American artist Charles Demuth (1883-1935) was a modern master of watercolor. He brushed on and blot t ed washes of color to structure scenes of night life and industry as well as still lifes of flowers and fruit. The diversity of his fragile art perhaps explains why Demuth hasn’t received as much attention of late as his more single-minded contemporaries Charles Sheeler and Marsden Hartley, the subjects of recent retrospectives at the National Gallery of Art and Phillips Collection respectively.
The newly opened Demuth exhibit at George Washington University’s Luther W. Brady Art Gallery is far from being such a definitive survey, but it reveals enough of the artist’s exceptional skills as a watercolorist to make a visit worthwhile. The 34 works on view, arranged chronologically, introduce most of his themes and techniques, although not through the most telling examples. In addition to floral and figural studies, drawings from childhood, early oils and homo-erotic sketches provide biographical insight into this Pennsylvania artist, who was homosexual and suffered from diabetes and a deformed hip.
The touring exhibit was organized by the Demuth Museum in Lancaster, Pa., as part of a campaign to raise awareness of the artist and the institution bearing his name. Opened in 1981, the museum occupies the artist’s home and studio and an adjacent tobacco shop started by his family in 1770.
Far from being homespun, Demuth was a part of the avant-garde artistic circle centered around photographer and gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz. Financial support from his merchant father allowed Demuth to pursue his art full time and travel abroad frequently. Among his famous pals were artists Marcel Duchamp, Arthur Dove, Georgia O’Keeffe and poet William Carlos Williams. Between extended trips to New York and Europe, Demuth returned to his Lancaster home, which he jokingly referred to as his “chateau” in the “province.”
The traveling exhibit, titled “Out of the Chateau,” starts with the artist’s earliest childhood sketches, including a small landscape with a windmill painted at age 13. As a teenager, he received lessons from local instructors and went on to study at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. One of the few oils in the show is a handsome self-portrait from his student days. Its thickly applied, somber tones, bearing the influence of European old masters, are at odds with the lighter, more delicate watercolors filling the exhibit.
During travels to Paris and Berlin in 1907 and 1912-14, Demuth became familiar with French cubism and fauvism and German expressionism. He was particularly taken with Paul Cezanne’s planar interpretations of nature, which is evident in the subtly layered “Bermuda: Trees,” created on a trip with Hartley, and in the stark red orbs of “Apples,” two of the best works in the show.
While influenced by European modernism, Demuth sought to capture an American spirit in his art, first through portrayals of New York bohemia and mass entertainment and then native industrial and rural landscapes. The exhibit includes several playful, diaphanous watercolors from the 1910s devoted to acrobats, vaudeville performers and jazz clubs that underscore the illustrative qualities of his early work. Their softly fluid washes and pencil lines reflect the artist’s quick-sketch ability to capture uninhibited action on and off the stage.
Around 1920, Demuth switched to a hard-edged planar style in depicting the architecture of factories, grain elevators and small-town buildings. Categorized as “precisionism,” this dry synthesis of cubism and photographic realism was more seriously embraced by Sheeler, a classmate from the Pennsylvania Academy.
The exhibit most disappoints in barely representing this important period of Demuth’s career. Only a trace of his precisionist geometries can be discerned in a pencil drawing of the Lancaster County Courthouse and watercolors of tulips and daffodils set off by angular shadows.
Inspiration for Demuth’s many flower paintings came from his mother, Augusta’s, garden at the Lancaster “chateau.” These floral studies often served as means for stylistic and technical experiments, as shown in the precisely arranged “Zinnias and Scarlet Sage” and blotted “Irises.” In “Flowers, White and Brown,” the blooms are left blank to reveal the paper, while the areas around them are painted in blurry shapes so as to reverse the conventional relationship between the featured subject and background.
Demuth spent the last decade of his life as a diabetic invalid; he died from complications of the disease at age 51. His illness, however, didn’t prevent him from creating his most memorable works, the “poster portraits” of his artist friends. These metaphorical tributes, with numbers and letters symbolizing their subjects, unfortunately aren’t part of the show. Only a small photo of the O’Keeffe portrait, featured as part of the timeline of Demuth’s career, provides an idea of their graphic punch. It is another reminder of this exhibit’s limited scope.
WHAT: “Out of the Chateau: Works From the Demuth Museum
WHERE: Luther W. Brady Art Gallery, George Washington University, 805 21st St. NW, second floor
WHEN: Tuesday through Friday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Through March 14
ADMISSION: FreeView Entire Story
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