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Artists in 60 Seconds: Charles Demuth

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Movement, Style, School or Type of Art:

Precisionism

The Precisionist works for which Demuth is best known were primarily executed in oils and tempera, though he much preferred watercolor as a medium.

Date and Place of Birth:

November 8, 1883, Lancaster, Pennsylvania

Life:

Charles Demuth was the beloved only child of financially secure merchants, which meant - among other fortunate things - he didn't have to battle with his parents over his career choice of "artist." After a sickly childhood, he studied in nearby Philadelphia at the Drexel Institute of Art, Science and Industry (from 1901-05), and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (1905-11). He then lived in Paris for two years, enjoying the company of fellow artists and absorbing European Modernism.

His early paying work was in illustration, though he also began painting lovely watercolor still lifes and, additionally, scenes of performers in a style that was reminiscent of both Everett Shinn and Toulouse-Lautrec. It wasn't until the late 1910s that he began exploring the Precisionism (a distillation of Cubism that concentrated on featuring American themes - devoid of human sitters - painted in geometric planes) that came to define him as an artist of note.

Demuth was that happy rarity: an artist who got along with other artists. He was on excellent terms with names such as Marsden Hartley, Marcel Duchamp, John Marin and Georgia O'Keeffe, as well as being "sponsored" by Alfred Stieglitz. He never married, but maintained a long-term, steadfast partnership with his companion Robert Evans Locher, an interior and stage designer. Demuth's homoerotic work has come under recent scholastic scrutiny, though it was never meant for public viewing.

After a lifetime of fragile health, Demuth succumbed to complications from diabetes in 1935. Today he is best known for drawing attention to Lancaster as an artistic center, his prolific output (over 1,000 paintings) and giving European Modernism a distinctly American flavor.

Important Works:

  • Sailboats and Roofs, ca. 1918
  • Acrobats, 1919
  • My Egypt, 1927
  • I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold (Homage to William Carlos Williams), 1928
  • Buildings Abstraction, Lancaster, 1931

Date and Place of Death:

October 23, 1935, Lancaster, Pennsylvania

How To Pronounce "Demuth":

    dee·muth (Short "u," as in "up.")

A Quote From Charles Demuth:

  • "Paintings must be looked at and looked at and looked at - they, I think, the good ones, like it. They must be understood, and that's not the word, either, through the eyes. No writing, no talking, no singing, no dancing will explain them. They are the final, the 'nth whoopee of sight. A water-melon, a kiss may be fair, but after all have other used. 'Look at that!' is all that can be said before a great painting, at least, by those who really see it." - excerpted from Demuth's "Across A Greco Is Written," Creative Art, September 1929 issue

Sources and Further Reading

  • Fahlman, Betsy. "Demuth, Charles (Henry Buckius)"
    Grove Art Online. Oxford University Press, 15 May 2005.

  • Fahlman, Betsy. Pennsylvania Modern: Charles Demuth of Lancaster (exh. cat.)
    Philadelphia : Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1983.
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  • Haskell, Barbara. Charles Demuth.
    New York : Harry N. Abrams, 1987.
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  • Kellner, Bruce (ed.) Letters of Charles Demuth, American Artist, 1883-1935: With Assessments of His Work by His Contemporaries.
    Philadelphia : Temple University Press, 2000.
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  • Rodgers, David. "Demuth, Charles"
    The Oxford Companion to Western Art.
    Ed. Hugh Brigstocke. Oxford University Press, 2001.
    Grove Art Online. Oxford University Press, 15 May 2005.

  • Weinberg, Jonathan. Speaking for Vice : Homosexuality in the Art of Charles Demuth, Marsden Hartley, and the First American Avant-Garde.
    New Haven : Yale University Press, 1995.
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