Usually, when you visit a museum named for an artist, you expect to see a lot of that artist's work on display—but the little museum on King Street that bears Charles Demuth's name has little of his work—ironically, a larger part of the display area is given over to temporary exhibits of other artists' work.
But irony seems to fit Charles Demuth, born in 1883 in Lancaster and never permanently settled anywhere else, but at the same time a familiar figure in artistic circles and among artists and writers in New York and Paris. His close friends were such figures as William Carlos Williams, Georgia O'Keefe and Alfred Steiglitz, Marsden Hartley, Eugene O'Neill and Gertrude Stein.
The museum is next door to the business Demuth's family operated for nearly two centuries.
A cosmopolitan who did much of his work in his family home in a small city, he was often at the cutting edge of new movements in art, bringing elements of cubism and expressionism into his work, and creating the movement that's come to be called 'precisionism,' a style that has also been called 'cubist-realism,' using sharp lines, unusual perspectives, and most commonly bridges, towers, industrial buildings and more as subjects.
'My Egypt' is perhaps the best-known example of the style and of Demuth's work; it's based on the huge Eshelman feed mills in Lancaster, blocks from the home. The monumental feel and importance of the painted mills far outstrips the 'reality.'
Because the museum is in his family's long-time home—his mother lived there until she died in 1943, eight year after her son—and because it is clearly so little altered to fit its new role, it left me feeling almost as if I were an uneasy visitor, expecting to turn a corner in the upstairs hall and find him in the studio where his easel still sits in the corner. In the title image, it is seen through the family bathroom, now a gallery as well. A dining room houses a jury-rigged video screen.
Demuth's life is full of questions and paradoxes. His family had enough money to free him from worrying about making a living, but from childhood he suffered from orthopedic and other issues and was often in pain for months.
He lived in Lancaster with his mother, but only in the more tolerant milieus of Paris and New York was he able to be open about his homosexuality.
He was admired among his peers, but except for trips to Europe and New York, he never lived at the cultural centers of his time.
Among the more unusual of his artistic projects was a series of what he called 'portrait posters'—paintings that would express the essence of his artistic friends, or important aspects of their lives without actually showing the subjects. Probably the best known is this one, which is meant to represent the poet William Carlos Williams: I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold, which is based on a line from a Williams poem about seeing a fire truck in motion.
Another, Love, Love, Love is dedicated to Gertrude Stein.
But for all the strength of the precisionist paintings, and the enigmas of the portrait posters, Demuth was a master of other styles and subjects as well. Turkish Bath, was painted in 1918 during one of his early visits to Paris; the figure at right may be a self-portrait.
And saving some of the best for the end: Demuth was a master watercolorist; he only took up oils later. The combination of his careful watercolors with cubist and expressionist forms produce an amazing effect. Below, Plums, from 1925 and 1929's Rhubarb and Red Cabbage.
Definitely time for another major Demuth exhibit somewhere! In the meantime, his work is seeded throughout major American museums; he left the bulk of his work to O'Keefe to distribute to museums and she did.
And Lancaster is worth a visit. In addition to the Demuth Museum, there's the almost 300-year-old Lancaster Central Market, and elsewhere in Lancaster County, once you've found your way past the cheesy faux-Amish amusements there are the Pennsylvania State Railroad Museum, National Toy Train Museum and the Strasburg Railroad.