Pennsylvania Precisionist best remembered for romantic watercolors marked by vibrant sensuousness and elegant refinement
By Alexandra A. Jopp
Charles Demuth, a key figure in the development of Modernism in the United States, became famous for oils and watercolors of still lifes, architectural abstractions, and figural subjects
V. Suggested Resource
Charles Demuth was one of the first artists involved in the expansion of Modernism in the United States. Maintaining an extraordinary balance between abstraction and realism, he created a series of drawings of dancers, acrobats, and vaudeville performers; sophisticated still lifes of flowers, fruits and vegetables; and paintings depicting the architecture of his hometown, Lancaster, Pennsylvania. In addition, he produced a series of symbolic “poster portraits” of several artist-friends, as well as luminous studies of the human figure while in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Demuth’s extraordinary capacity for observation, his strong spirit, and realistic treatment of subjects made him one of the most resolutely modern American painters of his era.
Charles Henry Buckius Demuth was born on November 8, 1883, to Augusta and Ferdinand Demuth in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the town that would remain his primary residence all his life. In childhood, a rare malady of the hip joint made him an invalid for two years and left him with a limp. He was found to have diabetes as an adult, and he became one of the first people to take insulin injections (and as frequently as every two hours).
Demuth, who had started painting as a child, began selling his works at age thirty through the George Daniel Gallery in New York, where his reputation had been established with his first solo show in 1915. He began to spend his summers at Provincetown, Massachusetts, in the years following, enthusiastically participating in the circle of personalities that gathered around playwright Eugene O’Neill.
Demuth’s formal art education took place in Philadelphia at the Drexel Institute of Art, Science, and Industry from 1901 to 1905 and at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where he studied from 1905 to 1911 with William Merritt Chase (1849–1916), Thomas Anshutz (1851–1912), Henry McCarter (1864–1942) and Hugh Breckenridge (1870–1937). Anshutz would be Demuth’s most influential teacher; under his influence, the artist painted in a traditional, realistic manner for several years.
Demuth went to Paris for five months in 1907–08 where he met Henri Matisse, Georges Braque, André Derain, Raol Dufy, and Maurice de Vlaminck. He returned to the French capital from 1912 to 1914 and studied at three academies––Julian, Modern, and Colarossi––with side trips to London and Berlin. His evolving style became individual, imaginative, and modern as he adopted some of the techniques of Paul Cézanne, Odilon Redon and James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Demuth was also influenced by Japanese prints, which were characterized by flat chromatic surfaces, as well as the works of Impressionists and, later, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Auguste Rodin.
Upon returning to the United States, Demuth opened a studio in Provincetown and began to experiment with Cubist techniques before moving to a Precisionist approach in 1919 to depict city and industrial scenes. While spending much time in New York between 1914 and 1921, he combined the techniques that he learned in Europe into dazzling, rich watercolors. In 1917, inspired by vaudeville themes, Demuth produced a series of watercolors in the spirit of the great French realists including Toulouse-Lautrec, Edgar Degas, Matisse and Rodin. As for Toulouse-Lautrec, for who Montmartre represented a fascinating mystery, a vast realm that he explored every night, so was New York, with its theaters, nightclubs, and cafes, and Lancaster, a central stop for vaudeville performers, places of amusement, and inspiration for Demuth. He captured these images in works such as Vaudeville: Dancer with Chorus (1918; Philadelphia Museum of Art).
Demuth soon came into contact with Marcel Duchamp and Dadaism, and in the summer of 1916, while working in Provincetown with Marsden Hartley, he reoriented his style to a controlled form of Cubism that verged on abstraction. The following year, Hartley and Demuth worked in Bermuda and Demuth’s style started to develop a more structured, Cubist style. During the 1920s, he moved to small still lifes and florals, using a more realistic approach, with a tincture of Precisionism, Expressionism, and, at times, Realism and abstraction. Demuth’s flower paintings and vaudeville works remain the most admired among art collectors.
Among Demuth’s most extraordinary achievements is a series of symbolic “poster portraits” that he worked on from the mid to late-1920s. The best known of these is The Figure Five in Gold, a tribute to Demuth’s longtime friend, poet William Carlos Williams. The title references a Williams poem that describes the number five seen on a swiftly passing fire engine. Demuth also painted works that honored colleagues Georgia O’Keeffe, Arthur Dove, and John Marin.
After a final visit to Paris in the autumn of 1921, complications from diabetes kept Demuth mostly at his mother’s house in Lancaster, where he died in a room with a view of his mother’s garden––the subject of his most romantic and exquisite oils and watercolors. His home in Lancaster serves today as a museum that focuses on his life and work.
1883 Born on November 8 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania
1901–05 Trained at Drexel Institute of Art, Science, and Industry
1905–11 Entered Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where he studied with Thomas
Anschutz, Henry McCarter, Hugh Breckenridge, and William Merritt Chase
1907 Spent year in Europe working in Paris, London, and Berlin
1908 Returned to Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
1912–14 Traveled to Paris for second time and studied at three academies: Modern, Julian, and Colarossi
1914 Visited Provincetown, Massachusetts for first time
1914 First one-man exhibition held at Daniel Gallery in New York
1915 First solo show presented watercolor landscapes and flower studies
1916 First serious exploration of Cubism: series of landscapes and architectural views painted in Bermuda
1917–18 Painted series of watercolors inspired by vaudeville and circus subjects, including Vaudeville: Dancer with Chorus and Acrobats
1918 Began to paint still lifes of flowers, fruits, and vegetables, which were to become favorite subjects
1919 Began series of paintings depicting subjects inspired by architecture of Lancaster; Pennsylvania; works were larger in scale and sustained balance between abstraction and realism
1921 Traveled to Europe
1923 Started exploring portrait genre; produced series of symbolic “poster portraits” of
several friends, most well-known of which is I Saw the Figure Five in Gold
1926 One-man show at Anderson Galleries and Intimate Gallery (Alfred Stieglitz’s gallery) in New York
1927 Started series of seven panel paintings depicting factory buildings in Lancaster,
1934 Produced series of luminous studies of human figures during summer in
1935 Died of complications from diabetes on October 23
Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, Massachusetts
Amon Carter Museum, Texas
Art Institute of Chicago
Canton Museum of Art, Ohio
Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh
Charles Demuth Museum, Pennsylvania
Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio
Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
Currier Gallery of Art, New Hampshire
Dallas Museum of Art
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
Harvard University Art Museums, Massachusetts
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C.
Indianapolis Museum of Art
Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, Missouri
Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, New York
Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, Tennessee
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Museum of Modern Art, New York
National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia
Philadelphia Museum of Art
Princeton University Art Museum, New Jersey
Sheldon Art Gallery, Lincoln, Nebraska
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.
Springfield Museum of Art, Ohio
Tacoma Art Museum, Washington
Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago
The Huntington Library, California
The Phillips Collection, Washington D.C.
Walker Art Center, Minnesota
Westmoreland Museum of American Art, Greensburg, Pennsylvania
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
Wichita Art Museum, Kansas
1913 Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
1915 George Daniel Gallery, New York
1917 Society of Independent Artists
1924, 1930 Salons of America
1925 291 Gallery
1926 Philadelphia Sesquicentennial Expo (medal)
1934 Smith College Museum of Art
1935–37, 87 Whitney Museum of American Art
1935, 1957 Corcoran Gallery, Washington, D.C.
1941 Cincinnati Art Museum
1942 Phillips Memorial Gallery
1944 Philadelphia Museum of Art
1949 Albertina, Vienna
1949–50 Museum of Modern Art (retrospective)
1949–50 Art Institute of Chicago
V. Suggested Resources
Eiseman, A.L. Charles Demuth. New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 1982.
Haskell, B. Charles Demuth. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1987.
Kellner, Bruce. ed. Letters of Charles Demuth, American Artist, 1883–1935: With Assessments of His Work
by His Contemporaries. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2000.
Lampe, A.M. Demuth: out of the chateau: works from the Demuth Museum. Lancaster, Penn.: Demuth
Weinberg, J. Speaking for vice: homosexuality in the art of Charles Demuth, Marsden Hartley, and the first
American avant-garde. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.