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The Life and Art of Precisionist Painter, Charles Demuth


Paintings must be understood through the eyes, and that\’s not the word either. No writing, no talking, no singing, no dancing will explain them. They are the final, the nth whoopee of sight.

Charles Demuth


Charles Henry Buckius Demuth was an American painter who specialized in watercolors and turned to oils late in his career. He developed a style of painting known as Precisionism. His watercolours of flowers, fruit, and vegetables combine meticulous botanical research with loosely Cubist abstraction and have an almost frightening sensuality. He was well known for his fruit still lives and the way he infused Chinese culture into his paintings. He was frequently identified as an American still-life painter.


Charles Demuth was born on November 8, 1883, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to a successful tobacco-industry family who supported him in his creative endeavours. In his mid-teens, he travelled to Paris to view the art of Cézanne and the Fauves. He studied under William Merritt Chase and Thomas Anshutz at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Demuth\’s distinctive style featured finely detailed forms that were frequently drawn in pencil and sheer splashes of dazzling colour that made the most of the paper\’s natural whiteness. Around his Pennsylvania family home, he discovered his themes in floral and fruit arrangements. In some exquisite examples, he captured the subtleties of a flower\’s fading beauty. Demuth was highly cosmopolitan despite coming from a small town.


China teacups, saucers, and plates adorned with flowers and Chinese dragons were among Demuth\’s initial creations. He frequently produced works with Chinese influences, which was extremely unusual for a teenage lad. For his closest friends, Demuth painted watercolours that candidly captured the developing \”gay scene\”: sexual encounters in baths, sailors fondling one another while urinating, and public sex at Coney Island. These pieces have enormous historical relevance because they depict the formation of a culture that is radically different from \”straight\” society in terms of organisation. The Great Figure, a poem by his friend William Carlos Williams, served as the inspiration for his most well-known picture, The Figure 5 in Gold (sometimes called I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold). This is one of nine poster portraits Demuth created to honor his creative friends.


Demuth\’s delicate linear style was perfectly suited for illustrating plays and novels such as Nana by Émile Zola, The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, Pandora\’s Box by Frank Wedekind, and The Mask of the Red Death by Edgar Allan Poe. These illustrations, not meant for publication, reflect Demuth\’s taste for the psychologically distorted and depict sexual conflict and social decadence. Demuth modified a complex of superimposed and intersecting structural planes originating from the structure itself in White Architecture by delicately and uniquely applying the cubist approach while using colour sparingly. He pioneered the precisionist movement by creating this technique in his paintings of factories and other industrial locations starting in 1918. One of Demuth\’s well-known Precisionist works is a painting he made in 1921 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, called Modern Conveniences.


Charles Demuth was most famous for his still lifes and much of his life still remains a mystery because so little was known about the working part of his life. Thomas Norton states that Demuth \”left no family, no money, and no memoirs and one must allow his paintings to tell us what they can.\” Frail his entire life, Demuth died of diabetes at the age of fifty-two in 1935. He left behind a body of more than nine hundred works, some very powerful and some extremely delicate, but all infused with a highly personal response to Modernism.



  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Demuth
  2. https://www.theartstory.org/artist/demuth-charles/
  3. https://pabook.libraries.psu.edu/literary-cultural-heritage-map-pa/bios/Demuth__Charles

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