Born: Lancaster, Pennsylvania
“Paintings must be looked at and looked at and looked at. No writing, no talking, no singing, no dancing will explain them.”
– Charles Demuth
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Charles Demuth was one of the most stylistically innovative watercolor artists of the 20th century. The son of a wealthy Lancaster (Pennsylvania) tobacco merchant, Demuth never had to seek social approval or work for a living.
His introverted, imaginative character was strengthened by a childhood hip illness that left him partly lame and emotionally dependent on his mother. He received some art lessons as a teenager but, two years after graduating high school (1903), he enrolled in introductory art courses at Philadelphia’s Drexel Institute of Art, Science, and Industry, then (from 1905-10) completed his studies at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. There he trained in painting under Thomas Anshutz (a pupil of Thomas Eakins), came in contact with Japanese art, and perfected his persona as a dandyfied and world weary esthete after the manner of James McNeil Whistler, Aubrey Beardsley and Oscar Wilde.
He twice voyaged to Paris and Berlin, in 1907 and 1912-13, where he saw firsthand works by Cezanne, the Fauves, the German Expressionists, met expatriate Americans such as John Marin and Marsden Hartley, and enrolled in drawing courses at the Académie Moderne.
He returned to live in Lancaster after the death of his father in 1912, and began a lifelong relationship with the architect Robert Locher. But he also frequented the artistic circle around Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) in New York City, and spent summer vacations at New England’s seaside resorts.
He had his first solo exhibition in 1914, in New York, and quickly expanded his watercolor style toward bright colors, expressive drawing, and socially complex subjects. He also began to tackle more ambitious and serious landscapes in an increasingly refined and abstract style.
In 1920, Demuth was diagnosed with diabetes and was often incapacitated by diabetic attacks, yet he continued to work in Lancaster and travel to New York. He made a final trip to Europe in 1921, fell seriously ill, and was brought home by his mother for insulin treatment at the Morristown Sanitarium in New Jersey. He never regained full health, and spent most of the rest of his life working at home, a diabetic invalid.
In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Demuth created large works in oil that range from prophetic Pop iconography (his famous I Saw The Figure 5 in Gold, 1928) and poster art to the urban industrial visions of Precisionism. He exhibited in numerous solo shows and in group shows with artists such as Marin, O’Keeffe, Dove, Hartley, and Alfred Stieglitz. Over a period of two decades he produced more than one thousand drawings and paintings.
Demuth died of complications from diabetes in 1935, at age 51. In his will he bequeathed his watercolors to Robert Locher and all his other works to Georgia O’Keeffe.