Charles Demuth (1833–1935) brought to his art a highly polished and elegant touch whether he was painting flowers or industrial landscapes. He could see in the configurations of water tanks, smokestacks, fire escapes, pipes, electrical wiring, street lamps, and oil derricks, fascinating vehicles for his artistic expression and he portrayed them all with order and grace. Many of his compositions, particularly those of figures and flowers, appear to float in an indeterminate space. The industrial landscapes tend to be blocked out to the edge of the canvas and while they seem to be more geometrically ordered in rendering, they, too, have a poetic quality of ambivalence. They suggest Demuth’s fascination with the precision of architectural shapes, yet a bohemian disdain for the rigidity of an industrial world. An air of mystery was allowed to enter all of Demuth’s compositions, just as there was a strong aloofness about the artist himself.
Demuth was born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, an older American community with an authentic elegance in its buildings. His own home was a haven of quiet and stability, and the artist always stayed close to this secure Lancaster base throughout his fairly wide travels. Initial art training was undertaken at the Drexel Institute and then at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. There was more study in France where, as in America, he was fortunate in his circle of friends. He enjoyed the excited cafe talk of John Marin, Lyonel Feininger, Arthur Dove, and French artists like Duchamp, Matisse, Gris, Picasso, Laurencin, and Picabia. It was probably Duchamp’s radical approach to art that helped to set the direction of the American artist’s style. In 1917 Demuth made the first of his architectonic paintings which were subsequently to attract critical attention. Experimentation with cubism became steadily apparent after this year and is most pronounced in his industrial landscapes.