Charles Demuth
Biography of American Precisionist Painter.

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I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold (1928)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Charles Demuth (1883-1935)


Arts Training
The Paris School (1912-14)
Poster Portraits

Buildings Abstraction, Lancaster (1931)
Detroit Institute of Arts

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An early exponent of modern art in America, Charles Demuth first developed an interest in avant-garde art, notably Cubism, following a visit to Paris in 1912-14. His favourite subject matter was colonial and industrial architecture, and on his return to the United States, he became associated with Precisionism - one of the first indigenous movements of American art - in which industrial buildings and commercial landscapes were depicted using sharply defined Cubist-style geometric forms. Its true-to-life focus on modernist architectural subjects (like factories, water towers, silos - even skyscrapers), made Precisionism a species of Realism, and, in fact, it was sometimes referred to as Cubist-Realism. Demuth's own style of painting was marked by the use of subtle colours, acute observation of light and shade, and the complete absence of people. Other famous Precisionist painters included Charles Sheeler (1883-1965) and Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986), as well as Joseph Stella (1877-1946), Morton Schamberg (1881-1918), George Ault (1891-1948), Niles Spencer (1893-1952), Stuart Davis (1894-1964) and Ralston Crawford (1906-78). One of several progressive 20th century painters who belonged to the circle of Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), Demuth is also noted for his vaudeville pictures and still life paintings of flowers, many of which were in watercolour, and especially his "poster portraits". The latter were pictures made up of objects, words and other items associated with the person being represented, as exemplified by "I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold" (1928, Metropolitan Museum, New York), which depicted the poet William Carlos Williams. Among Charles Demuth's best known 20th century paintings in the Precisionist idiom include: My Egypt (1927, Whitney Museum of American Art), and Buildings Abstraction, Lancaster (1931, Detroit Institute of Arts).

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Arts Training

Born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where he lived for the rest of his life, his prosperous father was an amateur photographer, and his aunt and grandmother were amateur flower painters, using blooms from their own Victorian garden. He was educated at the Franklin & Marshall Academy and afterwards, from 1903 to 1905, at the School of Industrial Art in Philadelphia. In 1904 he paid a brief visit to Paris, where he explored the bohemian life of the city and absorbed French painting at its source. In 1905 he entered the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, taking classes under William Merritt Chase (1849-1916), Thomas Anshutz, Hugh Breckenridge, and Henry McCarter. He also formed important friendships with Charles Sheeler - with whom he would later develop Precisionism - Arthur Carles, and the poet William Carlos Williams. In late 1907, he paid a second visit to Paris, this time meeting Fauvist painters including the famous Henri Matisse (1869-1954), Andre Derain (1880-1954) and others, as well as the Cubist Georges Braque (1882-1963). On his return, Demuth finished his studies at the Pennsylvania Academy, graduating in 1910.



The Paris School (1912-14)

To begin with, in his early works, executed at the family home in Lancaster, Demuth borrowed heavily from Fauvism, in both his still life painting and figure painting. In 1912, during the highpoint of Analytical Cubism, he made a third trip to Paris, where he took classes at the Academie Colarossi and Academie Julian in between short visits to London and Berlin. While in Paris, he immersed himself in the paintings of Cezanne (1839-1906), and attended the salon of Leo and Gertrude Stein, where he met modern artists from the Ecole de Paris (Paris School), including Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), the Cubist theorist Juan Gris (1887-1927), and Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) whose Cubist painting Nude Descending Staircase (1912, Philadelphia Museum of Art) caused such a scandal at the 1913 Armory Show in New York.

Demuth returned from Europe in 1914, with his head full of new artistic ideas, and began dividing his time between the family home in Lancaster, the summer artist-colony at Provincetown on Cape Cod, and New York City, where he visited the Arensberg arts salon favoured by Sheeler and Duchamp. In 1915, the talented American artist Marsden Hartley (1877-1943), introduced him to Alfred Stieglitz, whose 291 gallery (co-founded by Edward Steichen) became another of Demuth's stopping-off places, and who represented him from 1917.


Under the influence of the Cubist painter Albert Gleizes (1881-1953), during a painting trip to Bermuda with Hartley, Demuth introduced the first signs of architectonic structure into his compositions - inspired also, no doubt, by his previous Parisian studies of Cezanne. This rapidly led to a completely new style of painting, which fused the technological aesthetic of Futurism, with the geometric idiom of Cubism, in order to capture the architecture of the newly emerging machine-age. (See: Skyscraper Architecture: 1850-present.) Precisionism remained Demuth's forte and main concern until the mid-1920s, when he was drawn to still life painting as a tribute to Cezanne. He also produced numerous examples of genre painting, in which he depicted scenes from vaudeville, the circus, cafe and bar life, as well as a quantity of book illustration.

In 1926, Demuth had a successful solo exhibition at the Anderson Galleries, and another at the Intimate Gallery owned by his friend Alfred Stieglitz.

In 1927, he began a series of seven panel paintings, portraying a number of factories in Lancaster, which occupied him on and off for six years. The final oil painting, After All, was only completed in 1933, two years before his death. Six of the pictures were showcased in an Amon Carter Museum retrospective of his work (2007), entitled Chimneys and Towers: Charles Demuth's Late Paintings of Lancaster, which travelled the following year to the Whitney Museum of American Art, in New York.

Poster Portraits

In 1928, he produced his most famous individual work: I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold (1928, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), which was acclaimed as being an emphatically American painting, at a time when American artists were starting to emerge from European dominance. Representing a fire-engine, emblazoned with the figure 5, flashing noisily through a dark, wet city, it references Precisionism and Art Deco, and even looks ahead to the Pop art of the 1960s. The painting was part of a series of nine poster portraits, devoted to his artist friends. The others honoured Arthur Dove, Charles Duncan, Marsden Hartley, John Marin, and Georgia O'Keeffe, as well as the writers Wallace Stevens, Eugene O'Neill and Gertrude Stein.

Plagued by physical frailty for much of his life, Demuth eventually succumbed to complications caused by diabetes in 1935 at the relatively young age of 52.


Many of the 900 or so surviving works by Charles Demuth can be seen in America's best art museums, including: the Barnes Foundation, Merion, Pennsylvania; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the Brooklyn Museum, New York; Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts; the Art Institute of Chicago; and the Phillips Collection, Washington DC.

• For biographies of other American avant-garde artists, see: Famous Painters.
• For more details of painting in America, see: Homepage.

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