Charles Demuth, Artist

The Demuth Family Stone, Lancaster Cemetery. A separate monument for Charles also stands in the family plot

Lancaster Cemetery is another of those cemeteries I wished I lived closer to as every time I think I’ve visited all of the notable people resting within the hallowed grounds, I manage to find another grave or two I wish to visit. Entering the cemetery through the grand stone arches along East Lemon Street, I followed the roadway to the back and parked in the shade of a tree along the roadway.

From where I sat, I could see the grave of an artist who called Lancaster his home.

Stepping out of the vehicle, I walked over the family stone of the Demuth family. On the large slab were engraved the names Ferdinand and Augusta Demuth, with their birth and death dates. At the bottom of the marker was the information for their son, Charles, a name I was familiar with. A separate memorial rests a couple steps from the family memorial to Charles, a Pennsylvania artist who created works that are considered to be early entries in the “pop art” movement.

Charles Henry Demuth was born November 8, 1883, the only son of tobacco shop owner Ferdinand Demuth and his wife, Augusta. The Demuth family had been in the tobacco business for a couple generations and produced cigars made with regional tobacco and the Demuth Snuff, which was made from the finest southern tobacco.

Note: According to the July 29, 1994 edition of the Lancaster New Era, Demuth Snuff was an interesting concoction of ingredients. To make a large batch of Demuth Snuff it took one hundred pounds of tobacco, “three gallons of whiskey, a wheelbarrow of various herbs and several cups of salt.” Also included in the mixture were a few bars of the “finest soap” to “keep tobacco particles from sticking together.” The article concludes it was “strong enough to open the nasal passages, if not burn them out altogether.”

Charles Demuth was raised in Lancaster, just a couple buildings from the tobacco shop the family operated. From an early age Charles was plagued by illness, which would take him down a path leading away from the family business. At the age of five he was diagnosed with a hip ailment, which resulted with a year of bed-rest and a permanent limp. During this time, he was given watercolors to keep him entertained and his love for art began.

After his recovery, Demuth would begin taking private art lessons. His talent was more than just canvas and paper. During this time, Demuth would produce decorations on fine china and also works done by needlepoint.

Demuth’s talent would take him to the Franklin & Marshall Academy – later known as the Franklin & Marshall College. After graduating, Demuth continued to study at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. He found a love in travel and spent time in Providence, Rhode Island; New Hope, Pennsylvania; and New York, New York. He would make a number of trips to Europe, spending some time in the art scenes of London and Paris. Despite traveling in Europe, Demuth would return to his studio in Lancaster where he did the majority of his paintings.

Demuth’s style would become a part of the artist movement known as Precisionism. This movement was considered the first truly modern American artistic movement and came from the artistic styles known as Cubism and futurism. These artists used sharp lines and geometrical shapes to represent the American landscape and did their best to distance themselves from European artists and styles. The movement would be the start of two more American art movements: Pop Art and abstract expressionism.

By 1920 Demuth was suffering from the long-term effects of diabetes. He would seek medical help that would prolong his life and allow him to produce his most famous works from his studio in Lancaster. His treatment, however, left him in a weakened state as the experimental treatments included insulin with a starvation diet.

1919 saw “Sail: In Two movements” followed in 1920 by “Lancaster,” “Stairs, Provincetown,” and “End of the Parade, Coatesville, Pa.” In 1927, Demuth would reveal “My Egypt,” which is considered by many to his masterpiece. The scene was influenced by the mixture of Lancaster’s agricultural and urban settings and features the John W. Eshelman & Sons grain silos, which once stood along North Queen Street.

“My Egypt” may be considered Demuth’s masterpiece, but more people identify him with “I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold.” First revealed to the public in 1928, the piece was inspired by William Carlos Williams’ poem “The Great Figure,” about a fire engine passing on a rainy night. Many consider this painting to be the start of the Pop Art Movement.

In 1934, Demuth visited Provincetown for the final time. Here, he created some of his last works, which included beach scenes in pencil and watercolor. Demuth died October 23, 1935, at his home in Lancaster. He was fifty-one years old, just two weeks shy of his birthday. He would be buried in the family plot in Lancaster Cemetery.

Demuth was not an artist who attempted to explain his art. When it came to artwork, Demuth believed “paintings must be looked at, and looked at, and looked at.” Each person should view art and take away their own insights and meanings from it.

As I stood remembering him, Demuth’s art was something I had only recently discovered. “The Jazz Singer” and “I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold” were my introduction to Demuth’s catalogue of paintings. Since then, I’ve found an appreciation of his interpretation of the Pennsylvania landscape and how the urban and the rural clash become one community. And while I do not understand a lot of the art, I discovered what I believe Demuth meant about looking at art – each time I look at his works, I take something new and different from them.

I finally stepped away from his grave and left him to rest with his family in the plot within Lancaster Cemetery. I walked away remembering his works and can only attempt to interpret the world he memorialized on canvas.

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