Arthur Vining Davis, born raised and educated in Massachusetts was the enormously wealthy and controversial figure who built Alcoa into a giant. A very private person, he presented himself as a hard-working man and distinguished himself as a philanthropist. Guy Lowell designed an estate for him about 1922 on the Gold Coast of Long Island in the classical style for which he was known. Lowell wrote books about Italian villas and gardens and this home was typical with its white stucco arcaded exterior, red tile roof and formal terraced gardens. Lowell chose Allen’s figure of the Roman god Cupid for a fountain at the Mill Neck estate and ordered a replica for himself.
The young winged boy has just let loose an arrow from his bow and watches mischievously as it flies to the heart of his intended and unsuspecting target. “Charming and very beautiful” were words used by the poet Sappho to describe Eros, a god of love whom the Romans borrowed from Greek mythology and renamed Cupid. (Encyclopedia Mythica, Eros by Ron Leadbetter in www.pantheon.org). That description clearly fits this fountain piece. The child’s personality shows on his face and in the pose of his perfect little body.
Figure drawing and knowledge of anatomy was part of the strict Beaux-Arts style training at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts taught by Allen’s Boston School instructors. He passed that training on to his students over the 50 years he was instructor there. When beginners at the school had learned to draw from classical statuary and live models, they were taught to build figures in clay. “The first hundred are the hardest,” Allen would say. (Smith) The inner structure was analyzed, then the eye was trained to see movement first in the large forms and then the small forms following the center line and the lines of action. “Finally this principle of inner movement becomes almost a muscular reflex running though the sculptor’s hands into the work.” (Betty Smith) This figure is anatomically correct, proportional for a boy of this age, and interesting in its action as seen from all sides.
Looking past technical mastery, one looks for personality and character in the work of American sculptors of this era. Eros looks alive, his vitality transmuted through Allen’s hands. It’s hard to take your eyes off that wonderful face! The eyes sparkle. You can almost hear him laugh. His bearing is sure and cocky; he almost prances in glee off the scalloped disc that his toes grip.
Compositionally, there is balance and harmony in the forms and lines. The spread legs form a triangular base for the action, the space between them becoming part of the design. The weight of the bow, held at the end of the crossing line formed by the arms and shoulders balances the weight of the box formed by the opposing bent arm and the space it encloses. The muscles of the thighs contract above the knees forming a mass that anchors the upper solidly to the ground for an accurate shot. A center line rises from the middle of the base up to the top of the head. Two lines are formed diagonally across it, one by the back left leg through the body to the bent right arm behind his head and the other by the forward leg through the angle of the back and wings.
The curving lines of the torso create movement. Momentum is created by the forward thrust of the belly that rebounds in a line of action that is propelled upward and forward by the opposing movement in the imagined release of the arrow through the straight arm in the other direction. The face follows the line of the released arrow, accelerated by the direction of the head and eyes. The whole is suspended and spinning around the center line that goes from the top of the head, through the neck and shoulders, through the base of the pelvis and down through the triangle between the legs to the center of the round base.
To keep the forms in balance, Allen taught, “Keeping small forms small makes the big forms bigger.” (Smith) Here the large forms in the bulk of the torso and legs simplify the composition below the shoulders. All of the small forms and details are above the torso in the arms and head. “Jingle” was what Allen called them. The arms are well-formed, their surface muscles realistically modeled to show the tension required to hold the bow steady in its aim. The hands and fingers are anatomically correct and the position of the hands and arms when an arrow is released show his knowledge of archery. The sweep of the long hair, the round dimpled cheeks, the shape of the mouth, the large wide-set eyes and the delicate ears form the details of the head and give expression to the face. The “jingle” enlivens and colors the composition.
Frederick Allen made beautiful children and angels. This is one of his best.