1940: The Arrival of War in Europe

In late April 1940, Davis received the news that the board of directors of the American Academy had extended his fellowship to three years. Davis, who had been wanting to return to the United States after two years, decided to accept the offer. He explained his reasons in an April 25, 1940 letter to Mattson:

“[T]hese last few months have I found my stride, you might say and now I am painting hard and really am getting someplace. So I’m thinking that I can keep that up next year if I stay then I will be able to have a good deal of work to make a showing, as it is now I have very little....

Eleutheria is willing to wait and wants me to take this, so if we’re not all sent home on account of this war, I will stay.”

The years when Davis was at the American Academy in Rome was a time of growing political tension and eventually the outbreak of war, yet there are only brief references to this in Davis’s early correspondence. By 1940, however, the war and its possible impact on the students at the American Academy was clearly weighing on Davis’s mind. 

“This is a beautiful Sunday afternoon—the day after the holiday in commemoration of the Armistice for Italy. Well, the Italians are hoping that they can celebrate that same day for many years. In other words, Italy, I feel, is not going to enter into the war. Everything is going on just as usual here without any unusual measures taken, only the rationing of gasoline, for gasoline has always been a problem with them anyway.

Of course, it’s a pretty big place for us here—the whole Academy for six of us—three Fine Arts and three Classical students.”

Harry Davis, letter to Donald Mattison, November 5, 1939 

“What my plans are now is this. As soon as my fresco is finished and some other things I have started, that will be about the 1st of June, I want to do a little traveling but not much and return home in July or August. There are no countries in the north that I can travel in now although I wanted to see the Scandinavian countries and England.”

Harry Davis, letter to Donald Mattison, March 4, 1940

“We never know these days what the tomorrows will bring. On the boat leaving Genoa the 1st of June are going the landscape architect, and the two girls that were in the classical department, so that cuts us down to only four here and one of that number is leaving this summer, so we don’t know whether the old Academy will open up again in Oct. as usual or not. Right now it is hard to concentrate on what you are trying to do and one is almost afraid to start on anything for fear he will not get it finished….

So it looks like Pipp and I are going to have plenty of room in which to work here. In a few days we will be the only ones here, two of the others left here are going down to Calabria in Southern Italy and stay a couple of weeks.

“So you may see us soon or in the fall, we never know.”

Harry Davis, letter to Donald Mattison, May 29, 1940

The concerns that Davis expressed in his letter of May 29 came to pass. The German invasion of France, Holland, and Belgium led Italy to declare war on Great Britain and France in June, and Italian forces bombed the island of Malta. Those two countries in turn declared war on Italy, and British bombers attacked Naples.

The escalation of the war led to an exodus of foreign nationals out of Italy. Davis and Pippinger left Rome for Naples, and they sailed out of Naples harbor on June 28, 1940 aboard the liner Excalibur, the last American ship out of the Mediterranean.

With Rome no longer an option, Davis used the third year of his Prix de Rome fellowship to study in New York City in 1940 and 1941, then served as an artist-in-residence at Beloit College in Wisconsin for the 1941-42 school year. After his residency was finished, his military career began.

Letter from Eleutheria Psaradelis to Harry A. Davis Jr, November 1940

Eleutheria Psaradelis to Harry A. Davis Jr, November 1940

The pair remained in contact for a time, as shown by Eleutheria’s letter of November 23, 1940, but the unsuccessful Italian invasion of Greece in 1940, the German occupation of Greece in 1941, Davis’s military service from 1942 to 1945, and the outbreak of civil war in Greece in 1946 disrupted communications. A friend of Davis’s was able to get messages to Eleutheria via the Red Cross during World War II, but Davis and Eleutheria seem to have lost contact after the war.  

1940: The Arrival of War in Europe