Stuart Davis was one of the first American painters to fully embrace the new forms of Modernism which transformed the course of art in the early years of the twentieth century. After his exposure to the work of the European masters on view at the seminal 1913 Armory Show, Davis began to experiment with the various styles that captured his attention. In the years immediately following the exhibition, he emulated the Fauvist works of Henri Matisse, preferring monochromatic backgrounds punctuated by simple outlines of objects. Towards the end of the 1910s, Davis had shifted away from Fauvist compositions in favor of more Cubist works. It was not until the early 1920s that Davis had fully devoted himself to Cubism, as evidenced by the present work, The Tug Boat. "Not part of an artistic group, Davis labored single-handedly in the 1920s to develop an idiomatic Cubism that translated the dynamics of the contemporary American environment into abstract color and shape. If his approach to form and content at times seemed to parallel that of other artists who were affected by Cubism, closer examination reveals that the character of Davis's paintings is bolder, his handling of color and paint more provocative, and his pictorial syntax more distinctively vernacular." (Stuart Davis, American Painter, New York, 1991, p. 17).
The Tug Boat depicts the Gloucester landscape, which was a familiar scene for the artist, although under the influence of Davis' Cubism, the portrayal has morphed from a straightforward landscape into a simulated collage of forms. Here, Davis has configured an interesting juxtaposition of architectural elements and the painterly equivalents of collaged paper. Cupolas jut out from the contained composition and a lone tug boat inches its way across the implied water in the foreground, while generic buildings occupy the background. Dispersed in between the forms, Davis has alluded to stippled swatches that overlap along the left side of the composition, intending to represent the land on which the trees sit. "The entire compositional ensemble, with its panoply of jagged edges and irregular contours, sits squarely against the background. Davis's particular accomplishment in balancing the disparate elements of this composition reminds us especially of the work of Braque and Picasso in 1913-14. The interesting difference is that Davis adapted a vocabulary to the landscape genre that had been developed primarily to accommodate the still life. It would seem that in these paintings the abstracted landscape has become an objectified element itself, again blurring the lines between still life and landscape." (Stuart Davis, American Painter, New York, 1991, p. 159)
Despite his initial contentment with the composition, Davis decided to rework The Tug Boat in 1951 and 1953, "adding new elements to the composition, including the 'Yellow Orange background' which the artist had changed 'based on theory of Sequence of Pairs' from 'the Cream color accepted as good a few years ago.'" (A. Boyajian, M. Rutkoski, Stuart Davis: A Catalogue Raisonné, vol. 3, New Haven, Connecticut, 2007, p. 120) Far from an uncommon practice for Davis, the artist reworked several of his earlier works from the 1920s later in his career to reflect the bolder, more abstract style that he was then pursuing. This original composition from 1922 proved to be a source of inspiration for Davis in 1940 when he created Harbor Tug. Davis redrew the basic composition "and in painting that 1940 canvas the artist first elaborated upon the 1922 composition with the addition of various new elements and configurations." (Stuart Davis: A Catalogue Raisonné, p. 120 )
Stuart Davis, Harbor Tug, signed 'Stuart Davis' (lower right) - signed again and dated 'Stuart Davis 1940' (on the stretcher), oil on canvas, 12 x 16 in. Private Collection. Photo Credit: Robert Lorenzson © Estate of Stuart Daviscensed by VAGA, New York, NY