Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.
Demuth painted this self-portrait (detail, 1907, oil on canvas, 26 1/16 x 18 in.) when he was a student at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. It was the only painting he ever exhibited in his hometown, Lancaster.

Demuth painted this self-portrait (detail, 1907, oil on canvas, 26 1/16 x 18 in.) when he was a student at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. It was the only painting he ever exhibited in his hometown, Lancaster.
The Demuth Museum, Lancaster, PA

Charles Demuth was an artist of wide reputation, represented in some of the most eminent art museums in the country. It would take some time, however, for his work to be appreciated in his own hometown of Lancaster, where the majority of his most significant paintings were created. Many of his works featured Lancaster settings and architecture. His acclaimed masterpiece, My Egypt, depicted one of the city’s once most distinctive landmarks, the Eshelman grain elevator, which stood just blocks from Demuth’s family home on East King Street.

Demuth was born into a quintessential upper-middle-class Lancaster family. His paternal ancestors from Moravia had emigrated in 1735 and were settled in Lancaster by 1770. Soon afterwards, they established a tobacco business. By the time of Demuth’s birth in 1883 the business was already acclaimed as the oldest continuously operating tobacco shop and snuff factory in America. The Demuth family home is one of the oldest houses in Lancaster City. Demuth’s father, Ferdinand, worked in the family business and was a minor civic personage until his early death in 1911. His mother, Augusta Buckius, was  from a less prestigious family, although it was financially secure and politically active.

The family’s only son, Charles, was brought up to feel very secure of his place in the world, even though he was a sickly child. At age 4 or 5 he was afflicted with a disease that left him lame, probably Perthes disease, a malady that could not be identified before the development of X-ray diagnosis. Medical treatment, including painful traction and two years of bedrest, never cured him and he always retained a limp. His mother, whom he called “Augusta the Ironclad,” nursed him through his childhood illnesses and later as an adult. Throughout his life she referred to him as “the boy.” In public school he was seated with the girls because teachers felt him too delicate to roughhouse with the other boys. He spent the last two years of his Lancaster education at the prestigious Franklin and Marshall Academy.

Drawing frequently as a child, Demuth had talents that were especially encouraged while he was bedridden. Afterwards, his mother sent him to study china painting with a local artist, Martha Bowman. Several items he decorated have survived. Some of his paternal grandaunts and granduncles were amateur painters and one was married to a daughter of Lancaster’s most prominent painter, Jacob Eichholtz (1776–1842). The family was proud that the tobacco company’s original sign had been carved by a great-granduncle, Johannes Demuth (c.1750–1820).

 

Charles Demuth, the future artist, left, in the family’s tobacco store in the early 1890s. The Demuth Museum, Lancaster, PA

Charles Demuth, the future artist, left, in the family’s tobacco store in the early 1890s.
The Demuth Museum, Lancaster, PA

The boy probably wanted to be an artist, but this was not considered an appropriate profession. For two years after high school he languished at home. Finally, in 1903 he enrolled in Philadelphia’s Drexel Institute of Art, Science and Industry to study illustration, later transferring to America’s oldest art school, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where he studied with William Merritt Chase and Thomas Anschutz.

It was a heady period in the art world with new winds blowing in from Europe and, as Rita Wellman, a Lancastrian and fellow student, observed: “When we were very young, we were very old. We were all bored with life; knew everything there was to know, and only condescended to give our time and talents to painting because it seemed to our jaded spirits the one respectable calling left.”

Demuth captured his father Ferdinand's style and flair in Papa Demuth (c.1907, watercolor on paper, 12 x 9 in.). The portrait presages the artist’s later watercolor technique. The Demuth Museum, Lancaster, PA

Demuth captured his father Ferdinand’s style and flair in Papa Demuth (c.1907, watercolor on paper, 12 x 9 in.). The portrait presages the artist’s later watercolor technique. The Demuth Museum, Lancaster, PA

Fellow artist and contemporary George Biddle (1885–1973) recalled Demuth as “a man always satiated with life.” Demuth the artist would be influenced by the persona and art of James McNeill Whistler, newly fashionable Japanese art, and the bright auroras of William Blake. Most of all he admired the “decadent postures” of Aubrey Beardsley (1872–98) and the wit of author Oscar Wilde (1854–1900), both of whom Demuth always considered to be great. Perhaps in their art he recognized his own homosexuality. While living in conservative Lancaster, Demuth remained closeted, and as an adult he had an equally closeted circle of friends.

When I was researching artist Arthur Armstrong (1798–1851) in the late 1970s, I visited the extravagantly decorated North Duke Street home of Frederich Augustus Heinitsh, who owned an ancestral Armstrong portrait. Elderly and flamboyant, Heinitsh, like Demuth, was from an old Lancaster family and had graduated from Franklin and Marshall Academy. While chatting, I noted a large silver-framed photograph on an end table next to the plump sofa where I was sitting. It showed three men in white tie and tails. I recognized one as Charles Demuth and I asked Heinitsh about it. “Yes, it’s Charlie, we always went places together.” (I don’t recall if he told me who the third man was.) Demuth’s closest Lancaster friend was Robert E. Locher (1888–1956), a painter and designer who would have a major career in New York and would eventually marry Beatrice, a lesbian, to present a respectable face to the world. After Locher’s death, a watercolor valentine, long attributed to Demuth, was found in his papers. It depicts two male figures, floating in the sky, engaged in what the French call “soixante-neuf ” (69).

Demuth probably painted this portrait of his mother Augusta Wills Buckius Demuth (no date, oil on canvas, 32 3/8 x 23 5/8 in.) during his student years in Philadelphia. Never completed, the image is, nevertheless, strong. According to poet William Carlos Williams, “She was a horse of a woman, a strange mother for such a wisp of a man.”

Demuth probably painted this portrait of his mother Augusta Wills Buckius Demuth (no date, oil on canvas, 32 3/8 x 23 5/8 in.) during his student years in Philadelphia. Never completed, the image is, nevertheless, strong. According to poet William Carlos Williams, “She was a horse of a woman, a strange mother for such a wisp of a man.”
The Demuth Museum, Lancaster, PA

Demuth, as he matured, learned to use his cane as a dapper prop and always dressed meticulously, with an occasional eccentric touch. Lancaster-born newspaperman Gerald Lestz (1914–2009) recalled that he and his buddies saw Demuth “on his front stoop . . . as we passed by walking to high school. Particularly memorable is the colorful necktie he wore as a sash.” His olive skin and raven black hair and eyes reinforced his somewhat exotic appearance — a look he gloried in.

After finishing his studies at the Pennsylvania Academy in 1907, Demuth made the first of three trips to Paris. Here he saw Auguste Rodin’s paintings in which washes of watercolor exposed pencil drawing. It was here too that he would encounter the works of Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso, Fernand Léger, Robert Delaunay and Constantin Brâncuși and would meet other American artists, including Alfred Maurer, Patrick Henry Bruce, John Marin and Edward Steichen. Painter/photographer Steichen, along with Alfred Steiglitz, had already founded what would be known as “291,” the famed gallery in New York City whose artists would be important in Demuth’s life, especially Steiglitz’s second wife, Georgia O’Keeffe (1887–1986), and New Englander Marsden Hartley (1877–1943).

Returning from Europe, Demuth continued to live in Philadelphia, with frequent trips home, and he sketched in nearby Bucks County and Lambertville, New Jersey. On occasional trips to New York City he visited 291 where he saw an exhibit of Rodin’s watercolors that again inspired him and others in the 291 circle. A year after his father’s death in 1912, Demuth returned to live in Lancaster, while never giving up the wish to go back to Paris. Money from his mother (as money from both parents had earlier) enabled him to go.

In 1914 he and artist John Marin (1870–1963) traveled to Europe together, returning to Paris in the spring before World War I broke out. In that “Golden Time” he met Gertrude Stein (1874–1946) and talked with her about art and literature (he tried his hand at being a writer), and she introduced him into her wide circle of the avante garde. He painted, strongly influenced by the ethos of a modern Europe on the verge of war.

Returning to America that spring, he had broken away from much that he had learned in Philadelphia and began to paint as “an innovative modernist.” About the trip he later recalled, “John Marin and I draw our inspiration from the same sources. He brought his up in buckets and spilled much along the way. I dipped mine out with a teaspoon and never spilled a drop.”

 

In Vaudeville: Two Acrobat-Jugglers (1916, watercolor and graphite on wove paper, 11 3/16 x 8 in.) was painted by Demuth probably after he saw a show at the Colonial Theatre in Lancaster. Disabled himself, Demuth admired physical dexterity.

In Vaudeville: Two Acrobat-Jugglers (1916, watercolor and graphite on wove paper, 11 3/16 x 8 in.) was painted by Demuth probably after he saw a show at the Colonial Theatre in Lancaster. Disabled himself, Demuth admired physical dexterity.
The Barnes Foundation

A popular World War I–era song asked, “How Ya Gonna Keep ’em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree)?” For Demuth, Lancaster and Philadelphia became too restrictive. He now spent most of the time in New York City with summers in seaside resorts, especially Provincetown, Massachusetts, favored by the artistic and intellectual elite of Manhattan. He, however, continued to make frequent visits to the house on King Street (“The Chateau”) in Lancaster (“The Province”).

In New York, Demuth acquired a dealer, Charles Daniel, and a vibrant artistic and bohemian life. Among the other artists Daniel’s gallery represented were Man Ray, Rockwell Kent, Stuart Davis, William Glackens and William Zorach. In his new life Demuth could paint the café society of his milieu but also homoerotic paintings, including a small series set in a Turkish bath. Largely giving up the thoughts of a literary career, he did a series of illustrations based on favorite novels. Those for Emile Zola’s Nana were purchased by one of his earliest patrons, Dr. Albert Barnes (1872–1951), whom he had met when he was an art student. Barnes was a pharmacist from West Philadelphia who had become fabulously wealthy through his development of the patent medicine Argarol, widely used in the treatment of all respiratory ailments before antibiotics. Today the Barnes Foundation owns an extensive collection of Demuth’s works.

 

Nana and Count Muffat (1916, watercolor and graphite on thin wove paper, 8 x 10 3/4 in.) was from a series that Demuth painted illustrating Emile Zola’s 1880 novel Nana. The Barnes Foundation

Nana and Count Muffat (1916, watercolor and graphite on thin wove paper, 8 x 10 3/4 in.) was from a series that Demuth painted illustrating Emile Zola’s 1880 novel Nana. The Barnes Foundation

Returning home to Lancaster to recuperate from his strenuous social life, Demuth painted still lifes of flowers and produce grown in his mother’s garden or purchased from the nearby curb market, blocks from his front door. He also went to see vaudeville shows at the Colonial Theatre at Duke and Chestnut streets, where he drew inspiration for many of his vivid show business watercolors. His style was certainly influenced by Cubist trends, but it was entirely in his own interpretation. He frequently used physical barriers, such as straight edges, to limit the flow of his watercolors, and blotters to vary shading and delicately modulate surfaces.

Flower Piece (1916, watercolor and graphite on wove paper, 10 7/8 x 8 3/8), left, is one of many floral still lifes that Demuth painted throughout his career. Although he always executed them in watercolor, his techniques evolved through the years. The flower studies were his most popular and best-selling works.

Flower Piece (1916, watercolor and graphite on wove paper, 10 7/8 x 8 3/8), left, is one of many floral still lifes that Demuth painted throughout his career. Although he always executed them in watercolor, his techniques evolved through the years. The flower studies were his most popular and best-selling works.
The State Museum of Pennsylvania

As early as 1912 Demuth had begun experimenting with a Cubist approach in some of his works, but his first significant body of work within the idiom appeared in 1917 during a trip to Bermuda, where his landscape was defined by a series of hard edges. Multiplicity within images was another Cubistic element he found important. Rays depicting the changes of light on subjects in his paintings also became significant, increasingly as he embraced Precisionism, which would come to define his architectural-influenced paintings. Adopting Precisionism he also changed his medium from predominantly watercolors (which he continued to use for most all of his still lifes) to tempera (an opaque, thicker watercolor) on paper and ultimately to oil on board.

During the summer of 1921 he was in Provincetown on Cape Cod, often sickly with little energy and craving sweets. Still he mustered the energy to go to Paris in August, hoping to “stop the wheels going around backwards.” This was not to be. Shortly after his arrival he spent a month in a hospital. Two months later he returned to America and a dire diagnosis. He had diabetes — at that time a death sentence. Thanks to his longtime patron Albert Barnes, his life was extended. Barnes persuaded Demuth to consult with Dr. Frederick Allen, the leading expert on diabetes. With financial support from Barnes, Demuth entered Allen’s very expensive Physiatric Institute in Morristown, New Jersey. Under treatment, diabetic patients fasted until their sugar levels disappeared from their urine and then rigorously reduced their caloric intake to almost zero. After 10 months Demuth was released to the care of his mother in Lancaster, where she carefully controlled his food and alcohol.

Demuth lost weight and was near death’s door, but science provided a reprieve. In 1921 two Canadian doctors had discovered insulin, and in 1922 Allen became the third doctor in America to administer it. Demuth, very ill, was reluctant, but finally he re-entered Allen’s institute in March 1923. By April the drug appeared to be working a miracle.

 

Lancaster (In the Province No. 2) (1920, watercolor and semigloss opaque paint, probably egg tempera, over graphite on board, 23 11/16 x 19 7/8 in.), below, centers on a tobacco warehouse topped by an Indian weathervane. Still standing only blocks from the artist’s home, the building has been converted into an elementary school.

Lancaster (In the Province No. 2) (1920, watercolor and semigloss opaque paint, probably egg tempera, over graphite on board, 23 11/16 x 19 7/8 in.), below, centers on a tobacco warehouse topped by an Indian weathervane. Still standing only blocks from the artist’s home, the building has been converted into an elementary school.
Philadelphia Museum of Art (The Louise and Walter Arensburg Collection, 1950-134-45)

By the time he left the clinic in May, Demuth had gained nearly 15 pounds and was hopeful. Insulin treatment was not as sophisticated as it would be. Demuth gave himself two daily injections and was subject to hypoglycemic attacks if he failed to closely control his food intake and exercise. In Lancaster, Augusta kept him in balance. Trips to New York became increasingly dangerous. By his late 30s, Lancaster became his sole residence. It was as if he was reliving his childhood — almost totally dependent on his mother. But ultimately this was the only way he could reserve his ever-waning energy for painting.

In November 1923 Demuth began a series of “poster portraits.” These were emblematic depictions of American artists, not all painters, who were important to his life. The poster portraits were never commercially or critically successful in his lifetime, unlike his still lifes and his earlier architectural studies, and most remained unsold at his death. His best-known poster portrait is perhaps his best-known work: The Figure 5 in Gold (1928), a tribute to his friend William Carlos Williams (1883–1963), physician and modernist poet whom Demuth had met while both were students at Drexel many years before. The oil-on-board is even more a portrait of Williams’ poem “The Great Figure” than it is of the poet:

I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold (1928, oil, graphite, ink and gold leaf on paperboard, 35 1/2 x 30 in.) is a homage to poet William Carlos Williams and is Demuth’s most famous poster portrait.

I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold (1928, oil, graphite, ink and gold leaf on paperboard, 35 1/2 x 30 in.) is a homage to poet William Carlos Williams and is Demuth’s most famous poster portrait.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1949)

Among the rain
and lights
I saw the figure 5
in gold
on a red
firetruck
moving
tense
unheeded
to gong clangs
siren howls
and wheels rumbling
through the dark city

The earliest of Demuth’s portrait series were dedicated to Georgia O’Keefe and John Marin. Among the others he honored were fellow painter Arthur Dove, poet Gertrude Stein (Love, Love, Love) and female impersonator Bert Savoy (Calla Lilies).

In 1927 Demuth began a new series of paintings devoted to Lancaster’s architecture, a subject he explored to express his view of modern America, location-bound as he was. As he had written during an earlier bout of illness when similarly anchored in Lancaster, he lamented to Agnes and Eugene O’Neill: “You see, dearies, I’m back in the province in the garden of my own chateau, — where I’ll be for the remaining days of the season. The quiet and yellow velvet old age which I always predicted for myself has started. Oh, yes my health is much more advanced than any of my contemporaries. I hope, dear Agie, you are still thin. You are about the only one I could at the moment appear with.”

Demuth’s iconic My Egypt, painted in 1927, immortalized the John W. Eshelman & Sons grain elevator. The title is enigmatic and exploits the Egyptomania that followed the discovery of King Tut’s tomb in 1922. Perhaps Lancaster was to Demuth what Egypt had been to the Jews: a place to which he was, because of his illness, involuntarily bound. He worked slowly and arduously.

Between Demuth’s architectural works were more floral studies, which are among his most precisely delineated watercolors. Red Poppies, painted in 1929, has a decidedly minimalist, or even Japanese, aesthetic. He also painted a rather mysterious series, one that could not be exhibited or legally sold during this period. Explicitly sexual, Three Sailors on the Beach, Four Male Figures, and Two Sailors Urinating, all done in 1930, were certainly painted from memory and imagination and were created when Demuth himself probably had been rendered impotent by his diabetes. Perhaps they were done as a secret future gift for his friend, Robert Locher. Demuth’s last oil painting, After All, done in 1933, is an industrial scene set in Lancaster.

 

Red Poppies (1929, watercolor and graphite on paper, 13 7/8 x 19 7/8 in.), bottom, with its bold, stark colors and minimalist design exemplifies the metamorphosis of his botanical works to a more Precisionist style. The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Gift of Henry and Louise Loeb, 1983)

Red Poppies (1929, watercolor and graphite on paper, 13 7/8 x 19 7/8 in.), bottom, with its bold, stark colors and minimalist design exemplifies the metamorphosis of his botanical works to a more Precisionist style. The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Gift of Henry and Louise Loeb, 1983)

In the summers of 1930 and 1934 Demuth spent some time in Provincetown, where he painted his last group of watercolors (mostly beach scenes), which were looser and less detailed than his earlier works. After returning to Lancaster, that last time, Demuth fell so ill that he could no longer paint. In July 1935, suffering from dropsy and arterial sclerosis, his legs swelled. On October 2 in the afternoon, he had a severe hypoglycemic attack, so serious that the doctor was called, and Demuth was put to bed. When his mother looked in on him in the early evening, he was dead.

As his most precious belongings he left all his unsold oils, including most of the poster portraits, to Georgia O’Keefe and all his watercolors to Robert Locher. At her son’s request Augusta, who died in 1943, left the family home to Robert Locher. Locher lived there until his death in 1955, along with his lover Richard W. C. Weyand, who remained there until his own death in the following year. Most of the O’Keeffe bequest ended up in public institutions. Most of the Locher-Weyand estate was dispersed at auction with the most important works held in New York City at the Parke-Bernet Galleries in 1957 and 1958. Demuth was buried in Lancaster Cemetery, a 20-acre Victorian burial ground favored by the city’s elite.

After his death, Demuth’s reputation continued to grow. Attorney Herbert S. Levy (1908–80), who recalled seeing Demuth “walking slowly, and it seemed painfully, many times on the streets of Lancaster,” noted that “while Demuth has not captured the popular imagination or acclaim in his community . . . he has [not] been wholly rejected either.” In 1941 a show of his work was held at Franklin & Marshall College, and the Lancaster County Historical Society sponsored two exhibitions, the last being in 1962. Still there was no place in Lancaster where the public could regularly see Demuth’s works.

After Weyland’s death, the house was sold. The new owners turned it all into offices, and Augusta’s garden, the source of inspiration for so many of Demuth’s paintings, was paved over for parking.

As suggested above, there was always a small group of Lancastrians who knew and appreciated Demuth’s work and importance. Prominent among them was a remarkable couple, Gerald Lestz and his second wife, artist Margaret Gordon Lestz (1916–2009). Margaret, born and raised in Montana, was one of a large group of artists who came to Lancaster thanks to Armstrong World Industries, which in its heyday attracted dozens of artists to work in its advertising and design departments. Margaret was the head scenic designer who created the rooms in which Armstrong products were featured.

Together with the support of a few other interested locals and Armstrong-connected artists, the Lestzes formed the Demuth Foundation in 1981. Major initial funding came through the Steinman family, owners of the Lancaster newspapers where Gerald Lestz worked. Caroline “Carrie” Steinman Nunan (1925–2010) was fittingly the first treasurer. The group purchased the Demuth home on East King Street and the neighboring building housing the tobacco store, with the snuff mill in the backyard. They set out to restore the house, adaptively reuse its attached residence, and recreate Augusta’s garden. The mill has been stabilized and its future use is yet to be determined. Then, of course, there was the question of having Demuth paintings to exhibit. Starting with the donation of Demuth’s self-portrait, the only painting the artist himself had ever shown in Lancaster, the museum today has 53 works by Demuth. Anne Lampe, formerly director of the now-consolidated Demuth Museum and the Lancaster Museum of Art, proudly points out this is the largest collection of Demuth works, second to the holdings of the Barnes Foundation, and followed by the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The artist is now a low-key hero in his hometown. His home/studio is one of a relatively small group of artist homes preserved as museums in America.

 

Visit the Demuth Museum

The Demuth Museum is located in the former home and studio of Charles Demuth at 120 East King Street in Lancaster and holds a permanent collection of 53 of the artist’s works representing all periods of his diverse career. Special exhibitions and educational programs are held at the museum throughout the year. The garden features many of the same flowers cultivated by Demuth’s mother that appeared in the artist’s floral works. The adjacent Demuth Tobacco Shop at 114 East King Street is open to the public during select special events.

For more information on hours, tours and events, call 717-299-9940 or visit demuth.org.

 

Irwin Richman, a popular lecturer, author of more than 30 books, and avid art collector (alas, no Demuth — yet!), lives with his wife Susan a few blocks from the Demuth Museum in Lancaster. He is a research associate at Landis Valley Village & Farm Museum and professor emeritus of American studies and history at Penn State Harrisburg. His most recent book, The Graphic Vegetable: Food and Art from America’s Soil (with Michael B. Emery), includes several Demuth watercolors as illustrations.