The architecture and streets of New York City served as inspiration for Stuart Davis throughout his career. Concurrent with the city's rapid development in the early twentieth century was Davis' stylistic approach to the urban landscape and his evolution from painterly realism to stark, cubist abstraction. As a teenager in the thriving art scene in New York at the turn of the century, Davis was heavily influenced by the ideals and principles of the artists of the Ashcan Group. As such, at this early point in his career, he turned to the contemporary lifestyle of New Yorkers as a source for subject matter, finding inspiration within the theaters, restaurants and bustling avenues which defined the metropolis at the turn-of-the-century. City Street Scene is a superb example of Davis' early Ashcan works in which he captures the atmosphere of New York city life.
In 1909, at the age of seventeen, Stuart Davis arrived in New York at the behest of his father, Edward Davis, to enroll in the famed Henri School, run by the pioneering leader of the Ashcan Group by whom the school was named, Robert Henri. As an art editor at the Philadelphia Press, Edward Davis had hired Henri along with John Sloan, George Luks, William Glackens and Everett Shinn as illustrators for the paper. Subsequently, these artists along with Ernest Lawson, Maurice Prendergast and Arthur Bowen Davies, would be unified under the heading The Eight, a title which originated from a 1908 exhibition at Macbeth Galleries in New York. Their gritty portrayals of New York captured the reality of tenement living in an uncensored format. This progressive approach to subject matter within art had profound impact on Davis and heavily influenced the artwork of his early career.
Prior to his arrival in New York, Davis primarily sketched and executed works on paper and it wasn't until 1910 that he started working in oil. Painted in 1911, City Snow Scene is among the first paintings in a large scale format that Davis finalized. As William C. Agee notes, "Henri urged his students to get to know their materials, their properties, and the laws of paints so that the artist could make maximum personal use of them, art being invention rather than reproduction. In this way the artist could imbue each stroke with the maximum of personal, authentic expression." (in "Stuart Davis: An Overview," A. Boyajian, M. Rutkoski, Stuart Davis: A Catalogue Raisonné, vol. 1, New Haven, Connecticut, 2007, p. 39) In the present work, it is evident that Davis combined the principles of Henri's teaching with the technique and palette of his contemporary and close friend, John Sloan. Through bravura brushwork and a simplified muted palette, Davis succeeds in rendering a dreary winter's day in lower Manhattan. With a generous application of whites, Davis works up the surfaces to portray the texture of the snow which is juxtaposed with the more carefully applied reds he employs to develop the architecture in the background. Broad, heavily applied strokes of black are the only device Davis employs to represent the pedestrians with the exception of a few simple touches of orange that delineate the faces of the primary figures in the foreground. Vigorous dashes of greyish-white provide a sense of the blustery, swirling snow, the drama of which is underscored in the foreground figures who are bracing themselves against the elements. Characteristic of Davis' early works, "forms are generalized and rendered sketchily to convey the impression that the pictures were created as a direct emotional response to the urban environment." (B. Weber, Stuart Davis' New York, exhibition catalogue, West Palm Beach, Florida, 1985, p. 10)
In City Snow Scene Davis employs strong linear perspective to capture the broad avenue and achieves spatial effect by placing two figures in the foreground marking the entry point into the composition. To carefully define the space, Davis uses planar structures along the left side and staggered vertical lampposts and industrial smokestacks to establish depth. Figures are also used to demarcate space intervals in the scene as they are integrated at varying points in the composition. This dramatic perspective recalls compositional qualities of French contemporary Edouard Manet and suggests Davis studied his work diligently. In 1910, The Metropolitan Museum of Art purchased Manet's Funeral, and acquisition which Henri had supported. "Davis found the painting a 'simple and direct expression,' admiring Manet for the simplifications and the flatness in his painting as well as the way Manet made painting a part of life." (Stuart Davis: A Catalogue Raisonné, vol. 1, p. 47)
Even after his departure from realism into cubist abstraction, the principles Davis studied and learned at the Henri School resonated throughout the artist's long career. As Karen Wilkin notes, "the attitudes and, to a great extent, the approach learned at Henri's school remained with Davis for the rest of his life. No matter how seemingly detached from recognizable reality, Davis's pictures always have at their core the 'expression of ideas and emotions about the life of the time.' (K. Wilkin, Stuart Davis, New York, 1987, p. 45)