On Charles Demuth: Intimate Paintings, But Images Expand

The American painter Charles Demuth (1883-1935) was an artist who took a certain pride-aesthetic pride-in his carefully cultivated limitations. He didn’t hesitate to boast about them, as we know from the wonderful comparison he once made between his own talent and that of his more robust contemporary, John Marin. “John Marin and I drew our inspiration from the same source, French modernism,” Demuth said. “He brought his up in buckets and spilt much along the way. I dipped mine out with a teaspoon but I never spilt a drop.”

The humor, the exactitude, the unembarrassed self-knowledge-everything about that remark reminds me of another self-confessed American aesthete, the poet Wallace Stevens. Artists and writers of this persuasion-Henry James and Marianne Moore belong in the same company-cannot be expected to command the attention of a large public. Their work tends to be a little too special for mainstream taste, and the acclaim they enjoy tends to be posthumous. Yet their achievements are among the finest in American art and literature.

Demuth’s place in this constellation of talents would be more widely recognized if we saw his work more often, but exhibitions of his pictures have been a rarity lately-which is why the exhibition that Thomas S. Holman and Virginia Zabriskie have organized at the Zabriskie Gallery is an event to be cherished. Though it’s a long way from being the full-scale retrospective that’s needed, the show’s 31 items-mostly watercolors and drawings dating from 1907 to 1933-are more than sufficient to remind us of Demuth’s virtues.

Watercolor was his forte, and intimacy of scale his preferred practice. It might be said of him in this respect that he brought Winslow Homer’s outdoor aesthetic indoors, where he could concentrate on his two favorite subjects: bouquets of flowers and groups of figures. Even his beautiful beach scenes, with their scantily clad bathers, are given a party atmosphere. His pictures of actual party scenes are masterpieces of social observation flavored with a sharp edge of wit. One of the best of them in the current show is Barron Wilkins’ Little Savoy (1917), in which dancing couples and seated drinkers fill to overflowing a luminous composition measuring eight by 101¼4 inches.

It’s one of the characteristics of these watercolor compositions, moreover, that within their confined dimensions, every separate element remains distinct in commanding our attention. This is as true of the flowers in the glorious Zinnia Bouquet (1925), with their delicate, variegated reds, as it is of the individual revelers in Barron Wilkins’ Little Savoy . While the physical scale of the pictures remains intimist, the images we carry away in our memory tend to expand, so that it comes as something of a surprise when we return to the pictures and find that they’re as small as they are.

No doubt the modest dimensions that Demuth favored in these pictures owed a great deal to the somewhat reclusive life he was obliged to live for health reasons in the later years of his life. Lame since early childhood and never robust, he suffered from diabetes and produced a good deal of work in his studio bedroom in the family home in Lancaster, Penn. That studio bedroom in the Demuth House is now a public art museum devoted not only to Demuth’s work, but to other 20th-century American modernists as well.

For newcomers to Demuth, it must also be pointed out that the watercolors and drawings in the current show at Zabriskie represent only a part-albeit a major part-of his oeuvre . There are two other aspects of his production that only a comprehensive retrospective could encompass. One would be his literary illustrations, especially his sexually charged drawings of scenes from Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw , which (apart from the genius of the draftsmanship) show us a side of Demuth’s sensibility not apparent in his flower pictures or party scenes-his taste for emotional violence.

The other, more amusing aspect of the Demuth oeuvre that’s absent here are the symbolic portraits he made of his contemporaries. The one that’s best known to New Yorkers is the “portrait” of the poet William Carlos Williams called (after a Williams poem) I Saw the Figure Five in Gold (1928), which is now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Williams is said to have loved it, but Demuth’s less obliging symbolic portrait of Gertrude Stein caused the writer great distress and effectively terminated their friendship.

We really do need a big museum retrospective if Demuth’s achievement is to be fully understood. Meanwhile, the current Demuth show is not to be missed. It remains on view at the Zabriskie Gallery, 41 East 57th Street, through March 6.