Monday, August 7, 2017

As the sun sets

Sunset over Mecox Bay. 8:15 PM. Photo: JH.
Monday, August 7, 2017. Beautiful summer weekend in New York with temps in the high 70s and little humidity plus some rainfall in the wee hours before we awakened.

Zita Davisson, the portrait artist many of whose subjects were some of the most famous people of our time, died here in New York three weeks ago on July 18th, from complications after she took a fall while walking her little Chihuahua.

Zita with Gary Lawrence at last year's American Friends of Blérancourt 's annual Gala. Photo: Andrew Werner
Ms. Davisson, who was 88, began painting at a very young age, having her first solo show when she was 12.  In her long lifetime, among her scores of subjects were: Princess Diana with Prince William and Prince Harry, Nancy Reagan, Princess Grace of Monaco with her children; the Maharanee of Jaipur, Liza Minnelli, Rudolph Nureyev, Vanessa Redgrave, Muhammad Ali, Gloria Vanderbilt and her sons Carter and Anderson Cooper; and members of the Rockefeller, Hearst, Havemeyer, Roosevelt, and Whitney families.

A resident of New York and Southampton, she grew up here and in Switzerland where her father was president of the Longines Wittnauer Watch Company. She later studied at the Art Students League here in New York, and with artist Jan de Ruth. When she was a teenager she signed with the Conover Modeling Agency, then the most famous modeling agency in New York pre-dating the Ford Agency.  She later became associate art director at Harper's Bazaar, and designed her own clothing  line.

Married four times, she raised two daughters, Lacy Davisson and Darcy Rigas she is survived by her daughters and grandchildren Virgil L. Doyle and Eliza L. Doyle, and son-in-law John Rigas. Donations honoring the life of Zita Davisson can be made online through

A familiar figure at social gatherings and galas on these pages, in January 1911, she was profiled here by Anita Sarko in the following piece:
Knocking on the door of famed portrait painter Zita Davisson, I hear the ferocious barking of what turns out to a tiny, friendly, silky Papillion, Freckles. Zita, laughing at all the commotion, leads me through a stunning entrance hall to a large sunny room, which is, obviously, her studio. I say "obviously" because, despite the glamorous décor, there is ample evidence of a working artist: easel, paintbrushes, etc. There are also finished portraits and a wall of photos and a wall of press showing Zita with her portraits, sketches and informal photographs of those who have sat for her.

Off of the entrance hall is a stunning living room, lined with portraits of Zita, her daughters, husband, grandchildren and Freckles. There is a giant Buddha lording over a silver shoe collection. There is also a dollhouse with a sign, "Zita's Folly."
Zita in her studio.
Zita's entrance hall. Zita's wall of memories.
A view of the living room.
In Zita's living room is a giant Buddha behind a collection of silver shoes. They include a Warhol, a Moroccan harem slipper, a Spanish stirrup for riding sidesaddle, and one used in India for wearing inside the house.
Zita's "Folly" dollhouse.
Tools of the trade in Zita's studio.
Clockwise from top left: ZITA'S HUSBAND ROBERT HENDRICKSON; ZITA'S GRANDDAUGHTER; ZITA'S GRANDSON VIRGIL DOYAL (as an adult). "He's about to enter Johns Hopkins!"; ZITA'S GRANDSON VIRGIL DOYAL (as a child).
Davisson, whose mother was an artist, began painting when she was two years old. Formally trained at the National Academy's Arts Students League, her first show included nudes, ballet dancers and scenes with people. Ruth Henderson, wife of Skitch (the infamous musical director for The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson), liked a picnic scene and asked Davisson to paint one with her and her children in it. It became a huge canvas. "It wasn't like my little picnic scene," Zita recalls with a smile. "She started me off, which was very lucky. Then, I never had time for anything else!"

Her work not only includes a who's who of historical figures, but also some interesting private folk, sometimes even recording the changes in their lives. "I painted a woman at home. She's in a very sensuous white dress. Her husband died and she took over the business." Now the head of a big company, she commissioned Zita to paint a boardroom portrait. Davisson couldn't help being a bit subversive. "It's much more sedate. She's at her desk, I did manage to squeeze in a dark red suit."
SWOOZIE KURTZ (head sketches and
finished portrait)

"Swoosie was named after her father's airplane from the war – he was a pilot. Not many girls are named after a plane! Swoosie came with a lot of clothes, including the dress she wore to the Oscars, but she decided to wear the sweater she was wearing. She said it was more 'her' and wore it off the shoulder."
"He posed for me before she arrived. He said, 'We have separate careers. We're not Lunt and Fontaine! So, we want to look in different directions.' That was very hard to do and very unusual. Sam was sketching the Statue of Liberty while I was painting the family portrait. He told me that he too may be a painter when he grows up."
"Rudolph Nureyev was beautiful – but he wouldn't stay still, so I painted him as a series in motion." He quipped, "Zita! I haven't shaved yet!," when Zita snapped this photo.
"The family posed on the Palace steps. Princess Grace was absolutely beautiful. I remember it was a very hot day but she remained perfectly cool and serene – I don't know how she did it! Princess Grace was very nice to me and sponsored a show of mine at Gallery Michel-Ange in Monte Carlo."
"I sketched Liza in costume in a NYC theater where they were filming Cabaret. I remember thinking that Liza had the most gorgeous eyes. She could be very amusing. And I loved the Mickey Mouse haircut she had for the film – it just looked great on her!"
"This was painted shortly before his accident, on my chair in the hall!" Zita laughs at the recollection. "He was the most handsome man I have ever met. He was a charmer."
Reeve and Zita with sketches and finished portrait.
And then there was the man and his horse. An animal lover since childhood, particularly of horses ("I knew every muscle, every bone."), Davisson was still amazed when the head of a big horse show actually requested that he bring his beast into her townhouse. "I said, 'Neigh'," Vita giggles. They finally agreed to do the "sitting" where he boarded the horse. "We took everything: him, the horse ... he was in his red hunting jacket. It was stunning."

She describes herself as "very informal" and her finished products as "impressions." These "impressions" come from the subject's eyes, hands, how they sit and talk. Sketching from life allows her to get to know the subjects. She asks questions, like what they feel are their favorite features, hoping to encapsulate not only how she's seeing the subject, but how they're seen through their own eyes, as well as those around them.
"He's painted as an artist, not as a prizefighter.
His father was a painter and he helped him paint murals in churches. He always wanted to be an artist and painted the picture behind him."
Davisson met Diana at a charity function in London. "Amazingly, she knew who AI was." When Zita asked if she could paint her, Diana agreed, but it had to be done then because the princess was booked solid for two years. It was painted in an office at Westminster Abbey. Diana loaned Davisson the dress to finish it.
This was painted two years after the portrait of Diana.


"When I was painting Diana, I asked, 'When is the next time I can paint the boys?" She said, 'When William gets married." I painted this from my heart as a present I'll save to give to them for their first anniversary." Kate is wearing Windsor Violet. "I used many photos. You want the head in one direction and the hand in another."


This is the source material Davisson used for the portrait of William and Kate. "I abstracted it to look like a wedding band."
"I never pose people, particularly children. I just grab them as I can." This proved helpful when faced with a baby who wouldn't come out from under a table or let go of his teddy bear or when dealing with the Duchess of Argyll's four black poodles: "We only put in one. We didn't need four black lumps around her!" As for the difference in the sexes: "Men are more conceited."

And then there are the hurdles presented by painting actors: "They play so many roles that they don't know who they want to be depicted as ... or, they're looking for their real selves."

Occasionally, painting from photographs is the only option. She was asked to paint Judge John Wood, who had been murdered while presiding on the bench, for both the courthouse and a school. "There were only tiny snapshots ... like when he was fishing or in his robes. I finally figured it out."
Zita with HENRY KISSINGER and his finished portrait.
Despite all the commissions she has accepted, there are some she hasn't. If she senses extreme instability, she knows the person will never be satisfied. Then there was the woman who dismissed the finished portrait of her grandchildren as too complimentary, saying, "I think they're rather uglier. I think we should wait a few years." Zita never heard from her.

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