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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

Important Art by Charles Demuth

The below artworks are the most important by Charles Demuth - that both overview the major creative periods, and highlight the greatest achievements by the artist.

Self Portrait (1907)

Self Portrait (1907)

Artwork description & Analysis: Demuth painted this self-portrait while he was studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAMA). 23 years old, he depicts himself as a pensive, thoughtful young man. While the details of his face and hair are captured in painstaking detail and nuance, his clothing is less distinctive, and gives way to a looser, unfinished rendering of his jacket toward the bottom of the canvas. His eyes do not directly meet the gaze of the viewer, and instead look slightly downward and to the right. The style of the portrait demonstrates how the instructors at PAMA - among them Thomas Anshutz, William Merritt Chase, and Hugh Breckenridge - instilled within Demuth an early reverence for a traditional, European approach to art. This early self-portrait is somewhat reminiscent of the work of John Singer Sargent, though Demuth would go on to develop his own distinct style. This painting was the only work ever exhibited in his hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, during his lifetime.

Oil on Canvas - Demuth Museum, Lancaster, Pennsylvania

At Marshalls (1915)

At Marshalls (1915)

Artwork description & Analysis: During his regular visits to New York, Demuth would meet with friends at jazz clubs, basement bars, and hotel cafés. This sketchy, impressionistic watercolor depicts an evening he spent listening to jazz in the bar of the Marshall Hotel in the company of fellow artists Marcel Duchamp, Edward Fisk, and Marsden Hartley. It captures the energy of a night on the town: the men are smartly dressed, the room is smoky, and their faces are flushed with drink.

The Marshall Hotel, a black-owned hotel on West 53rd Street, was an important gathering place for New York's black elite, and among the first establishments where white, bohemian New Yorkers could come to experience the culture, music, and performances that would come to be known as the Harlem Renaissance. Demuth and his friends witnessed jazz in its infancy on nights like the one depicted here, and his images of these Manhattan hotspots were among the first to capture this pivotal period in America's cultural development. Jazz played a critical role in the development of American modernism, inspiring many of the nation's artists and writers to experiment and develop new forms of creative expression outside long-established European traditions.

Watercolor and Graphite on Paper - Demuth Museum, Lancaster, Pennsylvania

Turkish Bath with Self Portrait (1918)

Turkish Bath with Self Portrait (1918)

Artwork description & Analysis: This watercolor sketch offers an illuminating depiction of the gay subculture in postwar New York. The setting is likely the Lafayette Baths, a Turkish bathhouse in the East Village. The artist, with dark hair and mustache, appears nude in the center of the frame. He talks with two other men: a blonde man swaddled in a towel, who faces away from the camera, and a fully undressed red-headed man who strikes a confident pose. Behind the trio, a man with indistinct features stands in a pool, water waist high, while a duo in the upper right corner of the canvas seem to be caught up in an intimate moment.

Demuth was likely open about his sexuality with his friends, and frankly depicted the evolving, underground gay scenes in New York and Paris. This image is striking in its open, candid depiction of desire and attraction between men. It was not intended for public exhibition during Demuth's lifetime and historically it has great significance, visualizing the emergence of a sexual subculture organized along very different lines than male/female courtship. Since his death, Demuth's watercolors of early-20th-century gay life have proven to be sources of inspiration and fellowship to later generations of American artists, including Andy Warhol, another Pennsylvania native.

Graphite and Watercolor on Paper - Private Collection

Incense of a New Church (1921)

Incense of a New Church (1921)

Artwork description & Analysis: Here, the vagueness of the city skyline is brought about not by any sort of physical blurriness, but by the use of simple, almost cartoonish patches of color that suggest darkness and obscure detail - even the plumes of industrial smoke are depicted geometrically. The cluster of clear shapes and colors depicts a dark, misty reality. This painting is a masterpiece of Precisionism, projecting form and structure onto organic and ambiguous phenomena, showing the influence of Cubism.

Critics tend to believe that the title Incense of a New Church holds self-evident meaning - the plumes of industrial smoke reminiscent of incense, the factories replacing the churches that once dominated the American cultural landscape. As a child Demuth could look up from his own backyard to see Lancaster's Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity, and would have had every reason to compare the factory town's shift from a landscape dominated by churches to one dominated by industry. Critics sometimes suggest that the title is meant to imply protest and a desire to return to the way things used to be, but there is little in Demuth's other work to suggest that he was in any way displeased with the emerging iconography of a more urban, secular world.

Oil on Canvas - Columbus Museum of Art, Columbus, Ohio

Plums (1925)

Plums (1925)

Artwork description & Analysis: Just as Demuth's Precisionist style brings out an organic character in industrial imagery, it teases the music of industrial geometry out of the organic. Note here the naked sharp boundaries of the leaves and branches, the minimal attention given to secondary light, the absence of any natural background, and the clinical, almost stark focus on the structure of the plum branch itself. It is not (and clearly does not aspire to be) photorealistic, but the painting's crispness conveys an essential shape, indigenous to the subject itself, that a photograph could not achieve. Demuth's flower paintings brought him commercial and critical success during his lifetime, but they receive relatively little critical attention today and unlike his well-known contemporary Georgia O'Keefe, he did not become famous for them.

Watercolor on Paper - Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, Massachusetts

My Egypt (1927)

My Egypt (1927)

Artwork description & Analysis: This enigmatic painting, one of seven in Demuth's final major series, depicts a concrete and steel grain elevator in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The massive structure looms over the smaller, red buildings nearby - perhaps barns or family homes - almost shoving them out to the sides and corners of the canvas. Several intersecting beams of light illuminate the grain elevator like an actor on stage, reiterating its importance while adding a geometric fracturing reminiscent of Cubism to the composition.

The painting has been interpreted as both a critique of modernization and a celebration of it. The title suggests that industrialization is a pinnacle of American achievement equivalent to the great monuments of the ancient world, evoking the pyramids of Egypt and their symbolic association with life after death, which may have been a compelling idea to Demuth, who was bedridden by illness at numerous points throughout his life. At the same time, the painting may also allude to the slave labor that built the great monuments to the pharaohs. Thus serving as a critique of the dehumanizing effect of industry on American workers.

Oil, Chalk, and Graphite on Board - Whitney Museum of American Art

I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold (1928)

I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold (1928)

Artwork description & Analysis: 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.

Oil on Board - Metropolitan Museum of Art

Distinguished Air (1930)

Distinguished Air (1930)

Artwork description & Analysis: This amusing watercolor depicts a small crowd: a woman in a bold, low-cut dress on the right, two men at the center, and a man and woman at the right. Inspired by a scene from a short story by the American writer Robert McAlmon, which takes place in a "queer café" in Berlin, the onlookers view a sculpture by Constantin Brancusi, Princess X (1915-16). Demuth humorously accentuates the phallic form of Brancusi's bronze sculpture, which caused quite a scandal on its debut. While both women appear to be blushing and staring at the statue with open mouths, the man in the brown suit on the left is clearly more interested in appreciating the aesthetic charms of the sailor, who himself appears to be looking at his companion instead of the sculpture, or perhaps scrutinizing the woman in red. The painting evokes the underground culture of sexual freedom and expressiveness within Europe's artistic and bohemian circles during the First World War, and gives the viewer a glimpse of Demuth's witty personality and fondness for blue humor.

Watercolor and Graphite on Paper - Whitney Museum of American Art

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Charles Demuth Photo

Related Art and Artists

Paul Cézanne: The Large Bathers (1898-1906)

The Large Bathers (1898-1906)

Artist: Paul Cézanne

Artwork description & Analysis: The Large Bathers is one of the finest examples of Cézanne's attempt at incorporating the modern, heroic nude in a natural setting. The series of very human nudes, no Greco-Roman nymphs or satyrs, are arranged into a variety of positions, like objects of still life, under the pointed arch formed by the intersection of trees and the heavens. The figures are devoid of any particular personality - the artist assembles them for purely structural purposes. Here Cézanne is reinterpreting an iconic Western motif of the female nude, but in an exceptionally radical way. The sheer size of the painting is monumental, confronting the viewer directly with abbreviated shapes that resolve themselves into the naked limbs of his sitters. This is not yet abstraction, but in such instances Cézanne has already moved beyond the figurative tradition.

Oil on canvas - The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Georgia O\'Keeffe: Petunia No. 2 (1924)
Artwork Images

Petunia No. 2 (1924)

Artist: Georgia O'Keeffe

Artwork description & Analysis: Petunia No. 2, one of O'Keeffe's first large-scale renderings of a flower, represents the beginning of her exploration of a theme that would mark her career. In this painting, she magnifies the flower's form to emphasize its shape and color. She stated that "nobody really sees a flower - really - it is so small - we haven't time - and to see takes time... So I said to myself - I'll paint what I see - what the flower is to me but I'll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it." Her flower images often received interpretations that O'Keeffe disagreed with, particularly from feminist critics who saw these paintings as veiled illusions to female genitalia. For O'Keeffe, there was no hidden symbolism, just the essence of the flower. In fact, the anatomy of the petunia is incredibly detailed, and O'Keeffe may have been emphasizing the androgyny of the reproductive parts in order to counter the idea that her subject matter was connected to her gender. Though American and European artists had experimented with abstraction for at least a decade, O'Keeffe, like Dove, focused on images from nature and O'Keeffe was the only artist to consistently use flowers as a motif.

Oil on canvas - Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe

Jean Metzinger: Tea Time (1911)
Artwork Images

Tea Time (1911)

Movement: Cubism

Artist: Jean Metzinger

Artwork description & Analysis: When this painting was shown at the 1911 Salon d'Automne, the critic Andre Salmon dubbed it "The Mona Lisa of Cubism." While Picasso and Braque were dematerializing figures and objects in their works, Metzinger remained committed to legibility, reconciling modernity with classicism, thus Salmon's nickname for the work. Despite the realism of the painting, like other Cubists, Metzinger abandons the single point of view in use since the Renaissance. The female figure and the still life elements are shown from differing angles as if the artist had physically moved around the subject to capture it from different points of view at successive moments in time. The teacup is shown in both profile and from above, while the figure of the centrally positioned woman is shown both straight on and in profile. The painting was reproduced in Metzinger and Gleizes's book Du Cubisme (1912) and in Apollinaire's The Cubist Painters (1913). The work became better known at the time than any work by Picasso or Braque who had removed themselves from the public by not exhibiting at the Salon. For most people in the 1910s, Cubism was associated with artists like Metzinger, rather than its originators Picasso or Braque.

Oil on Cardboard - Philadelphia Museum of Art

Marsden Hartley: Portrait of a German Officer (1914)

Portrait of a German Officer (1914)

Artist: Marsden Hartley

Artwork description & Analysis: Hartley's painting Portrait of a German Officer is replete with diamonds, triangles, circles, black and white lines, and rich shades of red, blue, green, and yellow. Additionally, we see symbols including the Iron Cross and reproductions of German military emblems and flags. The arrangement of these shapes and symbols creates an abstract collage that is at once formally interesting but seems equally mysterious in its meaning. Georgia O'Keeffe commented that Hartley's German paintings were "like a brass band in a closet."

This work is part of one of the most important and best known series of Hartley's career, his so-called German Officer paintings. While showcasing his mastery of Cubism, it is also a key example of how personal experiences helped to shape the themes that Hartley explored in his works. Germany fascinated him from the moment he arrived and, in particular, the military customs and pageantry caught his attention. Intended as a tribute, this painting makes reference to the death of Karl von Freyburg, with whom Hartley had been (believed to be) in love, and who died in battle in October 1914. Hartley later stated that the painting "stood as a symbol for all that is inspiring in young life." The letter "E" stands for von Freyburg's Bavarian Eisenbahn regiment, and "24" his age at death. It was not, however, the subtle references to homosexual love that proved controversial but rather what many felt to be praise Germany and their military action. Hartley's refusal to outright denounce Germany and his continued interest in the country made him a lightning rod for controversy among American audiences and hindered the development of his career.

Importantly, though, Hartley's painting partakes in the modernist rethinking of portraiture that was being carried out by Picasso, Gertrude Stein, and his American colleagues like Charles Demuth and Florine Stettheimer, among others. The painting is roughly the height of a person, emphasizing its human subject. While Hartley did not paint the physical likeness of his deceased friend, the symbols collaged together make an abstract portrait. As art historian Jonathan Frederick Walz has argued, the disappearance of the subject's physical likeness in the portrait points to changing notions of subjectivity in the first decades of the 20th century.

Oil on canvas - Collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York

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Content compiled and written by Jen Glennon
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