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The Watercolors of Charles Demuth

in our 20th Century, Modern & Contemporary Fine Art sale on July 16 at 11am.

 

Born to a prosperous Lancaster, Pennsylvania family, Charles Henry Demuth (1883-1935) had the means and familial support to pursue a career as an artist. As was common with the upper classes, members of Demuth’s family were amateur artists, encouraging Demuth to take art lessons as a young child. His family supported his artistic pursuits but felt he should pursue commercial art in an attempt to provide him with a livelihood as Demuth was physically frail due to a disease contracted in childhood. Demuth studied at Drexel Institute of Technology and then, at the encouragement of his teachers there, transferred to The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts to pursue his talent. Following his studies, Demuth travelled in Europe where he was exposed to the avant-garde, especially the work of the Cubists and Marcel Duchamp. During his last year in Paris, Demuth met fellow American artist Marsden Hartley who became a close friend and mentor. It was also during his time in Paris that Demuth was able to live opening as a gay man and painted scenes of the vibrant gay subculture of Paris that he did not intend for public view.

 

After returning to the United States, Demuth divided his time between his family home in Lancaster, New York City, and Provincetown, where he spent the summers. In New York he became part of Alfred Steiglitz’s circle of American modernists who were moving beyond European influences to create their own movement. Demuth was acclaimed for his Cubist-inspired scenes of American cityscapes and the style called Precisionism that he became known for after 1915. Early in his career, Demuth painted primarily in watercolor and it is for his talent in this medium that he was most lauded. Combining observation of his subject with the loose abstraction he admired in Paris, Demuth’s watercolors were beautiful and sensuous, falling somewhere between Realism and Abstraction. He is known for his watercolor depictions of plants and gardens, having spent years painting in a room in his parent’s home that overlooked his mother’s flower garden. The art critic and collector Duncan Phillips described Demuth as a “virtuoso with watercolor of the most delicious clarity and the subtlest nuance of pearly tones…”  Demuth’s early watercolors from 1912-1913 show an understated use of delicate washes to create fragile flowers, landscapes and figures. By 1915, he had established himself as a major American watercolorist, exhibiting in New York with Charles Daniel  and at Steiglitz’s American Place Gallery. Demuth’s art evolved throughout his career, remaining receptive to new movements and influences while retaining his own personal style. He was one of the first artists to give Modernism an American point of view, and  through his work in watercolor we are able to see the influence his work would have on later American movements such as Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art. Demuth’s career was cut short in 1935 when he died due to complications from diabetes at age fifty-one.

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