Portrait of Mrs John W. Davis, née Ellen G. Bassel signed, inscribed and dated 'de László/1920.august.London' (lower left) oil on canvas 82.9 x 57.2 cm. (32 5/8 x 22 1/2 in.)
PROVENANCE: Private Collection, U.S.A.
EXHIBITED: Washington, D.C., The Corcoran Gallery, Paintings by Philip A. de László, 26 February-20 March 1921, cat.no.30 New York, M. Knoedler & Co., Paintings by Philip A. de László, 4-16 April 1921, cat.no.8
LITERATURE: The Washington Post, Sunday, 13 March 1921, p.7 Owen Rutter, Portrait of a Painter, London, 1939, p.344 William H. Harbaugh, Lawyer's Lawyer: The Life of John W. Davis, Oxford University Press, New York, 1973, p.146 (ill.pp.272 & 273) William D. Theriault, Julia Davis: A Literary Biography, 1992. Web.10 April 2013 Garland S. Tucker III, The High Tide of American Conservatism: Davis, Coolidge, and the 1924 Election, Emerald Book Co., 2010 (ill.p.129)
De László painted both the sitter and her husband, John W. Davis in 1920, while the latter was U.S. Ambassador to the Court of St James's (1918-1921). The artist 'not wholly satisfied with the blandness of the official portrait of the Ambassador,' made a second portrait of him two years later (Harbaugh, op.cit). It was Mrs. Davis who persuaded her husband to sit for the artist and he was so struck by her beauty that he insisted on painting her as well.
Ellen 'Nell' Graham Bassel was born 26 January 1869 in Clarksburg, West Virginia, the daughter of John Bassel (1840-1914), a well-known lawyer in Clarksburg, and his wife Martha Lewis (1841-1912). As a young woman, Ellen and her five sisters aspired 'to lead the fast set' in Clarksburg (Tucker, op.cit, p.117). The sitter married firstly Charles Walter List, 7 November 1894, however, she divorced him as a result of his addictions and adulterous behavior.
John W. Davis (1873-1955) and the sitter had known each other growing-up in Clarksburg. From 1907, as their relationship developed, there were strong objections from his family owing to her status as a divorcée. These were eventually overcome and they married 2 January 1912, at the rectory of the Episcopal Church in Clarksburg. Davis was serving at this time in the House of Representatives for West Virginia and was appointed the following year as Solicitor General of the United States. The couple made their home in Washington, D.C., where the sitter 'made sure that [her husband] wore the right clothes, met the right people, and kept his appointments. She freed him from the responsibilities of daily life so that he could do what he did best, practice law and diplomacy' (William D. Theriault, Julia Davis: A Literary Biography, 1992).
President Woodrow Wilson appointed John W. Davis as the U.S. Ambassador to the Court of St. James's in September 1918. The Times in London described the couple as 'among the best liked personages' in official life in Washington (The Times (London), 20 September 1918). In London the sitter was of great assistance to him, and was described as 'the handsomest woman who had presided at the American embassy in 50 years' ('Mrs John W. Davis', The New York Sun, 14 July 1943).
On their return to the United States in 1921 Davis again took up private law practice and established himself in New York City as one of the nation's leading corporate lawyers. The sitter continued to be a great support to her husband in his career, which included his loss as the Democratic candidate in the presidential election of 1924 to Republican incumbent Calvin Coolidge. Julia Davis, his daughter from his first marriage, reflected that Ellen, 'made him an excellent wife. He never would have gone as far afterwards as he did because his attitude toward a new job was always that he was afraid he couldn't handle it...He got over it, but she brought him out' (Theriault, op.cit.)
Ellen Davis and her husband maintained a town house in New York at 2 East 88th St. and a country home, Mattapan, in Lattingtown, Locust Valley, on the North Shore of Long Island, New York. At Mattapan the sitter enjoyed cultivating prize-winning flowers and she was a member of the Colony Club in New York, as well as being active on behalf of a number of philanthropic causes.
Ellen Davis died 13 July 1943 at the age of 74, after a long illness. Her last days were spent at the home of a friend in Locust Valley, having been displaced from Mattapan by a fire shortly before. Her husband survived her until 1955.
We are grateful to Katherine Field and Matt Davies for compiling the catalogue entry for this portrait, which will be included in the Philip de László catalogue raisonné, currently presented in progress online: www.delaszlocatalogueraisonne.com
The Hon. Mrs de Laszlo and a team of editors are compiling the catalogue raisonné of the artist's entire oeuvre. Katherine Field is the British and Canadian Editor and Matt Davies is the American Editor. Please see www.delaszloarchivetrust.com or contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information or to offer any contribution.