|Charles Demuth (pronounced "DEE-muth," 1883-1935) was one of the most stylistically innovative watercolor artists of the 20th century. The son of a wealthy Lancaster (Pennsylvania) tobacco merchant, Demuth never had to seek social approval or work for a living. His introverted, imaginative character was strengthened by a childhood hip illness that left him partly lame and emotionally dependent on his mother. He received some art lessons as a teenager but, two years after graduating high school (1903), he enrolled in introductory art courses at Philadelphia's Drexel Institute of Art, Science, and Industry, then (from 1905-10) completed his studies at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. There he trained in painting under Thomas Anshutz (a pupil of Thomas Eakins), came in contact with Japanese art, and perfected his persona as a dandyfied and world weary esthete after the manner of James McNeil Whistler, Aubrey Beardsley and Oscar Wilde. He twice voyaged to Paris and Berlin, in 1907 and 1912-13, where he saw firsthand works by Cezanne, the Fauves, the German Expressionists, met expatriate Americans such as John Marin and Marsden Hartley, and enrolled in drawing courses at the Académie Moderne. He returned to live in Lancaster after the death of his father in 1912, and began a lifelong relationship with the architect Robert Locher. But he also frequented the artistic circle around Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) in New York City, and spent summer vacations at New England's seaside resorts. He had his first solo exhibition in 1914, in New York, and quickly expanded his watercolor style toward bright colors, expressive drawing, and socially complex subjects. He also began to tackle more ambitious and serious landscapes in an increasingly refined and abstract style. In 1920, Demuth was diagnosed with diabetes and was often incapacitated by diabetic attacks, yet he continued to work in Lancaster and travel to New York. He made a final trip to Europe in 1921, fell seriously ill, and was brought home by his mother for insulin treatment at the Morristown Sanitarium in New Jersey. He never regained full health, and spent most of the rest of his life working at home, a diabetic invalid. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Demuth created large works in oil that range from prophetic Pop iconography (his famous I Saw The Figure 5 in Gold, 1928) and poster art to the urban industrial visions of Precisionism. He exhibited in numerous solo shows and in group shows with artists such as Marin, O'Keeffe, Dove, Hartley, and Alfred Stieglitz. Over a period of two decades he produced more than one thousand drawings and paintings. Demuth died of complications from diabetes in 1935, at age 51. In his will he bequeathed his watercolors to Robert Locher and all his other works to Georgia O'Keeffe.
|Demuth's watercolors range from translucent landscape abstractions to decorative florals, stylized still lifes, miniature (8"x10") narrative scenes, lively circus and vaudeville arabesques, and unashamedly explicit homoerotic idylls. Eight O'Clock (Early Morning) (1917, 20x26cm) is typical of several series of paintings Demuth made after 1915, some to illustrate literary works by Henry James, Émile Zola and Frank Wedekind, others to comment on the sexual tensions within contemporary domestic relationships. In this "morning after" scene the triangle is clear enough but the woman's distress is hard to interpret, until other pictures in the series suggest the man washing in the bathroom is her husband's lover. The rendering is classic Demuth: expressively awkward figures drawn in pencil and then lightly tinted (a manner Demuth learned from Auguste Rodin's nudes), warm washes of cadmium yellows and earth colors, an energetic weaving of pencil or charcoal lines to lend visual definition and texture, and a dreamlike confusion to the architectural space. Demuth often accented or shaped areas (such as the umber cushions and lampshade) by blotting them. He also intentionally chose thin papers that cockled or warped when wet, causing washes to puddle or blossom and creating wavy irregularities that gives blotted passages (such as the back wall) the unexpected appearance of satin or polished maple. This scene extends itself into the previous evening through the clothes draped on the chairs, the unmade bed, the pitcher and glass on the floor and into other pictures in the series, which show similar characters in sexually charged yet ambiguous encounters.
|Another subject that Demuth took up after 1915 was floral paintings. His Zinnias (1921, 30x46cm) illustrates Demuth's use of bright colors and expressive composition in these works. The stems and leaves have been carefully arranged into a swirling wreath silhouetted by dark areas of ivory black, which appears as pure color in the background of many of Demuth's works. The colors step from saturated blossoms to unsaturated greens; the areas of black are accented by bordering areas of pure white paper. The color rhythm of reds, yellows and greens is played against the curving and carefully overlapping lines of leaf and stem to give the image movement and depth. The major contrast between greens and reds is nicely balanced by the subsidiary contrast of ultramarine blue and cadmium yellow. The presence of strong light is deliciously suggested by the deep shadows and the dissolving outlines against unpainted paper on the right. This is not a floral study but an expression of strong feeling through floral forms; Demuth's handling of this genre apparently influenced Georgia O'Keeffe to embark on her own exploration of the sexual symbolism of flowers. All of Demuth's florals and still lifes combine inventive watercolor techniques with a strong sense of color, line, and expressive composition.
|Demuth's watercolors also document some of his early experiments in Precisionism his own interpretation of the early Cubist style of Picasso and Braque in a series of landscape and seascape paintings done during 1916-17 in Rhode Island and Bermuda in the company of Marsden Hartley. Sailboats and Roofs (c.1918, 35x25cm) is an early work in the series, with echoes of Hartley's abstractions on sailboat motifs. Although less taut and hard edged than later paintings in the Precisionist style, this work shows the Cubist dissection and reassembly of the rooftops into dynamically interacting planes and edges, which extend or overlap across each other and into the sky. Each area is developed with subdued tints of brown or gray, blotted or scored with the point of a palette knife or brush handle. Eyecatching accents of red and orange skip along the line of sight from the corner of the building at right across the chimneys in the distance, to end at the distinctive outline of twin sails against a complementary field of ultramarine blue. This movement into depth is played against the horizontal fields of Demuth's favorite rich black and grays, which contrast clearly defined edges with complexly worked inner textures. The design strategy is strong, as each detail area the sailboat, house windows, trees, shadowed walls, or the eaves of the closest roofs is easily interpretable when looked at separately, yet all fuse as more abstract elements in the impression of space created by the whole.
In American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America, the critic Robert Hughes writes that "Demuth was an exceptional watercolorist and his still-lifes and figure paintings, with their wiry contours and exquisite sense of color, the tones discreetly manipulated by blotting, are among the best things done in that medium by an American." Sadly, these largely remain unpublished and infrequently exhibited in the museums that hold them. Seek them out where you can, for they celebrate the watercolor medium with a unique freshness and experimental élan intimate, innovative, and infused with play.The best monograph on Demuth's watercolor works, the Whitney Museum's Charles Demuth by Barbara Haskell (Abrams, 1990), contains a superb biography and selection of his watercolor paintings, unpublished stories and dialogs, and larger canvases. It is currently out of print, but fairly easy to obtain from used book dealers.
Last revised 11.12.2007 © 2007 Bruce MacEvoy