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Charles Demuth

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Charles Demuth
American
(Lancaster, Pennsylvania, 1883 - 1935, Lancaster, Pennsylvania)

Charles Henry Buckius Demuth was born November 8, 1883 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. (1) Demuth was an only child. His parents, Ferdinand and Augusta Demuth, encouraged his interest in drawing and painting from an early age. Other members of the family also were artistic; several aunts were amateur painters and sculptors, and his father was a photographer. Between the ages of approximately 5 and 7, Demuth developed a serious illness and was bedridden for two years. The disease left him with a shortened leg and delicate health, but from most accounts he went on to have a fairly active, though sheltered, childhood. (2)

As a child, Demuth took lessons in still-life and landscape painting from a local painter, Martha Bowman. He later also studied china-painting and wood-burning with another local artist, Letty Purple. At age 16, he was enrolled at a preparatory school in Lancaster called the Franklin and Marshall Academy, where he studied math and other business subjects. Demuth graduated from the Academy in June of 1901.

In 1903, Demuth enrolled as an elementary art student at the Drexel Institute of Art, Science, and Industry in Philadelphia and the following summer he attended classes at the Pennsylvania School of Industrial Art. The curriculum of both schools was oriented toward the commercial arts, but one of Demuth's teachers at Drexel encouraged him to study fine art. In the spring of 1905, he began taking courses at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and became a full-time student several months later. He studied there until January of 1910 under Thomas Anshutz and William Merritt Chase, among others.

Demuth took his first trip to Europe in October, 1907. He visited Berlin, London, and Paris, returning home after five months. He continued to study at the Pennsylvania Academy for another two years and it was during this period that he met Robert Locher who was to become a close and lifelong friend. (3) Demuth's work at this time consisted of watercolors of flowers and still lifes; his technique of using color washes over pencil outlines also dates from this period. Under the influence of an exhibition of watercolors by John Marin and Paul Cézanne that he saw in 1911, Demuth's work began to reveal new modernist tendencies such as a use of heightened color.

After finishing his coursework at the Pennsylvania Academy, Demuth lingered on in Philadelphia for another year, eventually returning to live in Lancaster in 1912. Within a few months, however, he had left again for Paris where he arrived in December. Demuth began taking drawing classes at the Académie Moderne and doing independent study at the Académie Colarossi and Académie Julian. These classes were to be the last of his formal artistic training. He also became involved in the Parisian art scene where he became friends with people such as Marsden Hartley and Gertrude Stein.

In the spring of 1914, Demuth returned to the United States. There, he divided his time between Lancaster and New York, spending summers at New England seaside resorts. He began exhibiting regularly at Daniel Gallery in New York, beginning with a one-man show of his watercolors in October of 1914. (4) He also spent much of his time doing creative writing for various publications including fiction, exhibition texts, and critiques written in a Symbolist style. Through this kind of work Demuth met the poet William Carlos Williams, who became a close friend, and Alfred Stieglitz who asked him to contribute to his journal, Camera Work.

In 1915, Demuth began his first series of figurative works. His subjects were the vaudeville and circus performers he had seen at the Fulton Opera House and the Colonial Theater in Lancaster. Over the next few years, he also created a number of watercolor and pencil illustrations for books. (5) During the summer of 1916, under Marsden Hartley's influence, Demuth began working toward what would become his Precisionist style. These paintings of architecture blended Cubist elements, such as angular planes and multiple viewpoints, with his earlier fluid line and diffuse areas of color. A trip to Bermuda in early 1917 intensified the palette he used in these works.

By 1919, Demuth's Precisionist style was fully developed. He continued to concentrate on American architectural scenes, particularly the factories and office buildings around Lancaster. Most of these paintings were executed in oil or tempera rather than watercolor. During a trip to Paris in August, 1921, Demuth became seriously ill and was hospitalized in Paris. He was diagnosed with diabetes and returned to the United States in the summer of 1922 for treatment. For the first ten months he was kept on a starvation regime, but was finally given experimental insulin in March of 1923. For much of this period Demuth was too weak to do much painting and he created only a few watercolors of still lifes.

Late in 1923, Demuth's health recovered sufficiently for him to begin oil painting again. He embarked on a series of symbolic poster "portraits" of major personalities in American art and literature, including his most famous work I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold. In 1927, Demuth also began a new group of paintings of the architectural landscape of Lancaster.

In 1930, Demuth began working on a series of watercolors in a looser, more illustrational style. Many of these works were not known until long after his death, however, because of their homosexual, and in some instances, pornographic, content. By 1932, however, the overtly sexual themes of these works gradually became less evident and his last known watercolors are a series of beach scenes that he created in Provincetown in 1934. It was after this trip to Provincetown that Demuth once again became too ill to paint. In July of 1935, he began to suffer serious effects from his diabetes and on October 23, 1935, he died in his sleep after a hypoglycemic attack. (6) In 1937, the Whitney Museum of Art presented the first large-scale retrospective of his work. During his lifetime, Demuth created over 900 paintings, drawings, and illustrations.

Unlike some artists, Demuth's life history has always been a source of fascination to biographers and critics. Part of this interest stems from the identification of Demuth as the quintessential Jazz Age artist. Demuth loved nightclubs and parties, drank heavily, and was a member of the most progressive and glittering social circles in both New York and Paris. Photographs and reminiscences show that he was elegant and dandified in appearance and adopted the posture of the aesthete—indifferent, sophisticated, detached, witty. Most of the interest stems, however, from Demuth's homosexuality. Demuth never openly discussed his homosexuality, but a number of his friends including George Biddle, William Carlos Williams, and Marcel Duchamp spoke of it as a well-known fact. (8) The recent reappearance of Demuth's late erotic watercolors of sailors and his earlier Turkish bath series has provided other direct evidence. Earlier critiques of Demuth's work tended to either ignore this central aspect of Demuth's life or over-reacted to it, seeing evidence of homosexual content and a "debauched personality" in all his works. (9) It is only recently that Demuth's homosexuality, its impact on his art, and its effect on critiques of his art, have begun to be directly addressed. (10)

The influences on Demuth's art were varied, ranging from the Aesthetic "art for art's sake" movement of the late 19th century to Dadaism. Demuth was particularly taken with Aubrey Beardsley though Barbara Haskell has argued that it was Beardsley's personality and lifestyle that primarily interested Demuth since there is little trace of Beardsley's artistic style in Demuth's work. (11) Certainly, Demuth was attracted to the appearance and lifestyle of the aesthete and along with Beardsley, he greatly admired Oscar Wilde. As for his art, Demuth listed Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, John Marin, Marsden Hartley, and Marcel Duchamp as his major influences.

Demuth worked concurrently in two distinctive styles adapted to different subjects. For his architectural paintings, he worked in a Precisionist style using angular planes and lines of force to depict the sharp edges and geometric forms of manmade objects. These works were primarily executed in oil or tempera paint. In contrast, Demuth used watercolor for his organic subjects such as figures, flowers, and fruit. For these subjects he turned to fluid line and simplified compositions washed with color to depict their rounded and irregular shapes, and in the case of figures, active movements. Both styles, however, reveal Demuth's sensitivity to pattern, shape, and line, and his interest in color. In all his works, he used color to convey mood and suggest emotional content.

(1) Biographical information has been compiled from the following sources: Information on file, Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Montgomery, Alabama; Andrew Carnduff Ritchie, Charles Demuth, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1950; Sanford Schwartz, "Glimpsing the 'Hidden' Demuth", Art in America, September/October 1976; Betsy Fahlman, Pennsylvania Modern: Charles Demuth of Lancaster, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1983; Jonathan Weinberg, "'Some Unknown Thing': The Illustrations of Charles Demuth", Arts Magazine, December 1986; Barbara Haskell, Charles Demuth, Whitney Museum of American Art in association with Harry N. Abrams Inc., New York, 1987; Betsy Fahlman, "Charles Demuth's Paintings of Lancaster Architecture: New Discoveries and Observations", Arts Magazine March 1987; Betsy Fahlman, "The Charles Demuth Retrospective at the Whitney Museum", Arts Magazine March 1988; Jonathan Weinberg, "Demuth and Difference", Art in America April 1988. Other well-known sources that were not consulted for this essay are Emily Farnham's Charles Demuth. His Life, Psychology and Works. unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Ohio, 1959 (later published as Charles Demuth: His Life, Psychology and Works, Vols. 1-3, Ohio State University, 1959) and her Charles Demuth: Behind a Laughing Mask, Norman, Oklahoma, 1971. More recent works, including articles by Farnham herself, have corrected a number of factual errors present in these earlier texts. A more recent catalog from the Whitney Museum of American Art (Charles Demuth, 1987) by Barbara Haskell is an excellent source for an updated and detailed biography of Demuth's life, and includes a list of his writings and the exhibitions in which he participated during his lifetime.
(2) Haskell, 1987, p. 13. Several authors have suggested that Demuth's illness, and his total dependence on his mother during that time, as well as the sheltered life he led after his recovery, gave him a lifelong self-image as an invalid and outsider and made him somewhat of an introvert.
(3) It is generally believed that Locher and Demuth were lovers though there is no direct evidence in letters or the reminiscences of friends for more than a close friendship.
(4) Demuth's association with Daniel Gallery lasted until the gallery closed in 1932. However, it appears that Alfred Stieglitz at Gallery 291 began to handle his oil paintings after about 1921.
(5) Demuth created eleven illustrations for Emile Zola's Nana and one for his novel L'Assommoir, one for Honoré de Balzac's Girl with the Golden Eyes, six for Frank Wedekind's Lulu plays, five and three respectively for Henry James' The Turn of the Screw and The Beast in the Jungle, one for Edgar Allen Poe's Masque of the Red Death, and one for Walter Pater's A Prince of Court Painters. Most of these illustrations appear to be Demuth's private interpretations of his readings of the texts rather than literal illustrations of scenes from each work.
(6) On his death, Demuth's watercolors, colored drawings, and pencil drawings went to his friend Robert Locher and his oils were left to Georgia O'Keeffe. Demuth's mother, Augusta, also left Locher the family home on her death several years later. Locher began cataloging Demuth's work and assembled several scrapbooks on Demuth and his career, but died before he finished the task. He left the house and remaining Demuth works to his friend Richard Weyand. Weyand died soon after Locher, leaving no will, and the Demuth works and scrapbooks were divided among Weyand's brothers and sisters. Several of these scrapbooks and late watercolors have recently come up for auction but many remain unlocated. Otherwise, Demuth's works can be found in museums and private collections across the United States. Dr. Albert Barnes of Pennsylvania owned the largest private collection of Demuth's work and over 40 Demuth's are still in the possession of the Barnes Foundation.
(7) Charles Demuth Memorial Exhibition, December 15, 1937 to January 16, 1938, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. A second retrospective was held at the Museum of Modern Art in 1950 (see Andrew Carnduff Ritchie, Charles Demuth, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1950). More recent retrospectives include one at the University of California, Santa Barbara (see Phyllis Plous, Charles Demuth: The Mechanical Encrusted on the Living, The Art Galleries, University of California, Santa Barbara, 1971) and the 1987 retrospective at the Whitney Museum (Barbara Haskell, Charles Demuth, Whitney Museum of American Art in association with Harry N. Abrams Inc., New York, 1987).
(8) Weinberg, 1986, p. 14.
(9) See for example Ritchie, 1950, p. 10 ("In some mysterious way the whole effect [of his floral watercolors] is one of sinister suggestion—fleurs du mal, one feels, not the innocent blossoms one was led to expect.") or Farnham, 1971 ("Demuth's life remains endlessly fascinating because the 'dazzling, golden glitter' of his talent contrasts so absolutely with the dross of his perversity.").
(10) See for example Fahlman, 1988, p. 52 (" ...much of the art historical writing on him in the past has often been either impersonally formalist or openly homophobic.") and Weinberg, 1986, p. 14 ("The art historical establishment has played a curious game with the issue of Demuth's homosexuality, simultaneously avoiding explicit discussion and tying all his art to his 'perversion'"). Also Haskell, 1987 and Weinberg, 1988.
(11) Haskell, 1987, pp. 19-22

Margaret Bullock
Kapelanski Scholar
August 21, 1997

Image credit: Charles Demuth, Self-Portrait, 1907, oil on canvas, Courtesy of The Demuth Museum, Lancaster, PA, (c) PD-US-expired


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