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Chimneys and Towers: Charles Demuth's Late Paintings of Lancaster

February 23, 2008 - April 27, 2008

 

Between 1927 and his death in 1935, Charles Demuth produced his last major series of paintings based on the architecture of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the town in which he was raised and lived intermittently throughout his life. This exhibition carefully examines, for the first time, this key group of paintings, beginning with My Egypt, the precisionist depiction of a Lancaster grain elevator that is perhaps Demuth's best known and most powerful late work. Through analyzing the specifics of place, subject, and style, the exhibition and accompanying catalogue explore the complex dynamics of Demuth's world at the end of his career. In addition to six major paintings, the exhibition includes preparatory drawings, watercolors, photographs of Lancaster industrial sites, and conservation photographs. (right: Charles Demuth, Buildings, Lancaster, 1930, Oil and graphite on composition board , 24 x 20 inches (60.96 x 50.8 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Gift of an anonymous donor 58.63. Photograph by Sheldan C. Collins)

Chimneys and Towers: Charles Demuth's Late Paintings of Lancaster is organized by the Amon Carter Museum. Whitney curators-incharge are Barbara Haskell and Sasha Nicholas.


Wall panel texts and object labels

 
Introductory section text
 
Chimneys and Towers: Charles Demuth's Late Paintings of Lancaster
 
In 1927, Charles Demuth (1883-1935) began working on a small group of ambitious paintings depicting industrial sites in his native Lancaster, Pennsylvania. This exhibition is the first in-depth examination of this series, one of the most notable achievements by an early-twentieth-century American artist. Created during an intense six-year period, the paintings ushered in a new era of American modernism. These oils, the last in Demuth's career, represent the final creative surge of an artist who was progressively ill with diabetes.
 
A central figure in the American avant-garde, Demuth was nurtured by the intellectual and artistic circles he encountered on frequent visits to New York City and in Paris, where he traveled on three occasions. Despite these journeys, Demuth's home was always the eighteenth-century house he shared with his mother in Lancaster. Unlike most of his modernist colleagues, he never relocated to a cosmopolitan urban center. Demuth's illness, diagnosed in 1921, became a central element of his life, governing his ability to work and travel.
 
For Demuth, Lancaster was a source of both strength and frustration. He found sanctuary there and an imagery that suited his creative inclinations, and yet, it was remote from the cultural milieu in which he thrived. Demuth's affectionate and ironic nickname for Lancaster -- "the province" -- conveys his experience of his hometown as simultaneously nurturing and provincial.
 
The works in this exhibition reflect Lancaster's primary commercial enterprises -- linoleum and tobacco production. They are examples of Precisionism, a movement whose artists, including Demuth, depicted architectural subjects using crisp geometric lines and flat, austere planes of color. Precisionist paintings highlight the rise of American industry after World War I and the country's fascination with technological progress; they also manifest the artists' desire to create a distinctly American aesthetic rooted in shared national experience. In his final paintings, Demuth fuses these concerns with a lifetime's experience of a specific place, transforming local industrial structures into icons of American identity.
 
Chimneys and Towers: Charles Demuth's Late Paintings of Lancaster is organized by the Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas. The Texas presentation of the exhibition and the accompanying publication have been made possible in part by a generous grant from The Henry Luce Foundation.
 
Major support for this exhibition is provided by the American Fellows of the Whitney Museum of American Art.
 
 
 
My Egypt, 1927
Oil and graphite on fiberboard
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase with funds from Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney 31.172
 
My Egypt portrays the concrete grain elevator of the John W. Eshelman Feed Company, constructed in 1919. The majestic structure rises up as the pinnacle of American achievement -- a modern-day equivalent to the monuments of ancient Egypt. A series of intersecting diagonal planes add geometric dynamism and an almost heavenly radiance to the composition, invoking the correlations between industry and religion that were widespread in the 1920s.
 
The painting's title suggests an ironic, yet poignant, commentary on living in a provincial backwater. The artist likely knew of the biblical significance of Egypt as both the site of the Israelites' bondage and a point of reference for their emergence as a distinct nation. In designating the image his Egypt, Demuth hints at a parallel in his own relationship with Lancaster, the place to which he was bound involuntarily through illness but which also became a source of artistic inspiration.
 
 
Buildings, Lancaster, 1930
Oil and graphite on fiberboard
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of an anonymous donor 58.63
 
The structures portrayed in this painting stood adjacent to the grain elevator of My Egypt. Both were parts of the Eshelman Feed Company, whose vibrant two-story painted sign appears in this image. Following World War I, the expansion of the American economy led to a dramatic growth in advertising, which harnessed the bold, streamlined forms of the machine age to captivate consumers at home and abroad. Demuth's prominent placement of the Eshelman sign accords with the desire among many avant-garde artists during this period to extol the new language of advertisements, which they perceived as quintessentially American.
 
 
And the Home of the Brave, 1931
Oil and graphite on fiberboard
The Art Institute of Chicago, Alfred Stieglitz Collection; gift of Georgia O'Keeffe
 
In 1931, the year this work was painted, Congress officially selected "The Star Spangled Banner" as the national anthem. In using its final line as his painting's title, Demuth draws a parallel between the song and local industry as new symbols of American identity.
 
The structures shown in this work are the offices and warehouses of the Bayuk Brother's Cigar Company. Tobacco was a leading crop in Lancaster County during Demuth's lifetime. It was also the livelihood of the artist's family, who owned what was then the oldest tobacco shop in America.
 
 
After All, 1933
Oil and graphite on fiberboard
Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach, Florida; bequest of R.H. Norton
 
After All is Demuth's last major work. The title may come from Walt Whitman's "Song of the Exposition," a poem written for the opening of the National Industrial Exposition in 1871. Whitman's poetry exerted a pronounced intellectual influence on Demuth's circle, serving as a touchstone for cultural nationalism. In the poem, Whitman wrote:
 
After all not to create only, or found only,
But to bring perhaps from afar what is already founded,
To give it our own identity, average, limitless, free,
To fill the gross the torpid bulk with vital religious fire,
Not to repel or destroy so much as accept, fuse, rehabilitate,
To obey as well as command, to follow more than to lead,
These also are the lessons of our New World;
While how little the New after all, how much the Old, Old World!
 
 
Buildings, c. 1930-31
Oil and graphite on fiberboard
Dallas Museum of Art; Dallas Art Association Purchase Fund, Deaccession Funds/City of Dallas (by exchange) in honor of Dr. Steven A. Nash
 
Demuth executed all of the paintings in this series on fiberboard, a sturdy modern material that was similar in composition to the linoleum flooring manufactured at the industrial plant depicted in this work. Each side of the fiberboard had a different texture; Demuth most often painted on the rough side of the board, whose subtle surface grain is visible upon careful inspection.
 
 
Sketchbook, c. 1921-35
Graphite and watercolor on paper
Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut; gift of Dr. and Mrs. William R. Hill in memory of Richard Weyand
 
Demuth generally did not make sketches before beginning to paint. But the large scale and complex compositions of his late architectural paintings led him to make a series of rapid graphite notations, on site, of the factory buildings in Lancaster.
 
In translating his sketches into paintings, Demuth used carefully ruled graphite lines, which played an important compositional role. The artist applied enough pressure so that the lines were recessed into the fiberboard support. They then served as a "working drawing," providing Demuth with a framework to follow with his brushes.
 
 
Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946)
Charles Demuth, 1923
Gelatin silver print
Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas; gift of Doris Bry
 
If Lancaster was the lifelong anchor of Demuth's activity, connections to the avant-garde moored his intellectual growth and development. His core group of friends were the American artists in the circle of photographer and art dealer Alfred Stieglitz. Of these, Demuth was particularly close to Marsden Hartley and Georgia O'Keeffe, to whom he bequeathed all of his oil paintings.
 
In this 1923 portrait, Stieglitz reveals the shocking physical deterioration that Demuth experienced as a result of his diabetes, while still capturing his friend's essential poise and elegance. Demuth wrote to Stieglitz regarding the image: "I think the head is one of the most beautiful things that I have ever known in the world of art. A strange way to write of one's own portrait but, -- well, I'm a perhaps frank person."
 
 
Section text for back gallery containing nine watercolors from the Whitney and Amon Carter collections
 
Despite Demuth's success with working in oil, watercolor was his favored medium throughout his career. As with his late paintings of industrial architecture, most of the watercolors on view in this gallery were executed in the second-floor studio in the back of Demuth's family home in Lancaster. They illuminate the artist's technical evolution toward an increasingly crisp and controlled handling of the medium.
 
Demuth began working in watercolor after receiving his formal training at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts from 1905 to 1910. Among his frequent early subjects were the vaudeville entertainers and artistic circles he encountered on visits to New York; these subjects were followed by still lifes of flowers and fruit from his mother's garden and markets in Lancaster.
 
Demuth's late industrial oil paintings evolved from his treatment in the late 1910s and early 1920s of architectural subjects in watercolor and tempera. Works from this period, such as In the Province #7, which depicts the church behind Demuth's house in Lancaster, represent the artist's first efforts to define the Precisionist style that reached its apex in his later oils.



Checklist for the exhibition (all works by Charles Demuth unless otherwise noted)

My Egypt, 1927
Oil and graphite on fiberboard
34 3/4 x 30 in. [framed: 39 3/4 x 33 3/4 x 1 1/4 in.]
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York;
Purchase with funds from Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney
31.172
 
Buildings, Lancaster, 1930
Oil and graphite on fiberboard
24 x 20 in. [framed: 26 7/8 x 23 x 1 3/4 in.]
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York;
Gift of an anonymous donor
58.63
 
Buildings, c. 1930-31
Oil and graphite on fiberboard
30 x 24 in. [framed: 33 9/32 x 29 1/32 x 1 in.]
Dallas Museum of Art; Dallas Art Association Purchase Fund, Deaccession
Funds/City of Dallas (by exchange) in honor of Dr. Steven A. Nash
1988.21
 
Chimney and Water Tower, 1931
Oil and graphite on fiberboard
29 1/4 x 23 1/4 in. [framed: 34 3/16 x 28 3/16 in.]
Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas
1995.9
 
And The Home of the Brave, 1931
Oil and graphite on fiberboard
30 x 24 in. [framed: 34 1/2 x 28 5/8 in.]
The Art Institute of Chicago; Alfred Stieglitz Collection, gift of Georgia O'Keeffe
1948.650
 
After All, 1933
Oil and graphite on fiberboard
36 x 30 in. [framed: 38 x 32 1/8 x 2 1/2 in.]
Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach, Florida;
Bequest of R. H. Norton
53.43
 
Sketchbook, ca. 1921-35
28 sketches in graphite and watercolor
10 5/8 x 8 1/4 in.
Yale University Art Gallery
Gift of Dr. and Mrs. William R. Hill in memory of Richard Weyand
1995.51.3a-bb
[selected sketch presented at each venue from bound volume]
 
Study for Buildings, Lancaster, c. 1930-31
(two-sided drawing; verso: Study for And The Home of the Brave)
Graphite on paper
8 1/4 x 6 1/2 in. [framed 17 x 14 in]
Judith and Arthur Marks
 
Study for My Egypt, c.1927
Graphite on paper
8 1/2 x 6 1/2 in. [framed 17 x 14 in]
Tacoma Art Museum, Tacoma, Washington
 
Study for Chimney and Water Tower, c. 1931
Graphite on paper
8 1/4 x 6 7/16 in. [framed 17 x 14 in]
Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas
1995.18
 
Study for Chimney and Water Tower, c. 1931
Graphite on paper
8 1/4 x 6 7/16 in. [framed 17 x 14 in]
Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas
1995.19
 
Study for And The Home of the Brave, c. 1931
Graphite on paper
8 1/4 x 6 7/16 in. . [framed 17 x 14 in]
Professor Joseph Masheck
 
Study for And The Home of the Brave, c. 1931
Graphite on paper
10 15/16 x 8 9/16 in. [framed 20 x 16 in]
Jay E. Cantor
 
Three Acrobats, 1916
Watercolor and graphite on paper
12 15/16 x 7 7/8 in. [framed 20 x 16 in]
Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas
1983.127
 
Eight O'Clock, 1917
Watercolor and graphite on paper
8 x 10 in. [framed 14 x 17 in]
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Gift of Carl D. Lobell
93.108
 
Daisies, 1918
Watercolor on paper
Sight: 17 1/4 x 11 3/8 in. [framed 20 x 16 in.]
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Gift of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney
31.423
 
In the Province #7, 1920
Tempera, watercolor, and graphite on composition board
19 7/8 x 15 7/8 in. [framed 30 x 24 in.]
Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas
1982.55
 
August Lilies, 1921
Watercolor on paper
12 1/16 x 19 1/8 in. [framed 19 x 24 in.]
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Purchase
31.422
 
Cineraria, 1923
Watercolor and graphite on paper
9 15/16 x 13 15/16 in. [framed 18 x 22 in]
Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas;
Purchase with funds provided by Nenetta Burton Carter
1981.2
 
Study of Bee Balm, ca. 1923
Watercolor and graphite on paper
Sight: 16 1/2 x 11 1/8 in. [framed 20 x 16 in.]
(41.91 x 28.26 cm)
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Lawrence H. Bloedel Bequest
77.1.16
 
Red Gladioli, 1928
Watercolor on Paper
20 x 14in. (50.8 x 35.6cm) [framed 29 x 23 in.]
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Bequest of Mr. and Mrs. Laurance S. Rockefeller in honor of Tom Armstrong
2004.459
 
Distinguished Air, 1930
Watercolor on paper
Irregular 16 3/16 x 12 1/8 in. [framed 24 x 19 in.]
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Purchase, with funds from the Friends of the Whitney Museum of American Art and Charles Simon
68.16
 
Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946)
Charles Demuth, 1923
Gelatin silver print
9 1/2 x 7 5/8 in. [framed 22 x 18 in]
Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas; Gift of Doris Bry
Copyright Courtesy of the Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation
P1998.75.

 

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