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Charles Demuth Photo

Charles Demuth

American Watercolorist and Oil Painter

Movements and Styles: Early American Modernism, Precisionism, Impressionism

Born: November 8, 1883 - Lancaster, Pennsylvania

Died: October 23, 1935 - Lancaster, Pennsylvania

Charles Demuth Timeline

Quotes

"So few understand love and work; I think if a few do we may not have lived entirely without point."
Charles Demuth
"Perhaps I'll go to England. I must have a drink on some street corner of the world soon, or bust."
Charles Demuth
"I never knew Europe was so wonderful, and never knew really - not so surely - that New York, if not the country, has something not found here."
Charles Demuth
"There is a war against vice in Lancaster. I am going home to speak for vice."
Charles Demuth
"The last mad throb of red just as it turns green; the ultimate shriek of orange calling all the blues of heaven for relief and support... each color almost regains the fun it must have felt within itself on forming the first rainbow."
On the works of Georgia O'Keefe
"He really enjoys things for what they are and doesn't find it necessary to call them, after he has enjoyed them, by some other name. I wish our country could act the same."
On D.H. Lawrence
"He was not effeminate, as has been sometimes suggested, but merely odd in his manner and movements and eccentric in his dress ... Demuth was a homosexual dandy, with a whinnying laugh and a high-pitched voice, black hair like patent leather that he slicked back after spitting on his hands, a reddish moustache, and a sweetly malicious wit."
Demuth Foundation scholar Bruce Kellner
"[I]t doesn't quite happen, but the idea being so grand - well, you are quite satisfied with what is there. Of course the pages which do 'happen' are quite like the watercolors when they 'happen,' in and beyond Time."
On Marcel Proust's fiction
"It takes time to tell all of what one knows of an intimate, and I have been happily that, in this case for a period of twenty-three years - and the purpose here has been only to outline some of the outstanding traits and tricks of one who liked to be admired, and certainly, himself, enjoyed and admired avidly; [Demuth] had a capacity for admiration as well as friendship, he believed in friends and was amply supplied with them, a nice old-fashioned quality that survives, regardless of the whims and trends of life."
Marsden Hartley, in eulogy

"Paintings must be looked at and looked at and looked at. No writing, no talking, no singing, no dancing will explain them."

Charles Demuth Signature

Synopsis

A larger-than-life figure who is remembered nearly as often for his wit as he is for his paintings, the bold and insatiably curious Charles Demuth wasn't just a product of America's transformative early twentieth century; he was one of its archetypes. Demuth was a principal member of the Precisionist movement that emphasized sharp lines and clear geometric shapes. Challenging the boundaries of race, class, sexuality, and artistic tradition, he digested the shifting social landscape around him and left behind a memorable body of work that defies categorization.

Key Ideas

Demuth's brilliance is in the way he emphasized distinct colors and shapes out of elements that are more often relegated to the background, such as the factory smoke in Incense of a New Church (1921), or that may be considered too dull or commonplace to paint at all, such as typography in I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold (1928). Some of these would go on to influence the design of movie and theater posters, book dust jackets, and other visual media for decades to come.
Like his friend and contemporary Georgia O'Keeffe, Demuth focused with intensity and precision on flowers and other vegetation. Unlike O'Keeffe, he stripped them down to precise geometric shapes and bold colors, imposing form and specificity on the chaos of the organic.
Demuth's cheeky and evocative (and private) paintings of early twentieth century American gay subculture are among its few surviving visual records, and his jazz portraits celebrate the power and dynamism of the Harlem Renaissance.

Most Important Art

Charles Demuth Famous Art

I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold (1928)

Painted in homage to his friend the poet William Carlos Williams, this painting has become one of Demuth's best-known works. It references Williams' poem The Great Figure, which describes a fire engine speeding through the streets on a rainy night. The intersecting lines, planes of color, and round forms of the streetlights and the fire engine's blaring siren infuse the painting with a vibrant, urban energy.

The painting's title is a phrase from the poem. Williams and Demuth met as students in Philadelphia in their early twenties, and were close friends throughout their lives. An iconic work of Precisionism - the geometric planes of light and color that overlap various elements of the composition suggest European Cubism and Futurism, yet their sense of scale and directness of expression are entirely American.
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Charles Demuth Artworks in Focus:

Biography

Childhood

Charles Demuth was the only child of Ferdinand and Augusta Demuth, long-term residents of Lancaster. He grew up in a house next door to the family tobacco shop on East King Street, which his father's family had owned since 1770. When he was four years old Demuth injured his hip and was bedridden for several weeks. His mother gave him crayons and watercolors to keep him entertained, and this marked the beginning of his love for art. As art would become a major feature of his life, so too, unfortunately, would illness. His injury made it necessary for him to use a cane and he walked with a pronounced limp. Though he was close to both his parents, his physical frailty meant that he was particularly dependent on his mother. He became socially withdrawn at school, preferring to play with girls over boys, as his mother and aunt had warned him that rough play with other boys could cause his injury to worsen. Both his parents supported his interest in painting and drawing from an early age - his father was an amateur photographer himself.

After his hip injury began to heal and he was no longer bedridden, his parents sent him to Martha Bowman for private art lessons in still life and landscape painting. As a child and young man, he also trained with other local artists. His early sketchbooks reveal a formidable level of talent and dedication for someone so young. As financially secure merchants, Demuth's parents were consistently supportive of his desire to pursue a career in art.

Early Training

Charles Demuth Biography

He attended Franklin and Marshall College and later pursued graduate study in art in Philadelphia, first at Drexel University and then at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. While at the Academy, he painted his first self-portrait in oil in 1907. William Carlos Williams (later renowned as a leading American poet of modernism and imagism) was living in the same boarding house and the two young men established a friendship which remained throughout their lives.

After leaving school, Demuth shifted away from painting in oil and began to favor watercolor as a medium. He was inspired, quite literally, by what he saw in his own backyard, producing paintings of flowers and his mother's vegetable garden. He was also inspired by his travels to New York City and Provincetown, Cape Cod, where he spent many summers from 1914 onward. Along with the playwright Eugene O'Neill, Demuth became one of the founders of the Provincetown Players, an influential theatre company that played a pivotal role in shaping the landscape of twentieth century American drama.

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Charles Demuth Biography Continues

During the rest of the year, he took the train to New York almost every week and developed friendships with members of the city's artistic elite, including Alfred Stieglitz, Marcel Duchamp, and Edward Fisk. He visited galleries, where he was exposed to the works of leading European and expatriate artists. He also enjoyed the city's nightclubs and jazz bars, and the creative, bohemian atmosphere of the Harlem Renaissance and Jazz Age New York began to appear in his paintings. Although he spent a great deal of time in New York City and Provincetown, Lancaster remained Demuth's home throughout his life, his art rooted in his perception of it as a typically American town, albeit one that shifted to reflect changing times.

Mature Period

Charles Demuth Photo

His artistic success enabled him to travel when his health permitted it, and in the winter of 1915-1916 he rented an apartment on the south side of Washington Square Park, to draw inspiration from the vibrant creative atmosphere of Greenwich Village. In the late 1910s he made several trips to Paris where he met fellow artist Marsden Hartley, who he introduced himself to after overhearing an American accent at a bar. He quickly endeared himself to Hartley and his friends with his outgoing nature, willingness to poke fun at himself, and risque sense of humor.

Along with Hartley, Demuth traveled to Bermuda in 1917 and began a series of architectural and landscape paintings inspired by Cézanne, which heralded his first experimentations with Cubist and Modernist principles. These pieces formed part of an acclaimed exhibition in the fall of 1917 at the Daniel Gallery in New York, alongside the works of modernist painter Edward Fisk.

Demuth traveled to Paris repeatedly in the late 1910s and early 1920s. As a gay man, he found the city more open and accepting than much of the United States, and a number of his paintings - which were not intended for public view at the time he painted them - vividly depict the vibrant gay subculture of postwar Paris. The Lafayette Baths became one of his favorite haunts, and is likely the setting of a 1918 self-portrait. Yet his memories of Paris were not all happy ones: in September 1921, illness forced him to be admitted to the American Hospital in Neuilly-sur-Seine. He was treated and released, but was too unwell to return to America until November. Back home in Lancaster he was diagnosed with diabetes and began experimental treatments, including a near-starvation diet and insulin injections.

Late Period

Charles Demuth Portrait

Having brought his diabetes under control, Demuth began painting the first in his series of "poster portraits" in 1923. These were symbolic interpretations of the works of fellow artists and writers, including Georgia O'Keeffe, Arthur Dove, John Marin, and William Carlos Williams. That same year, he became one of the first of his contemporaries to have work purchased for the Metropolitan Museum of Art's permanent collection. During the mid-1920s, he had several successful solo exhibitions and in 1927, the first book on his work was published, and he began his latest major series of seven paintings, based on the architecture of Lancaster. The paintings became iconic representations of the industrialization of small-town America and cemented Demuth's reputation as the leading painter of the Precisionist movement, the first home-grown modern art movement within the United States.

Accompanied by hometown friends Elsie and Frank Everts, Demuth made his final visit to Provincetown in 1934. During the trip he created some of his last works, sketches of beach scenes in pencil and watercolor. He died the following year in Lancaster at age 51 due to complications from diabetes. In his will, Demuth stipulated that many of his paintings should go to Georgia O'Keefe, whose role in determining which museums received his works helped preserve and fortify his reputation. In the years after his death, Demuth's family home on East King Street in Lancaster became a museum dedicated exclusively to his art.


Legacy

Demuth was a remarkably versatile painter. He was able to shift between delicate, light treatments of flowers or candid moments between friends in watercolor, to more tightly controlled geometric interpretations of the modern urban and industrial landscape. He was one of the first painters to give modernist form a distinctly American point of view, thus the significance of his work to the development of art in this country throughout the twentieth century cannot be overstated. The influence of his industrial landscapes can immediately be seen in the works of Charles Sheeler, Stuart Davis, Gerald Murphy, and Ralston Crawford. By helping to develop an American offshoot of modernism, Demuth became a forerunner to later movements such as Abstract Expressionism and Pop art.

Influences and Connections

Influences on artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Influenced by artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Charles Demuth
Interactive chart with Charles Demuth's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
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View Influences Chart

Artists

Paul CézannePaul Cézanne
John Singer SargentJohn Singer Sargent
William Merritt ChaseWilliam Merritt Chase

Friends

Alfred StieglitzAlfred Stieglitz
William Carlos WilliamsWilliam Carlos Williams

Movements

CubismCubism
Italian FuturismItalian Futurism
Charles Demuth
Charles Demuth
Years Worked: 1905 - 1935

Artists

Georgia O'KeeffeGeorgia O'Keeffe
John MarinJohn Marin
Charles SheelerCharles Sheeler
Stuart DavisStuart Davis
Gerald MurphyGerald Murphy

Friends

Charles DanielCharles Daniel
Marsden HartleyMarsden Hartley

Movements

PrecisionismPrecisionism
Early American ModernismEarly American Modernism

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Content compiled and written by Jen Glennon

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Jen Glennon
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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Useful Resources on Charles Demuth

Books

Websites

Articles

Videos

The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.

biography

Charles Demuth Recomended resource

By Barbara Haskell

Charles Demuth

By Alvord L. Eiseman

Letters of Charles Demuth Recomended resource

By Bruce Kellner

More Interesting Books about Charles Demuth
Charles Demuth Museum Recomended resource

Website of museum dedicated to the artist in Lancaster, PA

Barnes Foundation - Demuth Collection

Extensive collection of Demuth's art based in Philadelphia

211 Works by Demuth

Images of America: The Precisionists

By Hilton Kramer
The New Criterion
December 1982

Precisionism And a Few Of Its Friends

By Roberta Smith
The New York Times
December 11, 1994

Selection of Demuth Works

October 24, 2011

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