Charles Demuth - Biography and Legacy
Biography of Charles Demuth
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 He became socially withdrawn at school, preferring to play with girls over boys, as his mother and aunt had warned him that rough play with other boys could cause his injury to worsen.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.
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 20th century American drama.
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.
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.
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'Keeffe, 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.
The Legacy of Charles Demuth
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 20th 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.