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Sunday, February 5, 2012

Charles Demuth

Charles Demuth Self-portrait, 1907
I don't suppose it's quite so much a factor today as it once was, but there was a time, throughout much of the 20th century, when girls had an easier time of it than guys when it came to studying art. Though they never outnumbered the male sex until perhaps fairly recently, time was when it was definitely not considered very manly to study art. In fact, in many rural parts of the country, for a teenage boy to take art lessons was "sissy stuff," only a little less so than studying ballet. Against this backdrop, around the turn of the century, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, a talented teenage boy took his first art classes. The only thing available locally was china painting, mostly fruit and flowers. He was good at it. He continued to favor such subjects for the rest of his life. He moved on to watercolors, then oils, studied at the Drexel Institute (until they closed their art department) at which time he moved to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. He was thin, walked with a limp as a result of a childhood disease, was always frail of health, and always felt the sting of being a man pursuing what was seen as a feminine calling. On the plus side, he had the best art education money could buy (including trips to study in Paris), he was a doted-upon only child, he was bright, intellectual, sensitive, his family was comfortably well-off, and he came from a long line of amateur painters. His name was Charles Demuth.

My Egypt, 1927, Charles Demuth
Demuth was born in 1883. He was, in fact, homosexual. All his best friends were men except for a long, affectionate, professional relationship with Georgia O'Keefe. He is often credited with leading her into the painting of flowers. When he died, he split his work. His watercolors went to his lifelong friend, Robert Locher. His oils, to O'Keefe. His watercolors were mostly small, fresh, sensitive handlings of his favorite subjects--still-lifes and flowers. His oils, ranged from abstracted, nonfigurative portraits of close friends to a sort of post-impressionist or cubistic landscape scenes of Bermuda, Provincetown, and his hometown of Lancaster.  Two of his most famous paintings are from this collection of oils. In 1927 he painted My Egypt. It's a grain elevator. Influenced by Picasso, Duchamp, and Cubism, it is a monumental rendering of a middle-American staple. But imposed upon its dominant verticals is a pattern of diagonal and horizontal lines, creating planes of subtle color variations seldom seen at the time, west of the Hudson. He brought Cubism to Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

I Saw the Figure Five in Gold, 1928,
Charles Demuth
One of Demuth's closest friends was the poet, William Carlos Williams. Often considered his greatest painting, Demuth's I Saw the Figure Five in Gold is a homage portrait to "Bill." There is no face, no body, only the number "5" three times, and part of his friend's name at the top, amid a forced, Cubist perspective of surging, gray planes. At the bottom it is signed with his own initials and those of his friend. Demuth considered the work a collaborative effort. It's based upon a line from a poem by Williams, The Great Figure. "Among the rain and lights, I saw the clangs, siren howls and wheels rumbling through the dark city." Demuth's "portrait" of his friend is the wild, cubistic, headlong flight of a fire truck through the dark, deserted streets of New York. It's often considered the most quintessentially "American" painting ever created. Unlike his friend, Bill, who lived to be eighty years old, Charlie, as he was known to his friends, died in 1935 at the age of 53. He might have died some thirteen years earlier had it not been for a new, experimental drug. A diabetic for much of his adult life, Demuth was only the second individual in this country to receive Insulin. And though he was notoriously careless about maintaining his treatments, they literally saved his life. Demuth was affluent enough that he never had to sell his work. What he did sell during his lifetime was primarily representational watercolors. And though he could move effortlessly back and forth between these and his more experimental oils, it was only after his death when O'Keeffe's husband, Alfred Stieglitz, began to handle the paintings which his wife had inherited, that his more avant-garde efforts began to dominate his life's work.
Turkish Bath with Self-portrait, 1918,
Charles Demuth

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