color sequence diagrams for a number of his paintings.

The sketches reveal the genesis of some of his imagery, as well as his struggles in resolving specific compositional complexities in his paintings, including what he referred to as "Hell's corners" of The Mellow Pad [Index 3 March 1951]. The notes and accompanying sketches, diagrams, and studies emphatically demonstrate the symbiotic relationship of Davis's art theory to his painting. Other writings in the papers, which supplement the themes of his published texts, address his concerns during his involvement in the political upheavals of the 1930's and as a participant at the center of the 20th-century American art scene. They explore such questions as the role of abstract art in society, democracy, art and propaganda, definitions of art and its social significance, and meaning in art.

Never intended for publication, at times the art theory notes are written in a private language with invented symbols and abbreviations. Some of the shorthand that Davis employed include: a capital cursive C (configuration, as in C-Art, C-Logic, and C-Scale Object), N and X (internal and external relations), T-D-S (Tone-Direction-Size), XRD (Maximum Ratio Differential, used in calculating the optimal line width in a composition), and the word "Any" (for his concept of the equivalence of all subject matter in art).

Scope and Contents

The processor discovered one sheet that had not been included in the original microfilm, and one that was illegible on film; these sheets were digitized by the processor. The index below includes a link to the digital version of the illegible item (see 1 July 1939). The sheet that does not appear on the microfilm is undated; it is numbered page 9.

Click here to see image.

There were three drawings listed in the original Index that were not located when the collection was rehoused. Digitized images of these drawings were made from the microfilm and are available at the Harvard Art Museums.


One of the most important early American modernists, Edward Stuart Davis was born on December 7, 1892 (often noted as 1894) in Philadelphia, PA, to Helen Stuart Foulke and Edward Wyatt Davis, an illustrator at the Philadelphia Inquirer. The Davis family moved to East Orange, NJ in 1901. He dropped out of high school in 1909 to study painting at the Robert Henri School of Art in New York.

Davis exhibited five watercolors in the 1913 Armory Show, and in response to the work of such European artists shown as Gauguin, Van Gogh, and Matisse, resolved to become a "modern" artist. He joined the staff of The Masses, under the art editor, John Sloan, contributing illustrations and covers, and resigned in 1916 during the artists' strike. Invited by Sloan to visit Gloucester, MA, in 1915, Davis would return almost annually through 1940, maintaining a summer-autumn studio there.

In 1928-1929, he lived in Paris, where he painted and produced a series of lithographs. He completed seven murals, including two while working for the WPA. Politically active in the 1930's, he was the editor of Art Front, the journal of the Artists' Union, and served as the executive secretary and later the national chairman of the American Artists' Congress. In articles and speeches, Davis defended artists' rights and the American contribution to modern art. A life-long fan of jazz, he acknowledged its influence as an authentic American art form.

Davis taught at the Art Students League, NY (1931-1932), the New School for Social Research (1940–1951), New Jersey State Teachers College, Newark, NJ (1942), and Yale University (1951). Major retrospective exhibitions were organized by the Museum of Modern Art, (1945), and the Walker Art Center (1957). The recipient of numerous awards, Davis was elected a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1956.

Stuart Davis is best known for his brightly colored abstract paintings using a cubist vocabulary, which incorporate in his compositions elements derived from scenes of New York and Gloucester, gasoline pumps, egg beaters and commercial products such as cigarette packaging, as well as signage and words. He was married to Bessie Chosak, who died in 1932. He later married Roselle Springer; they had one child, George Earl. Stuart Davis died of a stroke in New York City on June 24, 1964.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

The papers were donated to the Fogg Museum in 1967 by the artist's widow, Roselle Davis.

Related Materials

Related Materials: Additional Stuart Davis papers are located at the Archives of American Art. Other significant unpublished art theory texts by Davis are his Journal 1920-1922, collection of The Pierpont Morgan Library, New York, and Sketchbook 18,1938, collection of Earl Davis. Additional unpublished material in the collection of Earl Davis include his father's original business records and correspondence, account books, personal calendars, as well as letters and postcards to colleagues, friends, and family.

See Ani Boyajian and Mark Rutkoski, eds., Stuart Davis: A Catalogue Raisonné (New Haven: Yale University Art Gallery, in association with Yale University Press, 2007) for information regarding some of the drawings in the Stuart Davis papers.

Processing Information

The collection was processed in January-April 2005 by Emily Hankle with the assistance of Mark Rutkoski, Miriam Stewart, and Susan von Salis. All drawings in the Stuart Davis Papers were cataloged by Mark Rutkoski.

Microfilm and Processing Information

The papers were microfilmed in the mid-1960s in the artist's studio by Marjorie Cohn, paper conservator at the Fogg Museum. The papers had been organized by Davis in rough chronological order; this order was maintained in the microfilm.

In the mid-1970s a reel/frame guide ("Index") to the microfilm was compiled by John R. Lane, a Harvard graduate student. For the years following 1954, he listed the dates of the entries, but cited subject matter only when it was felt to contain significant art ideas or proper names that should be catalogued.

When the papers arrived at Harvard, the 50 boxes were stored at Harvard's Houghton Library, which also made available the microfilm negative of the papers. The collection was assigned the Fogg accession number 1967.79. Later, this accession number was expanded to 1967.79.1-50, with an individual number assigned to each box of papers (e.g., box 35 was 1967.79.35).

In the spring of 2005 the collection was retrieved from Houghton Library and was rehoused. Each sheet was placed in a mylar sleeve; the collection was reboxed in 82 archival boxes. Within each box the papers are divided at intervals by boards, for ease of finding and for safety. Each interleaving board lists the date range and accession numbers of the drawings, if any.

At the time of rehousing, the microfilm reel/frame guide (Index) was annotated and amended. In some cases dates were added to the Index; for the entries in which the Index included dates only, the first lines of the text were added by the processor.

Every sheet including a drawing or diagram was assigned a unique accession number and digitized. These accession numbers run from 1967.79.1-1165. The accession numbers generally follow the order of the drawings within the papers, but a few of the accession numbers were assigned out-of-order. [Note that in publications and correspondence prior to 2006 individual drawings were sometimes cited by the old box numbers, reel numbers, and/or microfilm guide numbers. These numbers, now obsolete, have been superseded as part of the re-numbering scheme.]

Papers of Stuart Davis (1967.79), 1918-1964: A Guide
Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Department of Drawings
Language of description

Repository Details

Part of the Harvard Art Museums Archives Repository

The Harvard Art Museums Archives is the official repository for institutional records and historical documents in all formats relating to the Fogg Museum, the Busch-Reisinger Museum, and the Arthur M. Sackler Museum, 1895 to the present. Its collections include papers of individuals and groups associated with the museums' history, including records of past exhibitions, architectural plans, photographs, scrapbooks, and memorabilia, as well as correspondence with collectors, gallery owners, museum professionals, and artists throughout the twentieth century. Its holdings also document the formation of the museums' collections and its mission as a teaching institution.

32 Quincy Street
Harvard University
Cambridge MA 02138 USA