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Charles Demuth (American, 1883–1935)

About this artist

Source: Oxford University Press

American painter and illustrator. He was deeply attached to Lancaster, where his family had run a tobacco shop since 1770. Although not a Regionalist, Demuth maintained a strongly localized sense of place, and Lancaster provided him with much of the characteristic subject-matter of both his early and later work. He trained in Philadelphia at the Drexel Institute of Art, Science and Industry (1901–5) and at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (1905–11), where his teachers included Thomas Anshutz, Henry McCarter (1864–1942), Hugh Breckenridge (1870–1937) and William Merritt Chase. While still a student, he participated in a show at the Academy (1907), exhibiting his work publicly for the first time.

Demuth was one of the first American artists to be receptive to modernism, to which he was exposed during several extensive and significant trips to Europe in 1907–8, 1912–14 and 1921. While abroad, he painted little but became involved with Gertrude and Leo Stein, Jo Davidson and Ezra Pound in Paris. Further contact with avant-garde styles and ideas came through the frequent trips he made from Lancaster to New York, where his close associates included Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe, Marsden Hartley and Marcel Duchamp. He was also close to literary and artistic circles in Provincetown, MA, which he first visited in 1914.

Demuth’s first one-man exhibition was mounted in 1914 at the Daniel Gallery, New York, run by Charles Daniel, who presented the work of many significant early American modernists. Still later, he exhibited regularly at Stieglitz’s gallery, An American Place. Such critics as Henry McBride, Paul Rosenfeld and Carl Van Vechten were early admirers of his work, and his paintings were purchased by perceptive collectors including Albert Barnes, A. E. Gallatin, Louise and Walter Arensberg and Ferdinand Howald. He maintained a close homosexual relationship from around 1909 with Robert Evans Locher (1888–1956), an Art Deco interior decorator and stage designer who was also from Lancaster.

By c. 1915 Demuth had achieved his characteristic style and imagery. His first serious exploration of Cubism was a series of landscapes and architectural views painted during the winter of 1916–17 while he was in Bermuda with Marsden Hartley, for example Trees and Barns, Bermuda (1917; Williamstown, MA, Williams Coll. Mus. A.). He continued to experiment with these formal ideas after a trip to Gloucester, MA, in the summer of 1917. At the same time he painted a series of watercolours inspired by vaudeville themes (1917–19). Not only was Demuth a regular visitor to night-clubs and cafés in New York, but Lancaster was an important stop for vaudeville performers and several local theatres regularly presented such entertainments. Demuth took considerable anatomical liberties with his figures. In their bright colours, deft lines and fluid movements, these watercolours recall the spirit of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Edgar Degas, Auguste Rodin and Henri Matisse, for example In Vaudeville: Dancer with Chorus (1918; Philadelphia, PA, Mus. A.). Chronologically and stylistically related to his vaudeville works is a series of watercolour illustrations produced between 1915 and 1919 inspired by the works of Emile Zola, Franz Wedekind and Henry James. Demuth’s illustrations were unpublished, but examples include Flora and the Governess (1918; Philadelphia, PA, Mus. A.) for James’s The Turn of the Screw, and Lulu and Alva Schoen (1918; Merion Station, PA, Barnes Found.) for Wedekind’s Pandora’s Box. Also at this time, he began to paint still-lifes of flowers, fruit and vegetables, which were to remain favourite subjects. These and his vaudeville works were the most popular among critics and collectors.

In 1919 Demuth began a series of paintings depicting themes inspired (with the exception of two views of nearby Coatesville) by the architecture of Lancaster. Executed in oil and tempera, the series marks a shift from his previously favoured watercolour medium. Larger in scale than any of his other works, these paintings maintain a striking balance between abstraction and realism. The industrial images he used are strongly formalized, structured in simplified Cubist planes and Futurist lines of force, but remain specific. Although Demuth produced relatively few of these industrial landscapes, they established him as an important Precisionist artist (see Precisionism). His most famous work, My Egypt (1927; New York, Whitney), was from this series. Like the accompanying works, it records an identifiable site in the city, not far from the artist’s home on East King Street. Demuth’s last work on this theme was painted in 1933.

From the mid- to the late 1920s, Demuth produced a series of symbolic ‘poster portraits’ of several of his friends, the most famous of which is I Saw the Figure Five in Gold (Homage to William Carlos Williams) (1928; New York, Met.). He also painted tributes to John Marin, Georgia O’Keeffe, Arthur Dove, Gertrude Stein and others. The highly personal iconography and less accessible style of these portraits, combined with their unusual titles, made them difficult for most viewers to appreciate when they were first exhibited. These works, as well as those of Lancaster’s architecture, were not well received by critics.

Demuth’s last works, a series of luminous studies made while on holiday in Provincetown in the summer of 1934, reveal a renewed interest in the human figure. By 1920 the effects of diabetes became debilitating; the disease increasingly drained his artistic energies and led to his death.

Betsy Fahlman
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press


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