Editor's note: The following essay concerning the exhibition A Kinship in Art: Charles Demuth and Georgia O'Keeffe, on view at the Demuth Museum September 3 - October 3, 2010, was reprinted in Resource Library on September 10, 2010 with permission of the Demuth Museum. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the Demuth Museum directly through either this phone number or web address:
A Kinship in Art: Charles Demuth and Georgia O'Keeffe
By Anne M. Lampe
Unlikely friends, Charles Demuth and Georgia O'Keeffe forged a connection that enabled each artist to fulfill and enrich the other in their common pursuit to articulate a unique American vision in their art work. Where they first met or whether this friendship began through their pursuit of joining Alfred Stieglitz's stable of artists or through a shared network of friends or via their common artistic pursuit is immaterial. Rather, the alacrity with which this friendship took precedence in their lives, to the point of excluding other intimates, is of note and confounded their lovers and friends. This important bond fed each artist on a personal as well as an artistic level.
In the early teens, both Demuth and O'Keeffe were drawn to Alfred Stieglitz's gallery 291, on Park Avenue. In 1907-1908, Stieglitz mounted an exhibit of Rodin drawings, which drew the attention of artists and collectors across the country. At that time, O'Keeffe was taking classes at the Art Students League and was encouraged to go to the exhibit. Upon her first visit to 291 her classmates engaged Stieglitz in conversation, or rather Stieglitz pontificated about the drawings. O'Keeffe kept her distance and listened to his rhetoric. On a subsequent visit, O'Keeffe decided to engage the raconteur in conversation. She was smitten with Stieglitz's ideas and his passion for art. Later that year, she had to leave New York for a teaching position, and by 1914 had saved enough money to return to New York for a semester at the Teachers College of Columbia University, where she became friends with Anita Pollizter. Once again the young artist haunted the galleries at 291, but quickly departed for a job at a women's college in Columbia, South Carolina. It was during this period that O'Keeffe wrote to Pollizter how much she wanted to create something that would please Stieglitz.
At this same time, Demuth was a student at the Philadelphia Academy of the Fine Arts and traveled to New York to see the exhibits at 291. Demuth was intrigued by the Rodin exhibit as well as the Picasso drawings previously exhibited. In 1913, Demuth embarked on a trip to Europe, and while there he met Marsden Hartley whom Stieglitz exhibited regularly at 291. The two men became friends and Hartley wrote a letter of introduction to Stieglitz for Demuth. He noted that Stieglitz should get to know this promising American artist. This introduction began an artist and mentor relationship between the two men. Demuth felt strongly that Stieglitz should represent him, yet the gallerist felt that sales of his pictures would be better served by the Charles Daniel Gallery. There has been much speculation as to why Stieglitz did not include Demuth in any of his gallery shows until 1925; some claim that his work was too much of a challenge to Stieglitz's favorite watercolorist John Marin, while others posit that Demuth's "limp handshake" and his overly refined pictures kept him on the fringe of Stieglitz's group. Nevertheless, Stieglitz regularly offered Demuth encouragement and analysis of his art work. Stieglitz also photographed Demuth in front of Picasso's art work in 291 and asked him to contribute a hymn of praise on the topic "What is 291?" for the January 1915 issue of Camera Work.
O'Keeffe was also struggling to find her own voice as an artist and she wrote to her friend, "I believe I would rather have Stieglitz like something -- anything I had done -- than anyone else I know of" In her quest to please Stieglitz, O'Keeffe had begun a journey of finding herself as an artist; she was learning how to walk again. She took large sheets of cheap paper on the floor and sticks of charcoal and began to express herself on the paper. These initial drawings were sent in a roll to Pollizter, who, reading between the lines of O'Keeffe's letters, took them to Alfred Stieglitz on New Year's Day, 1916. He found them moving and remarkable. She had broken through and transformed her private vision into a universal art. These drawings elicited from Stieglitz: "Finally a woman on paper." Stieglitz held onto these charcoals and began corresponding with this new artist. O'Keeffe was exhilarated by Stieglitz's letters and in 1916 he showed these drawings at 291.
It was not until 1918 that O'Keeffe moved to New York via an invitation from Stieglitz. She lived in Stieglitz's niece's studio and soon the two were inseparable. Being rather shy, O'Keeffe began to form her own friendships among the cognoscenti of the day, which Demuth had been mingling with for some time. For a time, O'Keeffe kept to Stieglitz's circle of men, yet found them disingenuous because they espoused this ideal of "being American" creating "American poetry " and "the great American novel" as well as "American Painting" but would prefer to be in Paris or Europe rather than travel west of the Hudson. O'Keeffe wrote to her friend Blanche Matthias, "One can not be an American by going about saying that one is American [I]t is necessary to feel America, like America, love America and then work."
She quickly realized that she needed to form friendships with other artists outside of Stieglitz's immediate circle in order to find the sustenance she craved. The first women that O'Keeffe formed friendships with were the three Stettheimer sisters. She quickly formed a bond with Florine, who studied painting at the Art Students League and created the Cathedral of Art paintings in which both O'Keeffe and Demuth are represented. While Florine's sister Ettie was in Europe getting her doctoral degree, Carrie attended to the many facets of running an elaborate household, where festoons of cellophane were de rigueur decoration and soirées of artist friends occurred regularly. Carrie also created the now famous dollhouse, which contains miniature works of art by their artist friends including O'Keeffe, Demuth, Duchamp and Stieglitz.
Stieglitz also introduced O'Keeffe to the Provincetown Players and their performances in the village. Stieglitz, Demuth and many others kept a subscription to the Players from their early days in 1916 because the outpouring of original creativity from this group was inspiring and Eugene O'Neill's work was particularly prized. No one missed the November 1920 premiere of Eugene O'Neill's play The Emperor Jones, whose star, Charles Gilpin, was African American. Both the production and the star caused a sensation and hordes of uptowners to 133 MacDougal Street to try and obtain tickets. This production, which was uniquely American, encouraged artists to embrace what is American and express that in their work. Demuth and O'Keeffe were receptive to the underlying message in the modernist activities of the day.
Whenever Demuth was in New York, O'Keeffe and Stieglitz would see him. Their many outings were occasionally punctuated with medical emergencies and Demuth would have to be rushed to medical help due to a diabetic attack. Rather than distancing their relationship, these "rescue operations" actually formed a closer bond between the two artists. O'Keeffe and Demuth established their own special bond, which excluded Stieglitz and confounded other friends. O'Keeffe's attachment to the remote dandy went further than her explanation that he was more fun than all the solemn male souls of the Stieglitz entourage. She noted, "he was a better friend to me than any of the other artists." The two artists recognized their shared pursuit of discovering a vocabulary for the developing art form of American modernism.
Early in the twenties, prior to marrying Stieglitz, O'Keeffe began to visit alone with Demuth in Lancaster. During her visits she would stay at the Weber hotel, across the street from the Demuth family home and tobacco shop, and take her meals with Charles and his mother, Augusta. In 1919, Demuth broke through to his mature artistic style, now known as Precisionism. His first works in this style focused on the architecture of the changing skyline of Lancaster city. The city where Demuth grew up was slowly transforming from townhouses and small shop fronts to a more industrialized cityscape. Demuth was fascinated by the transformation and began to apply his new visual vocabulary to his architectural portrayals.
During this same period, O'Keeffe was creating abstract works that portrayed very little referential material and often had titles such as "abstraction" or "spot." Their individuality of expression and a shared dislike for cults and isms is exactly what the two found so appealing in the other. O'Keeffe wanted "to paint in terms of my own thinking and feeling," while Demuth was exploring his new visual vocabulary.
Working together during O'Keeffe's visits on the subject of alligator pears, each artist would produce a picture quite different than the other. Demuth was exploring how his idea of abstracted rays of light traversing the picture plane created an ideal composition, while O'Keeffe was exploring the volume of a pear resting on a pure white cloth. Also the two shared a fascination with photography. Demuth was influenced by his father and O'Keeffe by Stieglitz. Demuth used photography to pastiche together different views of his beloved Lancaster's industrial buildings into coherent compositions. In the late twenties, O'Keeffe began to paint the skyscrapers of New York. In her works the tall buildings seem to converge together at the tops, much like a photograph taken from a skewed angle on the street.
Clearly these two artists pursued the expression of their American vision in different visual terms. However, they shared a distrust for verbal explanations of pictures. Demuth stated, "to me words explain too much and say too little," and O'Keeffe agreed when she said, "shapes and colors are more exact to me than words." While they shared a love for the salons of the day such as the Stettheimers' and the creativity of groups such as the Provincetown Players, both Demuth and O'Keeffe did not subscribe to the theorizing or verbosity that Stieglitz as well as other critics and collectors were creating to describe the new American modernism. Instead, these two artists inhabited their own country, that of America, west of the Hudson River where they found subject matter and space to create and define the new American modernism.
1. Anita Pollitzer to Georgia O'Keeffe, October, 1915, Lovingly Georgia: The Complete Correspondence of Georgia O'Keeffe and Anita Pollitzer, ed. Clive Giboire (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990), 84.
2. Anita Pollitzer to Georgia O'Keeffe, January 1, 1916, Lovingly Georgia, 115.
3. Blanche Matthias, "Stieglitz Showing Seven Americans," Chicago Evening Post, Magazine of the Art World, March 2, 1926.
4. Edith Evans Asbury, "Silent Desert Still Charms Georgia O'Keeffe, near 81," New York Times, November 2, 1969.
5. Benita Eisler, O'Keeffe & Stieglitz: An American Romance (New York: Doubleday, 1991), 246.
6. Charles Demuth, "Across a Greco is Written," Creative Art, vol. 5 (September 29, 1929), 629-634.
7. Georgia O'Keeffe, Georgia O'Keeffe (New York: The Viking Press, 1976), n.p.
About the author
Anne M. Lampe is Executive Director at the Demuth Museum.
About the exhibition
A Kinship in Art: Charles Demuth and Georgia O'Keeffe, is on view at the Demuth Museum September 3 - October 3, 2010
The Demuth Museum's exhibition will present a unique examination of the friendship and art work of Charles Demuth (1883-1935) and Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986). Although their artistic styles were clearly independent, these two artists supported each other in their own creations of the new American modernism in the early twentieth century. While Demuth and O'Keeffe socialized in the same circles in New York City, including their mutual connection with the gallerist Alfred Stieglitz, they established their own special bond. O'Keeffe said "he was a better friend to me than any of the other artists."
Both artists were struggling to find their artistic voices and be included in Stieglitz's stable of artists. After 1916, O'Keeffe achieved this goal. Her suite of charcoal drawings from 1915 elicited this remark from Stieglitz: "Finally a woman on paper." Demuth would have to wait until 1925 to be included in Stieglitz's group of artists, but in the meantime he and O'Keeffe formed a very close friendship. O'Keeffe moved to New York City in 1918 and the two artists would see each other there or in Lancaster. But it was during O'Keeffe's visits to Lancaster that the two artists painted in the garden, using the same subject matter and developing their own styles. It is not surprising to learn that Demuth left all of his oil paintings to O'Keeffe after his death. She played a crucial role in distributing them to the major art museums of the country, such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Santa Barbara Museum and many others. (right: Carl van Vechten, Charles Demuth and Georgia O'Keeffe on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, c. 1930. Demuth Museum Archives. Photograph reproduced by permission of the van Vechten Trust. )
This exhibition will feature several works by Demuth drawn from the Museum's permanent collection, as well as a suite of original lithographs made by O'Keeffe in 1968 of her drawings from the teens. Six of the drawings included in this exhibit were part of the initial portfolio that jumpstarted her career at Stieglitz's gallery. This exhibition is concurrent with Opera Lancaster's premiere of the original opera, Georgia O'Keeffe: A Woman on Paper, which runs September 16 - 19, 2010 at the Roschel Performing Arts Center.
About the Demuth Museum
The Demuth Museum, established in 1981, is dedicated to
developing awareness, understanding and appreciation of the artwork and
legacy of Charles Demuth (1883-1935). As a leader of the American
Modernist movement, Demuth is best known as a pioneer of the precisionist
style and a master watercolorist. Located in the artist's former home and
studio in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the Demuth Museum has a permanent collection
of over 30 Demuth works, along with an extensive archive and library. The
Demuth Tobacco Shop, the oldest operating shop of its kind in America, and
other historic buildings surround the museum; all are open to the public.
All exhibits are supported in part by a grant from the Pennsylvania Council
for the Arts. The Demuth Museum is also supported by a grant from the Pennsylvania
Historical and Museum Commission. The Demuth Museum is located at, 120 E.
King Street, Lancaster, PA 17602. For hours and admission fees please see
the Museum's website.
Resource Library editor's note:
The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on September 10, 2010, with permission of the Demuth Museum, which was granted to TFAO on August 30, 2010.
Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Mallory Hane, Assistant to the Director at the Demuth Museum, for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text
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