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Happy Birthday Charles Demuth (Watercolor + Precisionisim Artist)

November 08, 2019 3 min read

Charles Demuth

Born on November 8, 1883, Charles Demuth was the only child of Augusta and Ferdinand Demuth. This artistic genius, known for his watercolor paintings and works on Precisionism, despite leading a life marred by disability and illness, left a legacy that few of his contemporary artists could meet. Charles was a versatile painter often creating works ranging from flowers to moments spent with his friends to ironical illustration of impact of modern industrialization on cityscape. He was one of the first Americans who heralded the European and Cubist abstraction in American art scenario. His extensive work on Precisionism in his later days inspired generation of artists to come.

Early life

Charles Henry Buckius Demuth was born at 109 North Lime Street in Lancaster, Philadelphia. When he was still a four-year kid, Charles suffered from what some sources say Perthes while others claim to be polio, injury or tuberculosis of the hip. Whatever had been the reason, this debilitating illness left him with a prominent limp as he walked. During the initial days of the illness, his mother would restrict him from extensive movement for the fear of the illness getting worse. This period in bed defined the course of his life; his interest in painting and his lifelong dependence on his mother, Augusta, who would later serve as an inspiration in many of his paintings.

In 1889, Charles at the age of six, moved to an 18th century house at 120 King Street along with his family. Overlooking the road was his ancestral tobacco shop. Charles family had been running the tobacco shop since 1770.

When he was 13 years old, Charles created his first formal painting, a landscape with a windmill. He studied at the Franklin and Marshall College. He later enrolled into a graduation course in arts at the Drexel University and later at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. It was in this academy that Charles created his first much acclaimed self-portrait in oil in the year 1907. Here he met William Carlos William (who would later become iconic poet of imagism and modernism) and forged a friendship that would last lifelong.

As he left the school, his interest started shifting towards watercolors. He drew inspiration from his surroundings, quite notably from his mother’s garden.

During the next few years he frequently visited New York and established friendship with the artistic elite including Edward Fisk, Marcel Duchamp and Alfred Stieglitz. He along with his new friends enjoyed the nightlife and jazz bars. The influence of Jazz age New York and bohemian atmosphere of the Harlem Renaissance was quite visible in his works.

As his works started getting him rewards, he rented an apartment near Washington Square Park. He was much impressed with the Greenwich Village.

His outgoing nature and sharp wit earned him many friends. One such encounter was with Marsden Hartley in Paris. In 1917, Charles Demuth along with Hartley embarked to Bermuda. They created a series of landscape paintings, his first works based on Modernist and Cubist principles.

Later Years:

During the 1910s and 1920s he frequented between Paris and Lancaster. His love for Paris was attributed to his gay inclinations and he found Paris more accepting than the United States. During one of his trips in 1921, he was admitted to Neuille sur Seine. When he returned to Lancaster, he was diagnosed with diabetes. He enrolled in the experimental novel drug program and was one of the first few Americans to be treated with Insulin injections. In the years that followed, he had several successful solo exhibitions and started working on a series of seven paintings depicting the architecture of Lancaster, the place that he loved and spent most of his life in. These paintings illustrating the ironical representation of effects of industrialization on a small town like Lancaster (most notably My Egypt, 1927) won him much acclaim and cemented his reputation as the pioneer of modern art and precisionism in United states. Among the last of his paintings include sketches of beach scenes made in pencil and watercolor.

Charles Demuth at the age of 51, when he was still at the helm of his artistic excellence, died on October 23, 1935. His family home at East King Street was later turned into a museum dedicated to his works.

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