November 11, 1883 – Charles Demuth:
“Paintings must be looked at and looked at and looked at. No writing, no talking, no singing, no dancing will explain them.”
Demuth was one of the first American artists to be open with his sexual identity through honest, positive expressions of gay desire. He was a major figure in the American Modernist Movement. He was one of the first artists to offer works of Modernism with a uniquely American point of view.
He had two signature styles: delicately tinted watercolors still lifes, and cubist-derived cityscapes. But most importantly, he depicted the early 20th century American gay subculture in evocative, expressive private paintings.
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 his queerness.
Born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, when he was 4 years old, Demuth sustained an injury to his hip that kept him bedridden for months. To keep him occupied, his mother gave him crayons and watercolors. Unfortunately, this injury caused him to walk with a noticeable limp and he had to use a cane. Because of his frailty, Demuth had an isolated childhood. Throughout his life he always felt like an outsider.
Demuth first studied art at the Drexel Institute and then at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia until 1911. While at the Academy, living in a boarding house, he became friends with poet William Carlos Williams, who was associated with modernism. In 1907, Demuth exhibited his work for the first time in a group show at school. He traveled Paris to study art from 1907 – 1908 and from 1912 – 1914, where he became buddies with fellow gay American artist Marsden Hartley.
He returned to Lancaster where he began to paint simple floral watercolors, inspired by plants in his mother’s garden. Demuth frequently visited New York City, where he fell in with a group of artistic types that included photographer Alfred Stieglitz; French painter, sculptor, chess player, and Dada master Marcel Duchamp; and gay American designer and painter Edward Fisk. He also spent summers at Provincetown, like all gay guys should.
He was a member of Stieglitz’s Gallery 291, a group of artists that included Hartley, Georgia O’Keeffe, and photographer Edward Steichen; plus introducing Henri Matisse, Auguste Rodin, Henri Rousseau, Paul Cézanne, and Pablo Picasso to the USA.
Demuth frequented the New York City’s nightclubs and Harlem jazz joints, enjoying the creative, bohemian atmosphere of the Harlem Renaissance.
In 1917, Demuth joined Hartley in Bermuda where he began experimenting with Cubist principles in a series of architectural and landscape paintings that would come to be known as “Precisionism” which emphasized sharp lines and clear geometric shapes. These works were exhibited later that year, in an acclaimed two-person show at the Daniel Gallery in New York City with Fisk.
In the 1920s, Demuth loved to be in Paris where he was part of the avant-garde scene. The Parisians were much more accepting of Demuth’s gayness, and a several of his paintings, like Turkish Bath With Self Portrait (1918), which were never intended for public view, depict the gay subculture of postwar Paris and the evolving gay scene in New York City.
In 1921, Demuth suffered from an illness that forced his return to Lancaster. He was diagnosed with diabetes and began experimental treatments. Two years later, Demuth started painting a series of “poster portraits”, symbolic tributes to modern American artists, writers, and performers. One of the most well-known of these poster portraits is his tribute to his friend William Carlos Williams titled I Saw The Figure 5 In Gold (1928), a pre-cursor to Pop Art and one of his most famous Precisionist works. That same year, the Metropolitan Museum of Art purchased one of his works, and he had successful solo exhibitions in the following years.
During the 1920s, Demuth began exploring the impact of industrial America, which would become a major theme of his works, including Machinery (1920), inspired by the industrial architecture in Lancaster, and Incense Of A New Church (1921), a Precisionist painting depicting industrial smoke billowing around geometric forms in the foreground of a crisp city skyline.
The first book on his work was published in 1927, and he also began a major series of seven paintings based on the architecture of Lancaster, including My Egypt (1927), which depicts a massive grain elevator taking up most of the canvas with intersecting beams of light. The size of the grain elevator in this work is both celebrating American industrialization and a critique of the negative effect of industry on workers. These works became iconic representations of industrialization’s effects on small towns in the USA.
A skillful, versatile artist, Demuth’s work was crucial to the development of American Modern Art in the 20th century. During his artistic career, he painted with watercolor, oil, and tempura, completing about 750 paintings and 350 drawings. He received favorable reviews and sold nearly all his works.
He was a stylish, shy, sympathetic, soft, divertingly droll dandy with a sparkling wit. He had a love of smart well-made clothing, fine food and drink, and smart company. Demuth was friends with the most fascinating gay figures of the era, such as writers Edith Sitwell and Djuna Barnes, and photographer and critic Carl Van Vechten.
His Bathhouse paintings were inspired by his love of The Lafayette Baths. They showed men’s mostly nude bodies suggestively arranged together. In 1916, the police raided the all-male Lafayette Baths after agents from the New York Society for the Prevention of Vice, who had infiltrated the establishment, and filed a detailed report about “homosexual degeneracy” happening in the establishment.
37 men, including the manager, were arrested; 25 of them were convicted and sentenced to prison. The manager, Frank Terwilligar, committed suicide one month later. The Lafayette Baths stayed in operation under another owner well into the 1930s and it was Demuth’s favorite spot. The new bathhouse was owned by Ira and George Gershwin’s father, and both brothers were involved in the running of the business when they were in their 20s.
One of Demuth’s most fabulous paintings, Distinguished Air, shows a scene at an art exhibition opening where two boyfriends admire Constantin Brancusi‘s (1876-1957) notorious sculpture, Princess X, as another male art lover checks out the ass of one of the 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 anyone ever sees when viewing it.
Galleries said “no” to showing Distinguished Air. Demuth responded by painting even more provocative paintings, including a series of nearly naked sailors touching themselves. These paintings show a boldness and self-assurance that other gay artists of the era didn’t dare. Still, they didn’t become well-known for another 50 years.
When he was 29 years old, Demuth began an affair with designer Robert Locher. After spending two years in Paris, the two men moved to New York City, settling into the bohemian lifestyle of Greenwich Village. They spent summers in Provincetown, hanging out with the leftist writers and artists who celebrated a newfound sexual freedom.
Locher arrived New York City in 1914. A year later he married rich Bostonian Beatrice Howard Slack. They lived on an estate on Staten Island. It was generally regarded as a “marriage of convenience”. Yet somehow, their marriage lasted for 18 years. They divorced in 1937 and she remarried just four days later. With the new husband, she built “Pride House” on Fire Island, a small bungalow that became a popular place to get away for gay artists.
Locher designed sets and costumes for nightclubs and Broadway shows, did illustrations for books and for Vogue and House And Garden (where he was also an editor), designed his own line of flatware and dishes, and designed interiors for celebrity clients.
Demuth celebrated Vaudeville, both in his writing and his painting, including a series of Vaudeville pictures between 1914-1919. Locher took Demuth to see Bert Savoy, a famous Vaudeville female impersonator (he was a big influence on Mae West and her act. He popularized the phrases “You slay me”, “You don’t know the half of it”, and “You Must Come Up”.
In summer 1923, Savoy was walking on a beach with four actor friends; he and vaudeville performer Jack Grossman were strolling ahead of the others. A storm rolled in and at the first thunderclap, Savoy put one hand on his hip and said: “That’ll be quite enough out of you, Miss God!”, and was promptly struck dead by lightning along with Grossman. Demuth painted Calla Lillies (1925) as a tribute to Savoy. The painting makes coded references to Savoy’s life: The calla lilies (often present at funerals) suggest Savoy’s playful subversion of gender on stage because they evoke both male and female sex organs.
Demuth and Locher were in Provincetown in 1934. Demuth did his last works, sketches of beach scenes in pencil and watercolor while there. He died a year later from diabetes at 51 years old. In his will, Demuth entrusted his paintings to O’Keeffe. She chose which museums received his works and helped safeguard and boost his reputation.
In the Lancaster house were a series of explicit paintings depicting gay life in New York City. After Demuth was gone, his mother handed them to Locher in a portfolio, saying: “I’m sure that anything Charles did was art. You will know what to do with these.”
Locher inherited the house they shared in Lancaster. Later Locher and his longtime partner, dancer Richard Weyand, returned to Lancaster from Manhattan and opened an antiques store on the premises. Lochner died in 1956 at 67 years old. Demuth’s family home in Lancaster is a museum dedicated exclusively to his art.