American Precisionist painter Charles Demuth was one of the most exeptional watercolorists of the 20th century. Tackling a wide range of subjects including translucent flower studies, architectural paintings, landscape abstractions, still-life, and “poster portraits”, he contributed significantly to the development of American modernism.
Charles Demuth was born November 9th 1883, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the son of a wealthy tobacco merchant. A childhood disease that left him partly lame was one of the many health problems he would endure throughout his life.
After graduating high school in 1903, Charles enrolled in art courses at Philadelphia's Drexel Institute of Art, Science, and Industry. He went on to attend Philadelphia's Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1905, where he studied under Thomas Anshutz. As a young gay man, he kept mostly to himself. However, he formed an instant bond with fellow student William Carlos Williams whose poetry would later inspire him to create one of his most popular works.
Charles Demuth took a tour of Paris, London, and Berlin in 1907, where he was exposed to the many great works by Cezanne, the Fauves, and German Expressionists. Upon his return, he resumed studies at the Pennsylvania Academy. The death of his father in 1912 prompted him to return to Lancaster where he met architect Robert Locher who became a life-long friend. During this time, he returned to Paris where he studied at the Modern, Julian, and Colarossi Academies.
Demuth’s first solo exhibition in 1914 in New York boasted brilliant watercolor landscapes and flower pieces. A developing interest in abstract art, inspired from Cubist influences such as Picasso and Braque, influenced a Precisionist style of landscapes and seascapes such as ‘Sailboats and Roofs’ (1918).
When Charles Demuth was diagnosed with diabetes in 1920, he continued to travel and paint as he always had until a trip to Europe, where he became very ill, forced him to return home to receive treatment. He had been working on some brightly colored floral paintings at the time, one of which was ‘Zinnias’ (1921). Future excursions were not recommended, and so Demuth worked from his home for the rest of his life.
His portrayal of geometric shapes, inspired by machines and modern technology, gave birth to some of his greatest works in oil over the next decade, including the popular ‘My Egypt’ (1927) and ‘I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold’ (1928) based on an Imagist poem, "The Great Figure" by his friend William Carlos Williams. Demuth continued to exhibit his work in solo shows and group shows alongside such artists as Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keefe; he was often credited with leading her into the painting of flowers.
Charles Demuth died of complications related to diabetes in October 23, 1935, at the age of fifty-one. He left behind a legacy of watercolors to Robert Locher and oils to Georgia O’Keeffe.