The Home and Studio of Charles Demuth. (Walking through History)

By Herberholz, Barbara | Arts & Activities, March 2002 | Go to article overview
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The Home and Studio of Charles Demuth. (Walking through History)

Herberholz, Barbara, Arts & Activities

No collection of paintings by 20th-century American artists would be complete without one by Charles Demuth (1883-1935). Art critic and historian Robert Hughes includes discussion of Demuth's artwork on several pages in his book, American Visions (Alfred A. Knopf, 1999), where we find a reproduction of one of his most well-known paintings, I Saw the Figure Five in Gold, 1928. This painting was the artist's homage and tribute to a poem by his friend, William Carlos Williams.

Both the poem and the painting scream like bold and brassy fire trucks as they herald a new interest in the art of the early 20th-century city. Hughes sees this painting as a precursor of pop art, a product of the precisionist school of painters, which includes Mardsen Hartley, Georgia O'Keeffe and Charles Sheeler. Precisionism marked a new era in the development of American art because it celebrated American industry, the modern city and the advancement of technology. Demuth was a pioneer of this movement.

We found the Demuth House, an 18th-century structure, now a museum gallery/garden, located at 120 East King Street, in Lancaster, Pa., in the heart of the city and one block east of Penn Square. It is open to the public and is free of charge. The Demuth Foundation restored it to the early 20th-century appearance, the time period when Demuth lived and painted there. The home is one of the oldest in Lancaster, having been built in the latter half of the 18th century and serving as a tavern in the Colonial period.

Next door to the house, located at 114 East King Street, we visited the Demuth Tobacco Shop, which was founded in 1770 by Christopher Demuth and passed down through the family hands for over 200 years. It continues to operate as a retail business selling tobacco products and supplies and is the oldest tobacco shop in America. The shop currently showcases a collection of antique firemen's parade hats and helmets.

We entered the garden at the Demuth home through an arched brick passage on the side of the house. The garden was a source of inspiration for many of his paintings, providing blooms from April through November. The charming Victorian garden was tended by the artist's mother, Augusta.

Demuth created most of his art in a small second-floor studio of his home. The second-floor parlor is currently being used as a gallery for art and educational exhibits. We saw some of his sketchbooks from about 1895 displayed in his studio, perhaps used by him as exercise books for art lessons with either Miss Letty Purple or Miss Martha Bowman.

These drawings and paintings were executed in pencil, ink and opaque paint in commercially available sketchbooks of the time. The images lean toward floral subjects, although humorous cartoon-like figures, as well as birds and insects are found in fewer numbers. Each picture was carefully drawn with pencil and then color was added, much as his mature artwork was done. His mother kept these books in her possession until after Charles' death. Young Charles also learned to paint china from Miss Purple, making gifts for special friends and family.

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