Turkish Baths (1915) and Distinguished Air (1930)
Charles Demuth (1883-1935)
Denmuth was one of the first American artists to expose his sexual identity through honest, positive expressions of gay desire. He was a major figure in the American Modernist Movement and he was a pioneer of the Precisionist Style, the American version of Cubism during the 1920s.
A member of a wealthy family, Demuth had the financial freedom to pursue his art without having to worry about public opinion concerning his aesthetics or sexuality.
He began painting when he was sickly child with an illness that left him unable to walk. He studied at The Pennsylvania Academy Of Fine Arts, where gay artist Thomas Eakins had been on the faculty. Eakins was also a painter of major homoerotic works.
When he was 29-years-old, Demuth began an affair with Robert Locher. After spending two years in Paris, the two men moved to NYC, settling into the bohemian lifestyle of Greenwich Village. They spent summers in Provincetown, hanging out with the leftist writers and artists who celebrated sexual freedom.
Denmuth was an elegant, witty, frivolous, shy, kind, gentle, amusing dandy of a man. He had the typical esthete’s love of good clothes, excellent food and drink and smart company. Demuth was friends with noted gay figures of the era: writers Edith Sitwell and Djuna Barnes, and photographer and critic Carl Van Vechten.
His series of Bathhouse paintings were inspired by his love of The Lafayette Baths. They showed men’s mostly nude bodies suggestively arranged together.
One of his most fabulous paintings, Distinguished Air, shows a scene at an art exhibition opening where a male couple admires Constantin Brancusi’s (1876-1957) notorious sculpture, Princess X, as another, possibly straight, male art lover checks out the ass of one of the gay guys. Brancusi always denied that his sculpture was a phallus; he claimed that it was of a woman head’s head atop a very long neck. Somehow, that’s not what I see.
Many galleries refused to show Distinguished Air, and Demuth responded by painting even more provocative watercolors, including a series of half-naked sailors fondling themselves. These paintings showed a real boldness and self-assurance that other gay artists didn’t dare. But, those works didn’t become well-known until a half a century after his passing.
Demuth left this world in 1935, taken by diabetes at just 59-years-old. He left all his papers, watercolors and sketches to Locher, but he left his other paintings his pal, artist Georgia O’Keeffe. There is a museum located in his former house and studio in his hometown of Lancaster, PA.