Bill Davis has spent his life around boats. “I’ve always had an interest in the maritime,” he says. “Even as a little kid, I was drawing steamboats.” As a child, he began taking lessons at the Hyannisport Yacht Club. Later on, in the 1980s, Davis began painting his way around Hyannis Harbor. “I had a pretty good feel about all the boats in Hyannis Harbor, so that was what I started with, Beetle Cats and such. Everybody in the whole harbor—I think I did everyone’s boat!”
Since then, Davis has steadily built a sterling reputation, broadening his range along the way. He has shown maritime, landscape, and, most recently, still-life paintings around New England and the country. Davis’s work is firmly rooted in the realist tradition and he credits both the Hudson River School painters (of which he is often considered a descendant) and the Tonalists of the late 19th century as strong influences. “I have a kindred feeling to those painters, the same outlook,” he says. “They wanted to show off the beauty. They would argue whether to put man in or not. I like to put man back in, make the figures really small and insignificant. It makes nature seem huge by showing how small we really are.”
Davis’s discovery of painting happened slowly. After school, he first followed his father into the construction trade. While it gave him a foundation in the pragmatic details of running a business, it left him intellectually unsatisfied. “I couldn’t envision myself doing it forever,” he says. “I didn’t mind it and I worked hard, but I just thought, ‘Is this it?’ My mind needed more challenge.” Davis would work during the day and paint at night.
Entirely self-taught, Davis’s teachers were the works of artists he admired; his textbooks were the 19th century paintings that he collected. He developed his skills through close study, observation, and trial and error. “The way I paint is a collage of tons of artists, paintings I saw in antiques magazines, and paintings I saw in museums and auctions,” he says. Gradually, he began selling his paintings—first a few, then many.
After 30 years, Davis is still inspired by the intellectual challenge that painting provides. “I never get bored, and I feel like my quality has increased. Now, I can sit down and do a painting that a few years ago was really difficult for me,” he says. In his current work, Davis balances plein air painting with his studio practice. Whether historical maritime paintings or traditional landscapes, his studio pieces almost always spring from his vivid imagination. As idealized visions, Davis’s paintings capture another century and another time—one without power lines, speedboats, or electric lights. An appreciation for another world is alive in the artist himself—and his splendid paintings could pass as 19th century masterpieces.