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Demuth, Charles (1883-1935)  

One of America's first modernist painters, Charles Demuth was also one of the earliest artists in this country to expose his gay identity through forthright, positive depictions of homosexual desire. Demuth, the son of a successful merchant, had the financial freedom to pursue his artistic vision without debilitating regard for public opinion--concerning either aesthetics or sexuality--while his talent ensured that even the most provocative works were of unassailable quality.

Demuth was born on November 8, 1883 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. From an early age, he suffered from frail health. He graduated from Franklin and Marshall Academy and studied painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where the realist tradition of former faculty member Thomas Eakins (himself a painter of major works of content) prevailed.

Accordingly, Demuth began working in a realistic manner, but his early admiration for the Aestheticism of Aubrey Beardsley and Oscar Wilde predisposed him to a certain expressive stylization (not to mention liberal attitudes about sexual identity).

Demuth was exposed to Cubism and other pictorial innovations during a 1907 trip to Paris, lessons that were reinforced by subsequent visits to Alfred Steiglitz's New York City gallery, "291," a beachhead of modernism. In that context, Auguste Rodin's erotic figure studies and John Marin's expressionistic watercolors were particularly inspiring, and by 1912 Demuth's own work began to exhibit modernist characteristics.

In 1912, he commenced a relationship with fellow Lancasterian, Robert Locher, who was to be his life partner.

A second trip to Paris, also in 1912, occasioned his lifelong friendship with Marsden Hartley, a gay painter slightly his senior, who introduced Demuth to expatriate American intellectuals and artists, among them Gertrude Stein, as well as gay European colleagues. Hartley also served as a stylistic mentor when Demuth began exploring abstraction later in the decade.

After returning to the United States in 1914, Demuth felt fully at home in New York's Greenwich Village bohemia and the summer artist colony of Provincetown, Massachusetts. When in the city, he attended salon gatherings in which Freudian psychoanalytic theories of sexuality were avidly debated, and he frequented Harlem nightclubs where prevailing racial and sexual boundaries were transgressed, often accompanied by his friend Marcel Duchamp, a Dadaist whose own artistic persona confused binary gender roles. In Provincetown, Demuth associated with leftist writers and artists committed to sexual liberation.

Little surprise, then, that his artwork began showing evidence of these unfettered environments. A watercolor series titled Turkish Bath (1916-1918), inspired by Manhattan's Lafayette Baths, insinuated the possibility of homosexual contact, the men's virile, mostly nude bodies suggestively arranged together amidst phallic plumbing fixtures.

Moreover, one work from the series underscored Demuth's personal stake in such matters, showing himself naked and posed ambiguously before another bathhouse patron. Other series, such as those devoted to vaudeville and the circus (1917-1919), contained symbolic references to gay sexuality, while a work such as Dancing Sailors (1918) clearly shows latent erotic desire between men, even as they dance with women.

Demuth is best known for his many Precisionist paintings of the 1920s, works inspired by Cézanne's landscapes, Constructivist compositions and--closer to home--Hartley's abstractions, but his more significant historical contribution may be the audacious manner in which he responded to the that greeted his work Distinguished Air (1930).

Loosely interpreting Robert McAlmon's story of the same title, a story set in a Berlin " café," Demuth portrayed a situation at an exhibition opening, in which a male couple admires Constantin Brancusi's notoriously priapic sculpture, Princess X, while an ostensibly straight male gallery-goer admires the crotch of one of the gay men.

When several exhibitions refused to include Distinguished Air, Demuth responded by creating overtly homoerotic watercolors of sailors disrobing, fondling themselves, and even urinating in each other's company.

These works were executed during a two-year period near the end of his life, when a lifelong illness forced Demuth to leave his cosmopolitan surroundings and return to his conservative, small-town Pennsylvania birthplace. These works constitute a display of courage and self-respect that would not soon be repeated by other gay artists.

Demuth died on October 23, 1935 of complications from diabetes. He bequeathed his watercolors to Locher and his paintings to fellow artist and friend Georgia O'Keeffe.

Mark Allen Svede


zoom in
Two watercolors by Charles Demuth:
Top: Turkish Bath with Self-Portrait (1918).
Above: Aucassin and Nicolette (1921).

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literature >> Overview:  Aestheticism

A theory of art and an approach to living that influenced many European and American gay male and lesbian writers at the turn of the twentieth century, aestheticism stressed the independence of art from all moral and social conditions and judgments.

arts >> Overview:  American Art: Gay Male, 1900-1969

Prior to Stonewall, most gay artists were closeted, but they were inventive in creating codes for those in the know; after 1945 some adventurous artists developed independent networks for the distribution of works of gay art.

arts >> Overview:  Censorship in the Arts

Many gay and lesbian artists who have defied the legal and social prohibitions against explicit or sympathetic depictions of homosexuality have seen their art censored or suppressed.

arts >> Overview:  Subjects of the Visual Arts: Nude Males

Throughout much of history, the nude male figure was virtually the only subject that could be used to articulate homoerotic desire in publicly displayed works of art, as well as those works of art intended for private "consumption."

arts >> Overview:  Subjects of the Visual Arts: Sailors and Soldiers

Soldiers and sailors constitute a long-standing presence in gay male visual culture.

arts >> Overview:  Subjects of the Visual Arts: Sex Workers

Although art historians have given very little attention to representations of sex workers, images of same-sex prostitution extend far back into history.

arts >> Beardsley, Aubrey

English decadent and Symbolist artist Aubrey Beardsley made a lasting contribution to the art of illustration; a satirist with a gift for caricature and grotesquerie, Beardsley attacked Victorian sexual values.

arts >> Duchamp, Marcel

One of the most influential artists of the twentieth century, Marcel Duchamp desired to break down all linguistic, sexual, and social restraints.

arts >> Overview:  Erotic and Pornographic Art: Gay Male

Given the historic stigma around making, circulating, and possessing overtly homoerotic images, the visual arts have been especially important for providing a socially sanctioned arena for depicting the naked male body and suggesting homoerotic desire.

arts >> Hartley, Marsden

A central figure in the evolution of modern American art, Marsden Hartley created works that help define the delicate balance between the erotic and the poetic.

arts >> Indiana, Robert

Robert Indiana, best known as the creator of the LOVE series of paintings and sculptures, is an openly gay American artist who has incorporated autobiographical and gay themes within his work.

literature >> McAlmon, Robert

American publisher and writer Robert McAlmon made significant contributions to twentieth-century literature, both by publishing avant-garde writers and by depicting a queer subculture in his own works.

literature >> Stein, Gertrude

In addition to becoming--with Alice B. Toklas--half of an iconic lesbian couple, Gertrude Stein was an important innovator and transformer of the English language.

literature >> Wilde, Oscar

Oscar Wilde is important both as an accomplished writer and as a symbolic figure who exemplified a way of being homosexual at a pivotal moment in the emergence of gay consciousness.


Haskill, Barbara. Charles Demuth. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art with Harry N. Abrams, 1988.

Weinberg, Jonathan. "'Some Unknown Thing': The Illustrations of Charles Demuth." Arts Magazine 61 (December 1986): 14-21.

_____. Speaking for Vice: Homosexuality in the Art of Charles Demuth, Marsden Hartley, and the First American Avant-garde. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1993.


    Citation Information
    Author: Svede, Mark Allen  
    Entry Title: Demuth, Charles  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated January 23, 2008  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2002, glbtq, Inc.  


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