The Life and Art of Charles Demuth, Precisionist Painter

The master watercolorist is known for depicting his own hometown

Charles Demuth
The artist and painter Charles Demuth painted this self-portrait in 1907. The Demuth Museum 

Charles Demuth (November 8, 1883 – October 23, 1935) was an American Modernist painter best known for his use of watercolor to portray the industrial and natural landscapes of his Pennsylvania hometown. His paintings emerged out of the abstract Cubist style and ultimately led to a new movement called Precisionism.

Fast Facts: Charles Demuth

  • Occupation: Artist (painter)
  • Known For: Abstract Cubist style and involvement in the Precisionist movement
  • Born: November 8, 1883 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania
  • Died: October 23, 1935 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania
  • Education: Franklin & Marshall College and Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts
  • Selected Paintings: My Egypt (1927); I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold (1928); Roofs and Steeple (1921)

Early Years and Training

Demuth was born and raised in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, whose urban landscape and emerging industrial setting served as an inspiration for several of his paintings. Demuth was ill and often bedridden as a child. During those times, his mother kept him entertained by providing him with watercolor supplies, thus giving the young Demuth his start in the arts. He eventually portrayed the agricultural portraits he knew best: flowers, fruit and vegetables.

Demuth graduated from Franklin & Marshall Academy, which later become Franklin & Marshall College, in Lancaster. He also studied at Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia and in the arts scenes of New York, Provincetown, and Bermuda. He socialized with and was photographed by Alfred Stieglitz, who was working at the time to organize exhibits of modernist art for his American Place Gallery in New York.

Demuth spent time studying art in Paris, where he was part of the avant garde scene. His contemporaries included Georgia O'Keeffe, Marcel DuChamp, Marsden Hartley and Alfred Steiglitz.

Painting in His Own Backyard

Though he traveled to and was influence by exotic locales, Demuth painted most of his art in the second-story studio of his Lancaster home, which overlooked a garden. In the painting My Egypt (1927), Demuth depicted a grain elevator, a massive structure used to store the harvest, next to row house rooftops. Both structures are common in the rich agriculture economy and historic urban setting of Lancaster County.

Like many of his contemporaries in the arts, Demuth was fascinated with America's landscape, which was being altered at the hands of industrialism. He saw firsthand the smokestacks and water towers in cities such as Philadelphia, New York and Paris. He painted those skylines and contrasted them with grain elevators that were common in his hometown.

The Precisionist Style

The movement to which Demuth belonged, Precisionism, stressed "visual order and clarity" in the visual arts and combined those facets with a "celebration of technology and expression of speed through dynamic compositions," according to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Demuth and his fellow Precisionists painted distinctly American landscapes in an intentional move to distance themselves from European artists.

Demuth's most famous work is a 1928 oil painting called I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold, which has been described as a masterpiece of the Precisionism movement. The painting was inspired by the poem "The Great Figure" by William Carlos Williams. Williams, who had met Demuth at Philadelphia's Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, wrote the famous poem after watching a fire engine speed by on a Manhattan street.

Demuth tried to capture the following lines in his painting:

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

I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold, as well as other Demuth paintings, served as an influence on commercial artists who later designed movie posters and book covers.

Later Life and Legacy

Demuth was diagnosed with diabetes at a relatively young age, and the condition made him weak before he turned 40. He spent his final years confined to his mother's home in Lancaster, away from his fellow artists working in Paris, and died at age 51.

Demuth made a significant impact on the art world with the development of the Precisionist movement. His emphasis on geometrical forms and industrial subject matter came to exemplify the ideals of Precisionism.

Sources & Further Reading

  • Johnson, Ken. “Chimneys and Towers: Charles Demuth's Late Paintings of Lancaster - Art - Review.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 27 Feb. 2008, www.nytimes.com/2008/02/27/arts/design/27demu.html.
  • Murphy, Jessica. “Precisionism.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/prec/hd_prec.htm
  • Smith, Roberta. “Precisionism And a Few Of Its Friends.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 11 Dec. 1994, www.nytimes.com/1994/12/11/arts/art-view-precisionism-and-a-few-of-its-friends.html?fta=y.