Carson Sutherlin Davenport (14 February 1908–28 September 1972), painter, was born in Danville and was the son of John Thomas Davenport, a railroad engineer, and Bettie F. Baugh Davenport. Educated in the city's public schools, he enrolled in January 1929 in an art course at Stratford College, in Danville. That summer Davenport studied at the Grand Central School of Art's Summer Program in Maine, which he attended again in 1932. As a student at the Corcoran School of Art, in Washington, D.C., from October 1929 to April 1930, he won second prize for antique-figure drawing. Davenport worked in various media, including etching, charcoal, oils, and watercolor. During the course of his career, his subject of choice shifted from the Blue Ridge Mountains to Chincoteague Island, where he spent many summers after 1940 painting beach scenes and the famous island ponies with a focus on the rich colors of nature. The realism of his early landscapes later showed the influences of cubism and abstraction.

Davenport first exhibited his work in December 1932 as part of a group show by the Art League, in Washington, D.C. A year later the federal Public Works of Art Project commissioned him to prepare a series of watercolors depicting the Civil Works Administration's projects in Danville. Established in 1933, the PWAP provided artists during the Great Depression with government-sponsored jobs based on their level of skill, rather than on financial need. Davenport participated in the PWAP's National Exhibition of Art at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1934, and his watercolor Pioneer Women, portraying the harsh life of women living in the Blue Ridge, was subsequently chosen for placement in the White House. In 1936 and 1937 the annual exhibitions of the Washington Water Color Club at the Corcoran and the Fourth International Exhibition of Etching and Engraving at the Art Institute of Chicago included his work.

Solo exhibitions during the 1930s in Virginia, Mississippi, and Washington, D.C., attest to the growing national recognition Davenport received for his works' realism in illustrating scenes of rural life. In 1936 the United States Treasury Department commissioned him to illustrate Virginia industries in watercolors and etchings. Late the next year Davenport won a fellowship from the Bok Foundation to the Research Studio, an artists' colony in Maitland, Florida. He also received a grant to attend the Ringling School of Art in Sarasota, Florida, where he painted Harvest Season in Southern Virginia, a mural commissioned by the Treasury Department's Section of Painting and Sculpture for installation in the post office at Chatham, in Pittsylvania County. One of 850 artists the Treasury commissioned to undertake 1,371 murals of American scenes for federal buildings, Davenport received two more commissions for the post office in Greensboro, Georgia. Originally authorized for one mural, he ignored a local historian's request for a depiction of an Indian attack and instead planned a more peaceful genre painting, Cotton Picking in Georgia. The historian's complaints to the government led to another commission for The Burning of Greensborough, illustrating a 1787 attack on the village. Both murals were installed by October 1940.

From 1937 to 1938 Davenport directed the Federal Art Gallery in Big Stone Gap. The following year the Brooklyn Museum showed his work in its International Water Color Exhibition, and his lithograph Stony Mill, Virginia, was selected for exhibition at the New York World's Fair of 1939–1940. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts awarded Davenport a senior fellowship in September 1940 and that December mounted a solo exhibition of forty-two of his watercolors and oil paintings as part of its Virginia Artist Series.

Davenport operated an art school in Danville for a short time and also worked in New York City as a commercial design artist. In 1943 he became head of the art department at Averett College (later University), a women's junior college in Danville, charged with reorganizing the department to emphasize the commercial aspects of art. He left Danville for New York in 1945 but rejoined the Averett faculty the following year.

During the next two decades Davenport continued to paint and exhibit throughout the country, including at the National Print Show, in New Jersey (1957), the National Exhibition of the Mississippi Art Association (1959), and the National Watercolor Exhibition at the Birmingham Museum of Art (1961). His work often appeared in exhibitions at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, from which he received awards of distinction in 1957 and 1961. He won a prize for his painting Wild Pony Fete at the Alabama Watercolor Society's 1964 exhibition.

In June 1960 Davenport fulfilled a longtime dream when he opened the Chincoteague Summer School of Painting, where he taught watercolor, oil, pastel, and printmaking, although by 1964 he had transformed the school into a summer art gallery. He retired from Averett College in May 1969 and sold his Chincoteague home the next year. He never married. Carson Sutherlin Davenport died in a Danville hospital on 28 September 1972 and was buried in Leemont Cemetery. Averett University, the Danville Museum of Fine Arts and History, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts hold examples of his work in their permanent collections.


Sources Consulted:
Biographies in Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Carson Sutherlin Davenport, Virginia Artist Series, no. 13 (1940), and Anita Price Davis, New Deal Art in Virginia: The Oils, Murals, Reliefs, and Frescoes and Their Creators (2009), 45–50 (portrait on 49); autobiographical and biographical information, newspaper clippings, photographs, and exhibition catalogs in Davenport files at Averett University, Danville, Va., and at Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, Va.; Davenport correspondence in Prentiss Taylor Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.; Washington Post, 27 Nov. 1932, 5 Jan. 1934; Danville Register, 6 May 1934, 27 June, 19 Sept. 1943; Richmond Times-Dispatch, Sunday Magazine sec., 19 Dec. 1937; Richmond Times-Dispatch, 1, 8, 11 Dec. 1940, 29 May 1960; Danville Bee, 18 May 1976; Danville Register and Bee, 22 Apr. 1990, 19 Jan. 2000; Chatham Star-Tribune, 21 Mar. 2001, reprinted with revisions as Herman Melton, "'Perfectly Decorative': Chatham's Post Office Mural: The Struggles of Artist Carson Davenport," Pittsylvania Packet (fall 2001), 13–15; American Art Today: New York World's Fair (1939), 262; Sue Bridwell Beckham, Depression Post Office Murals and Southern Culture: A Gentle Reconstruction (1989), 173–175, 240–241, 277–279; James C. Kelly and William M. S. Rasmussen, The Virginia Landscape: A Cultural History (2000), 168, 170; obituaries in Danville Bee, 28 Sept. 1972, Danville Register, 29 Sept. 1972, and Accomac Eastern Shore News, 19 Oct. 1972.


Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by Dianna L. Bisbee.

How to cite this page:
Dianna L. Bisbee,"Carson Sutherlin Davenport (1908–1972)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 2015 (http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.asp?b=Davenport_Carson_Sutherlin, accessed [today's date]).


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