William M. Davis spent most of his life painting and living in the area he loved best, Port Jefferson, Long Island. There he befriended renowned genre painter William Sidney Mount, who lived nearby in Stony Brook. Apparently self-taught, Davis was profoundly influenced by Mount, who was one of the most respected painters in America at that time. Although Davis was never a pupil of Mount’s, surviving letters between the two artists show that Mount often gave the younger painter artistic advice and guidance. Davis opened a studio in New York City in 1868, but in 1872, he returned permanently to the Port Jefferson area, where he was affectionately known as “Painter Davis.” Mount had died four years earlier, and to a degree, Davis continued in his mentor’s footsteps, providing locals with paintings of villagers pursuing their daily tasks, the area’s quiet bays and coves, as well as boats anchored or at sea.
Davis exhibited at the National Academy of Design and the Brooklyn Art Association while living in New York City. Once he returned to Long Island, he exhibited exclusively in Port Jefferson, with the exception of a one-man show in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in 1894. According to the Bridgeport Daily Standard, Davis showed 135 of his works and had over 700 people in attendance. A major retrospective titled Port Jefferson’s Foremost Painter: W. M. Davis was held at the Historical Society Museum of Greater Port Jefferson in 1973. Davis’ works are housed in prestigious private collections and institutions, including the Suffolk Museum, Stony Brook, NY; the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities, and the New York State Historical Society, Cooperstown.