Charles Demuth; Watercolorist an Eclectic Master

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), January 19, 2008 | Go to article overview
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Charles Demuth; Watercolorist an Eclectic Master

Byline: Deborah K. Dietsch , THE WASHINGTON TIMES

American artist Charles Demuth (1883-1935) was a mod- ern 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.

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