Artist Charles Demuth: Biography & Paintings

Instructor: Jennifer Keefe

Jennifer Keefe has taught college-level Humanities and has a Master's in Liberal Studies.

After overcoming a childhood illness, he went on to become one of the most important contemporary American painters of the 20th century. In this lesson, you will learn about the life and works of Charles Demuth. Then take a short quiz on what you have learned.

Charles Demuth -- An American Painting Pioneer

Has the hardship of an illness or injury ever ended up becoming an opportunity for something great to come to you in the end? For American painter Charles Demuth (1883-1935), a childhood illness would change the course of his life, and for the better.

Demuth, shown below in his Self Portrait, painted in 1907, was born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He was the only son of a wealthy tobacco shop owner. Demuth developed a rare, debilitating disease called Perthes at the age of five. The disease affected the ball and socket joints of his hips, making it difficult for him to walk. It also caused him to spend a lot of time at home, allowing him to become closer to his mother. She was a major influence on his decision to become an artist, and an inspiration for many of his works. Once he recovered from Perthes, Demuth began taking private painting lessons. The majority of his early works were teacups and saucers, many painted with Chinese themes on them.

Self Portrait, 1907
Charles Demuth Self Portrait

Teenage Years and Beyond

Demuth was originally going to continue in his father's tobacco business, but his high school grades pointed to a real desire to create art. He attended the Drexel Institute of Art, Science, and Industry in Philadelphia, and then the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, which allowed him to study in Paris, before graduating in 1910. He divided his time between Lancaster, where he painted, and New York, where he entered his works into contests. He also helped to curate several art shows, and had his first one-man art show in 1914. Demuth was diagnosed with diabetes in 1920, which eventually caused him to create fewer paintings in the latter part of his life.

Painting Meets Poetry

In the 1920s, Demuth created a number of architectural paintings in a style known as Precisionism. Precisionism was an offshoot of the American Modernism movement. It was inspired by Spanish painter Pablo Picasso's Cubism, which was developed in the first decade of the 1900s. The style emphasized shapes, such as triangles and squares, putting less focus on the reality of the figures in a painting and more focus on their geometric shapes. Demuth and the other Precisionists, including painter Georgia O'Keeffe, also used geometric shapes; but instead of distorting reality like the Cubists, they created very realistic paintings. They were often inspired by the Industrial movement in America in the 1920s and 1930s.

One of Demuth's well-known Precisionist works is a painting he made in 1921 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, called Modern Conveniences. Do you see the lines and shadows in the background of the painting? These elements became part of Demuth's style and are part of his Precisionist painting technique. Modern Conveniences is the view outside the back door of his Pennsylvania home.

Modern Conveniences, 1921
Charles Demuth Modern Conveniences

In 1928, Demuth created his Figure 5 in Gold, shown below. If you look closely, the same idea of contemporary lines in the background can be seen. This work was actually inspired by a William Carlos Williams poem called The Great Figure, written about a fire truck moving through the streets of an unknown American city. Can you tell, by the chaos in the image, that the speaker in the poem was probably caught off guard by the noise of the truck?

Figure 5 in Gold, 1928
Charles Demuth Figure 5 in Gold

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