Charles Demuth (1883-1935)
Charles Demuth (1883-1935)


Charles Demuth (1883-1935)
signed and dated 'Lancaster, Pa./C. Demuth-/1917-' (lower center)
watercolor and pencil paper
13 x 8 in. (33 x 20.3 cm.)
The artist.
Helen Hooper Brown, La Jolla, California, acquired from the above.
Estate of the above.
Sotheby's, New York, 20 April 1979, lot 167.
Private collection, acquired from the above.
Son of the above, gift from the above, by 1987.
Wife of the above, by descent, 1991.
Daughter of the above, gift from the above, 2012.
H. McBride, Charles Demuth: Memorial Exhibition, exhibition catalogue, New York, 1937, n.p., no. 15.
E. Farnham, Charles Demuth: His Life, Psychology and Works, vol. II, Ph.D. dissertation, Ohio State University, 1959, p. 521, no. 291.
B. Haskell, Charles Demuth, exhibition catalogue, New York, 1987, p. 94, no. 34, illustrated.
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Charles Demuth Memorial Exhibition, December 15, 1937-January 16, 1938, no. 15.
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Charles Demuth, October 14, 1987-January 17, 1988.

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Lot Essay

Tumblers is a superb example of Charles Demuth's vibrant watercolor series In Vaudeville, in which the artist captures early twentieth-century entertainment and the transition between realism and modernism in American painting. The In Vaudeville series presents iconic images of the stage, depicting jugglers, trapeze artists, tumblers, and acrobats. Works such as Tumblers brilliantly manifest the popular fascination with theatrical performances at the time as well as the energy and atmosphere that surrounded them. Drawing on iconic images of turn-of-the-century artists and reinterpreting them with the modern visual vocabulary, in Tumblers Demuth invents a fresh approach to painting the stage that is not about pictorial specificity, but rather illusion and expression through color and line.

Vaudeville captured the nation's attention in the late nineteenth century and, by 1905, this uniquely American form of entertainment had taken to the road, spreading from city centers to rural areas, and becoming the country's most popular form of entertainment. Fascinated by this aspect of American popular culture, Demuth attended vaudeville shows both in New York and in his hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, at the Colonial Theatre and Fulton Opera House. Like many of his European predecessors, including Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Edgar Degas and Pablo Picasso, he was drawn to the vivacity and movement as well as the cultural significance of the stage. While asserting an American voice, Demuth's very modern approach to the application of color in this series drew on the color theories of his Fauvist predecessors and the painting-music analogies of Kandinsky.

Tumblers wonderfully demonstrates the unique and modern visual language of the In Vaudeville series. Here Demuth presents two female performers mid-routine, capturing the brief moment in which they are locked in a Piscean tumble. He uses line and modulated washes of color to convey the movement and pulsating energy of the performance, while the repetition of circular forms--in the ball, rings, spot-lit stage and the radiating yellow form behind the women--adds further dynamism as well as pictorial unity to the composition. Barbara Haskell writes, "Demuth replaced amorphous color stains with an abstract rhythmic structure of concentric bands of light emanating from a circular center--a structure which suggest the influence of his contemporaries Arthur Dove and Georgia O'Keeffe." (Charles Demuth, exhibition catalogue, New York, 1987, p. 54)

The pictorial space is deliberately compressed and ambivalent to convey the experience of being in the audience, captivated by the figures on stage and partially blinded by the bright lights. The equal application of concentrated color in the foreground and background imbues the work with a dynamic push and pull and the juxtaposition between the restraint in the application of paint in the faces and the fuller more broad brushstrokes create a harmonizing balance. Hierarchically, Demuth "elevated color impressions over subject and allowed color to exercise compositional authority." (Charles Demuth, p. 51) Perhaps they are a subtle nod to Dove's interest in synesthesia, as the watercolor provides an articulate balance of color as well as the perception of a cacophony of noises rising around them, filled with movement and light. The center of the watercolor bears the most detail and a tightness of lines. As the eye spirals outward, this line becomes freer, more expressive and full of movement. The pulsing line and vibrant palette of Tumblers brilliantly captures the excitement and bohemian vitality of the vaudeville performances.

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