In 1922, Charles Demuth's debilitating diabetes compelled the artist to return from New York to live permanently in his childhood home of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where he would produce the most sophisticated still lifes of his career. Executed circa 1924, Flowers and Cucumbers is a simultaneously delicate and arresting composition that is a testament to Demuth's mastery of watercolor as well as his ability to innovatively capture the nuances of light, form and color.
Flowers were of lifelong interest to Demuth and a subject that he revisited throughout his career, first painting them as a child, returning to them in the mid-1910s and again in the 1920s. The works of the 1910s, which were less refined and more expressive than the mature watercolors, are characterized by loose washes of saturated color that cover the entire paper surface and an integration, rather than distinction, of flowers and background. The mature works, including Flower and Cucumbers, are more restrained and erudite, isolating the subject against the background. Color relations in the present work are more complex than earlier watercolors and the composition is evocative of the fractured planes of the architectural watercolors and precisionist explorations that Demuth painted in Provincetown, Bermuda and Lancaster during the late 1910s and 1920s.
Demuth's technical virtuosity is at its height in Flower and Cucumbers in which he employs color as well as line to define space. A blue vase containing two white daisies and three cucumbers are set against a background that is constructed of planes of color. Diaphanous washes that range in intensity from nearly opaque chocolate browns and charcoal grays to delicate pinks and mauves are layered within delicate pencil lines. These lines give the work structure, defining the basic forms and adding detail to the flowers and vegetables. Demuth characteristically manipulates the surface, blotting some areas such as the cucumbers and portions of the background to create a mottled effect. These variances create depth and complexity, combining with the planar background and subtle modulation of colors to suggest the effects of light and create spatial relations in the dynamic image, imbuing the work with a pulsing vivacity. The blotting technique also provides the cucumbers mass and volume, enhancing the roundness and solidarity of their forms. This is underscored by the depiction of their pale purple shadows.
The influence of Paul Cézanne's watercolors is evident in Flower and Cucumbers, which incorporates the organic, curved forms of the flowers and cucumbers with the hard-edged, geometric planes that define the background, creating a spacial discourse. Demuth also adopted from the French artist the practice of exploiting his support, leaving areas of the paper bare as a compositional device. This is a marked departure from his earlier watercolors in which saturated color covered the entire sheet, and creates the sensation that the composition is floating on the paper. This adept employment of negative space intensifies the work's dynamism and enhances the effects of light in the composition. The daisies are carefully drawn in pencil, remaining free of color. Similarly, pencil sketching in other areas of composition is left bare, a tendency common in Demuth's later works. "Beginning with his Bermuda works in 1916...Demuth covered the paper or the canvas less and less and gave the background importance equal to the subject painted. His new style, later called "Precisionism," was merely his own method of combining what he found effective in the many new painterly elements and making them his own." (A.L. Eiseman, Charles Demuth, New York, 1982, p. 14)
In Flowers and Cucumbers Demuth combines his mastery of watercolor with a thoroughly modern approach to the traditional genre of still life painting. Through this progressive masterworks such as this, he reinvigorated the genre for the twentieth century.