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

In Vaudeville: Two Dancers

Charles Demuth (1883-1935)
In Vaudeville: Two Dancers
signed and dated 'C. Demuth 1920' (lower left)
watercolor and pencil on paper
13 x 8 in. (33 x 20.3 cm.)
The artist.
Robert Locher, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, by bequest, 1935.
[With]Kraushaar Galleries, New York.
Mrs. Lathrop Brown, acquired from the above.
Sotheby's, New York, 20 April 1979, lot 191.
Private collection, acquired from the above.
Sotheby's, New York, 22 May 2008, lot 29.
Acquired by the present owner from the above.
H. McBride, Charles Demuth: Memorial Exhibition, exhibition catalogue, New York, 1938, n.p., no. 48 (as Vaudeville).
E. Farnham, Charles Demuth: His Life, Psychology and Works, vol. II, Ph.D. dissertation, Ohio State University, 1959, p. 561, no. 382.
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Demuth Memorial Exhibition, December 15, 1937-January 16, 1938, no. 48 (as Vaudeville).

Lot Essay

Vaudeville captured the nation's attention in the late 19th century and, by 1905, this uniquely American form of entertainment had taken to the road, spreading from city centers to rural areas, becoming the country's most popular form of entertainment. Fascinated by this aspect of American popular culture, Charles Demuth attended vaudeville shows both in New York and in his hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, at the Colonial Theatre and Fulton Opera House. Demuth, along with fellow artists Stuart Davis and Everett Shinn, flocked to the theaters to witness the feats and fantastical costumes of the stage performers. Demuth, in particular, responded to vaudeville as a representation of a new freedom of expression and sexual liberty. As Barbara Haskell notes, "the undercurrent of sensuality which permeates Demuth's post-1917 vaudeville and circus scenes owes its presence to the bohemian world of New York" (Charles Demuth, exhibition catalogue, New York, 1987, p. 51)

Demuth created a series of important watercolors called In Vaudeville, beginning in 1915, based on both the popular fascination with theatrical performances as well as his own personal and visceral response to the energy and excitement of the stage. Two Dancers wonderfully demonstrates the unique and modern visual language of Charles Demuth's In Vaudeville series. The watercolor's bold washes and dynamic composition brilliantly capture the atmosphere of the modern performance. Drawing on iconic images of turn-of-the-century artists and reinterpreting them with his unique visual vocabulary, in Two Dancers Demuth invents a fresh approach to painting the stage that is not about pictorial specificity, but rather illusion and expression through color and line.

Like many of his European predecessors, including Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Edgar Degas and Pablo Picasso, Demuth was drawn to the vivacity and movement of vaudeville as well as the cultural significance of the stage. While asserting an American voice, Demuth's modern approach to the application of color in this series drew on the theories of his Fauvist predecessors and the painting-music analogies of Wassily Kandinsky. Here Demuth presents two performers mid-routine, in dynamic positions. 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 spot-lit stage and the radiating yellows, oranges and reds behind the figures--adds further dynamism as well as pictorial unity to the composition. Barbara Haskell writes, "The free handling of color stains in these vaudeville watercolors had given way to more decisive compositions, forceful color, and an even greater expressive power. Demuth replaced amorphous color stains with an abstract rhythmic structure of concentric bands of light emanating from a circular center--a structure which suggests the influence of his contemporaries Arthur Dove and Georgia O'Keeffe.Yet unlike Dove and O'Keeffe, Demuth did not present his elegant orbs as organic symbols for light; rather, they were meant to evoke intimacy and perfumed decadence." (Charles Demuth, p. 54) The pulsing lines and vibrant palette of Two Dancers brilliantly captures the excitement and bohemian vitality of the vaudeville performances.

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