Published: November 26, 2007
A central figure in the group of early avant-garde artists who brought Modernism to America, Charles Demuth (1883‱935) is best known as a master watercolorist and pioneer Precisionist painter. He brought to his craft a sophistication, sensibility, wit and daring that were rare for his time.
A consummate watercolorist, Demuth handled the medium with deceptive casualness when it suited his purposes, and with virtuoso clarity when it fitted his subject matter. Detached and keenly observant, he painted things that interested him most: cafes, bars, vaudeville entertainers, beach scenes, passages from James, Poe or Zola, fruit and vegetables from the local farmer’s market and flowers from the family garden.
An exacting and skilled formalist, Demuth applied rigorous control and an astute sense of composition to his crisp, precise oil paintings of factories, smokestacks, grain elevators and water towers of his hometown of Lancaster, Penn., and vernacular structures in rural Pennsylvania. In these meticulous images he managed to convey the beauty and strength of American industrial might and of utilitarian buildings.
Much of Demuth’s life †and his subjects †was related to the fact that he was gay, lame and diabetic. Although he traveled a good deal, he was always drawn back to his home base, Lancaster, where his mother helped care for him during times of ill health. By all accounts elegant, amusing, frivolous, dandified, shy, kind and gentle, Demuth had many friends among his fellow artists.
Demuth’s traits, and his achievements as a watercolorist and Precisionist, are showcased in two current exhibitions.
“Out of the Chateau: Works from the Demuth Museum” is the first touring exhibition of the permanent collection of the museum housed in Demuth’s Lancaster home/studio. Curated by Anne M. Lampe, executive director of the Demuth Museum, and organized at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts by senior curator Lynn Marsden-Atlass, the show will be at the academy through December 9. Most of the 34 works demonstrate Demuth’s ability to depict a variety of subjects in sumptuous watercolors. A catalog is in the works. A companion exhibition, “Demuth and Modernism,” features works by Demuth and such fellow Modernists as Arthur Dove, Georgia O’Keeffe and Charles Sheeler from the academy’s permanent collection.
“Chimneys and Towers: Charles Demuth’s Late Paintings of Lancaster,” organized by the Amon Carter Museum (where it opened last summer), is on view at the Norton Museum of Art through January 20. Focusing on a series of six industrial paintings, the show and excellent catalog explore how Demuth melded aspects of place, region, past and present to create strikingly precise canvases with powerful visual and symbolic meanings.
The only child of old-line Lancaster residents, Demuth grew up in the center of town in a solid brick house adjacent to the tobacco shop his family had operated since 1770. His father died when Charles was in his late 20s; his imposing, strong-willed mother, Augusta, was his anchor and the primary caregiver during his chronic illnesses. With the exception of occasional travels to Europe, New York, Provincetown and Bermuda, he spent his time amid the Victorian simplicity of the house at 118 East King Street. His small studio in the back of the house offered views of his mother’s flower garden and Trinity Lutheran Church, both subjects for his brush. Other inspirations for paintings and watercolors were within walking distance of the centrally located home.
Demuth took art lessons locally and, among other things, began drawing posters for display in the family tobacco store. After graduating from Franklin and Marshall Academy, he studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, 1905‱910, where his instructors included Thomas Anshutz and William Merritt Chase. Chase’s influence is apparent in a somber “Self Portrait,” 1907, a dark, vigorously brushed, realistic rendering of the serious, carefully dressed young artist.
His palette gradually lightened with exposure to sites associated with and artwork by Pennsylvania Impressionists.
Starting in 1915, he created numerous lively, imaginative, brightly hued and fluidly brushed watercolors. In most, he employed the technique of lightly draping washes over skeletal pencil lines.
In the exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy, an early watercolor, “Portrait of a Fair-Haired Young Man,” circa 1908, painted while Demuth was studying at the academy, is a sensitive, sketchy view of a bookish fellow. “East King Street, Lancaster,” 1908‱910, recalls the look of the street where Demuth lived and the family tobacco shop is located.
A graphite sketch of the “Lancaster County Courthouse,” dating to 1921, preceded an oil painting of the subject.
Floral works in the academy exhibition range from an early, pale rendering of “Flowers, White and Brown,” circa 1915, to a lovely, mature evocation of “Pink Tulips,” 1930, likely inspired by blooms in his mother’s plot below his studio window, to a delicate, muted composition, “Daisies,” 1932.
In a tempera on cardboard, “Still Life for a Fire Screen,” circa 1924‱928, he juxtaposed a flower arrangement against a black background.
Among the many fruits he painted, often based on produce his mother brought home from the local farmer’s market, were shiny, delectable looking “Apples,” undated.
Perhaps influenced by Pennsylvania Impressionists, around 1912 Demuth’s palette brightened and his brushwork loosened up, as seen in a watercolor, “The Bay #4,” circa 1912. It may have been created during summers he spent in New Hope, Penn., and Lambertville, N.J.
During a particularly productive decade, starting in 1910, Demuth used watercolors to depict vaudeville and stage performers in a fluid range of organic forms, far removed from his training in academic realism. His move toward Modernism was reflected in “Aviariste,” 1912, in which he utilized washes of intensified colors to depict a female performer with birds swirling around her.
His circus and vaudeville watercolors, such as “Three Acrobats,” 1916, reflected his appreciation for troupes that he saw in Lancaster and later in New York. These freely brushed, washy images captured the animation and rhythms of entertainers who were highly popular in that time.
In 1915‱916, Demuth rented an apartment on Manhattan’s Washington Square South, which facilitated forays into the city’s intellectual salons and its lively bohemian life. Nights of heavy drinking and visits to underground establishments and unfashionable nightclubs inspired a number of watercolors, like “At Marshall’s,” 1915, depicting a soigné crowd at a black-owned jazz club on 53rd Street where blacks and whites and gays and straights mingled.
Demuth’s summers in Provincetown led to watercolors of scenes such as “Man and Woman on the Beach, Provincetown,” 1917. He became friends with Stuart Davis and Eugene O’Neill in the Cape Cod resort.
Demuth spent time in New York and traveled to Europe three times, all of which exposed him to others in the Modernist movement, notably Marsden Hartley, Marcel Duchamp, Georgia O’Keeffe, Gertrude Stein, Carl Van Vechten and William Carlos Williams, the subject of the artist’s iconic “The Figure 5 in Gold.”
During frequent visits to Manhattan, he was befriended by avant-garde promoter Alfred Stieglitz, who showed Demuth’s work in his 291 Gallery.
Demuth’s major patron was eccentric collector Dr Albert C. Barnes, who once owned 50 of his works and became a close friend and medical advisor.
Demuth’s health steadily deteriorated during the last 15 years of his life; in spite of insulin treatments and a restricted diet, he suffered debilitating diabetes attacks that drained his artistic energies and limited his travels outside Lancaster. Barnes encouraged the artist to undergo treatments at a sanitarium in Morristown, which art historian Betsy Fahlman says “certainly extended his life.”
Whenever he could summon the strength and inspiration, Demuth turned out watercolors and, starting in 1920s, the Precisionist architectural paintings of Lancaster that are featured in the Norton Museum exhibition. Painted on board, with a “scale and formal power&⁵nsurpassed by any of his previous work, they remain the masterpieces of his final years,” says Fahlman. Created at a time of great interest in American cultural nationalism, they reflected Demuth’s ties to the modern industrial landscape of his native heath.
Demuth, Elsie Driggs and Charles Sheeler were among the strongest practitioners of Precisionism †a rigorous and austere aesthetic that focused on depicting utilitarian structures (notably industrial buildings) with photographic clarity in streamlined compositions featuring flat planes and crisp geometric lines. These paeans to the Machine Age, manifestations of modern technological advancement, retain their fascination to this day.
Most of Demuth’s architectural oils were preceded by numerous pencil sketches made on site and accompanied by notations regarding color and size.
In his first and most famous Lancaster architectural work, the stark “My Egypt,” 1927, depicting a reinforced concrete grain elevator owned by John W. Eshelman and Sons, diagonal light rays converge on two cylindrical towers, conveying the dynamism of the industrial complex. Two white beams descending from the upper left suggest heavenly rays blessing the power of American industry to lead the nation to a glorious future. The title suggests that the artist connected American Machine Age might with the great pyramids of ancient Egypt, one of the “Seven Wonders of the World.”
“My Egypt” is owned by the Whitney Museum of American Art, whose curators call it “a brilliant fusion of representation and abstraction that transforms a functional structure into a national icon.”
The saturated colors in “Buildings, Lancaster,” 1930, help the large blue and yellow sign stand out against the red-brick Eshelman building. It depicts a site adjacent to the grain elevators that inspired “My Egypt.”
Three architectural works were inspired by the sprawling Armstrong Cork Company complex (now Armstrong World Industries), then a major producer of linoleum and the largest industry in the city. The plant eventually consisted of 300 buildings on 250 acres.
The bleakly powerful “Chimney and Water Tower,” 1931, delineates the soaring configuration of the factory in vivid, contrasting colors. In an even more minimalist rendering of the same site, “Buildings, Lancaster,” 1931, Demuth eliminated some details but added a second tank. Large tanks containing linseed oil and other products were a major feature of the Armstrong manufacturing compound.
The most complex composition and the artist’s last major work, “After All,” 1933, drew its title from a poem †”an ode to American industry” †by Walt Whitman, says Fahlman. It depicts a variety of overlapping industrial structures, including a building housing large drying stoves to the left and a cyclone separator in the center, in a carefully composed picture.
Warehouses for tobacco curing and storage, a business in which Demuth, because of the family tobacco shop, had a personal interest, inspired several late architectural canvases.
“And the Home of the Brave,” 1931, offers a closeup view of a building, a tower and a lamppost with the number “72” visible, a reference to the route number of the street in front. Fahlman suggests that its title, drawn from the US national anthem, “conveys the Americanism” of the scene.
Completion of these sizable architectural paintings represents a remarkable triumph of will by an artist increasingly weakened by diabetes. Demuth died in 1935 at the age of 51.
As these two interesting exhibitions demonstrate, Demuth’s colorful and compelling works in watercolors and oils are among the finest achievements of America’s early avant-garde artists. They have earned him a secure place among America’s preeminent Modernists.
After closing at the Norton, “Chimneys and Towers” will travel to the Whitney Museum of American Art, February 23⁁pril 27.
The 207-page exhibition catalog contains an evaluation of Demuth’s Precisionist oils by Fahlman and an examination of his painting materials and working methods by conservator Claire Barry. It is published by the Amon Carter Museum and distributed by the University of Pennsylvania Press.
After closing at the Pennsylvania Academy, “Out of the Chateau” will be on view at the Luther W. Brady Art Gallery at George Washington University, January 16⁍arch 14.
The catalog of the permanent collection of the Demuth Museum, with essays on the artist, scholarship on the collection and a history of the museum, will be available in the future.
The Pennsylvania Academy is at 118-128 North Broad Street. For information, 215-972-2031 or www.pafa.org .
The Norton Museum is at 1451 South Olive Avenue. For information, 561-832-5196 or www.norton.org
The Demuth Museum/home is at 120 King Street in Lancaster. For information, 717-299-9940 or www.demuth.org .
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