Charles Demuth

Posted on October 17, 2010


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Artist Charles Demuth was one of the first American modernists, an early champion of cubism who created his own style, “precisionism,” which combined abstract European styles with American themes. Demuth, who as a young man was independently wealthy, was on a trip to Paris when he met fellow gay artist Marsden Hartley, who became a mentor, reportedly introducing himself to Hartley and a group of other expatriate artists at a café. Through Hartley, Demuth met Alfred Stieglitz and became part of the group of artists around Stieglitz, including Georgia O’Keeffe.

Demuth is perhaps most known his precisionist paintings of factories and cityscapes, and a genre he created: the poster portrait. His most famous painting, a poster portrait of poet William Carlos Williams, “I Saw the Figure Five in Gold” is one of the prominent modern showpieces of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Demuth was also unapologetically gay. In 1912, he began a relationship with fellow Lancastrian interior and stage designer Robert Evans Locher which lasted the rest of his life, shortened because of his diabetes (interestingly, Demuth was one of the first Americans to get insulin). Although his home base remained Lancaster where he lived with his mother, he spent a great deal of time in New York City and Provincetown. He moved among a broad set of social circles – the famous artists of the day in New York, as well as gay circles in the city, in Provincetown and even in Lancaster as well.

Late in life he produced a number of homoerotic watercolors, including a self-portrait in his Turkish Bath series of paintings, inspired no doubt by his time spent at the Lafayette Baths in New York. Another set of water colors features sailors in various poses. One of his more famous watercolors from this time of this time is “Distinguished Air,” which shows a group of people – including a sailor and another man embracing – at an exhibit looking at an exaggeratedly phallic version of Brancusi’s Princess X; the painting was not included in a 1950 retrospective of Demuth’s work.

Charles Demuth died in 1935 in Lancaster.

The book Letters of Charles Demuth, American is available on Google Books, here. He has a page on Wikipedia, here and on, here.