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

In the Key of Blue

Charles Demuth (1883-1935)
In the Key of Blue
signed 'C Demuth-' (lower left)
tempera and pencil on board
19¾ x 16 in. (50.2 x 40.6 cm.)
Painted circa 1919.
The artist.
Daniel Gallery, New York.
Mrs. Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, New York, acquired from the above, 1930.
Museum of Modern Art, New York, gift from the above, 1935.
[With]Salander O'Reilly Galleries, Inc., New York.
Vincent Carrozza, Dallas, Texas, acquired from the above, 1985.
Private collection.
Gerald Peters Gallery, New York.
Acquired by the present owner from the above.
Museum of Modern Art, Summer Exhibition, exhibition checklist, New York, 1935.
Cincinnati Art Museum, A New Realism: Crawford, Demuth, Sheeler, Spencer, exhibition catalogue, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1941, p. 13, no. 18.
J.W. Lane, "American Painters," Commonweal, vol. 22, 1935.
Cornell University, Our Leading Watercolorists, exhibition checklist, Ithaca, New York, 1943, no. 12.
Art News, September 1948, p. 25, illustrated.
S.M. Stern, "20th Century Artists Display Watercolors in Taylor Exhibition," Vassar Miscellany News, December 3, 1952, p. 2.
E. Farnham, Charles Demuth: His Life, Psychology and Works, vol. II, Ph.D. dissertation, Ohio State University, 1959, p. 549, no. 355.
E. Farnham, Charles Demuth: Behind a Laughing Mask, Norman, Oklahoma, 1971, pp. 148, 204.
A.L. Eiseman, A Study of the Development of an Artist: Charles Demuth, vol. 1, Ph.D. dissertation, New York University, 1974, p. 331, no. 194.
Museum of Modern Art, Paintings and Sculpture in the Museum of Modern Art, With Selected Works on Paper: Catalog of the Collection, New York, 1977, pp. 226, 535, no. 227.
A.L. Eiseman, Charles Demuth, New York, 1982, p. 60.
B. Haskell, Charles Demuth, New York, 1987, pp. 130, 143.
W.C. Agee, "Demuth at the Whitney," The New Criterion, vol. 6, no. 10, June 1988, p. 43.
A.G. Artner, "'1999 Chicago' Offers a Challenge on Art of Exhibiting," Chicago Tribune, May 9, 1999.
I.H. Shoemaker, J.T. Criss, Adventures in Modern Art: The Charles K. Williams II Collection, New Haven, Connecticut, 2009, pp. 117, 119.
S.R. Udall, Sensory Crossovers: Synesthesia in American Art, Albuquerque, New Mexico, 2010, pp. 36, 38, fig. 24, illustrated.
Wellesley, Massachusetts, The Art Museum of Wellesley, and elsewhere, Exhibition of Progressive Modern Painting from Daumier and Corot to Post Cubism, April 11-30, 1927, no. 28.
New York, Museum of Modern Art, Modern Works of Art: 5th Anniversary Exhibition, November 19, 1934-January 20, 1935.
New York, Museum of Modern Art, Summer Exhibition: The Museum Collection and a Private Collection on Loan, June 4-September 24, 1935.
Williamstown, Massachusetts, Williams College, and elsewhere, Twenty-Five Watercolors by Six Americans, November 4-25, 1935.
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Charles Demuth Memorial Exhibition, December 15, 1937-January 16, 1938, no. 70.
Newport, Rhode Island, Newport Art Association, Twenty One Contemporary American Artists, July 15-August 1, 1938.
Cincinnati, Ohio, Cincinnati Art Museum, A New Realism: Crawford, Demuth, Sheeler, Spencer, March 12-April 7, 1941.
Ithaca, New York, Cornell University, Watercolor Techniques, November 1-December 1, 1941.
Washington, D.C., Phillips Memorial Gallery, Charles Demuth: Exhibition of Water Colors and Oil Paintings, May 3-25, 1942, no. 36.
Elmira, New York, Arnot Art Gallery, and elsewhere, Our Leading Watercolorists, October 1-22, 1942.
Venice, Italy, 24th International Biennial Art Exhibition, May 29- September 30, 1948.
Wellesley, Massachusetts, The Art Museum of Wellesley College, Masters of American Watercolor, October 16-November 20, 1949.
State College, Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania State College, and elsewhere, The Versatile Medium, September 10-October 1, 1952.
Baden-Baden, Germany, Staatliche Kunsthalle, 20th Century America: Works on Paper, May 18-July 4, 1976, no. 27.
New York, Museum of Modern Art, Words and Pictures, August 20-October 6, 1981.
New York, Gerald Peters Gallery, Georgia O'Keeffe and Other Modernists, October 29-December 18, 2009.
Albuquerque, New Mexico, Albuquerque Museum of Art and History, Sensory Crossovers: Synesthesia in American Art, February 7-May 29, 2011.

Lot Essay

In the Key of Blue is one of a series of seminal temperas Charles Demuth painted in 1919-20 that are not only direct predecessors of his later masterworks including My Egypt (1927, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York), but also defining works in the history of twentieth-century American Art.

Phyllis Plous writes of the distinguishing characteristics of this group of early temperas, "Recognizable architectural elements were underlaid by abstract foundations and, using rule and compass, the designs were usually emphasized by a theatrical background of beams or shafts of light strung across the picture. Vistas were stressed and the viewer often notes verticals in the foreground through which are seen smaller receding planes in moderate space. Even the skies were carved up into interlocking bands of light and became architecture." (Charles Demuth: the mechanical encrusted on the living, Santa Barbara, California, 1971, p. 19) In the Key of Blue is a dynamic symphony of line and color that wonderfully manifests all of these attributes. A verdant hillside partially populated by purple buildings is seen through an angular web of ship's masts, which perforates the sky creating fractured planes of light. These forceful lines and those of the architecture are juxtaposed with the organic forms of the landscape, creating a complex and visually striking composition. In In the Key of Blue, as is characteristic of his best works, Demuth draws from a variety of sources in his choice of subject and combination of motifs and translates these diverse influences into a wholly unique and thoroughly modern vision. "As a major American modernist, his visual language intriguingly combines aspects of American Regionalism and Precisionism." (B. Fahlman, Pennsylvania Modern: Charles Demuth of Lancaster, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1983, p. 11)

In the present work, the forceful lines of the composition are masterfully counterbalanced by the subtle modulation of color--pale blues, greens, whites and purples--and the softness of the tempera medium. The nuances of the harmonious palette and crystalline light add further to this refined aesthetic, which characterizes Demuth's best works. He deliberately leaves areas of support bare, incorporating them into the composition and demonstrating the influence of Paul Cézanne. Barbara Haskell writes of the French artist's influence on Demuth, "Cézanne's work offered Demuth a model for integrating angular forms with the kind of sensuous, organic shapes with which he had worked earlier. In this way he eased into Cubism, setting the biomorphic forms of trees and branches within a subtly shifting structure of ruler-drawn lines and planes...these works paraphrase Cézanne's shallow space and his habit of leaving parts of the paper bare." (Charles Demuth, New York, 1987, p. 126)

The direct predecessors to In the Key of Blue are the Cubist inspired watercolors that Demuth began producing on his trip to Bermuda in the winter of 1916-17. William C. Agee writes of these important works on paper, "They are nothing less than miracles in the art of watercolor painting and show us convincingly just how Demuth achieved a union of warm surface nuances within a rigorously defined, sharp-edged grid, a feat that even now defies our imagination." ("Demuth and the Whitney" in The New Criterion, June 1988, p. 43) The genesis of the mast imagery of In the Key of Blue lies in one of these 1917 watercolors, Bermuda No. 2, the Schooner (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), which depicts a boat at sea with planes of refracted light emanating into the sky and water. Demuth continued these pictorial explorations with considerable effect in works such as In the Key of Blue. Alvord L. Eiseman writes of these more sophisticated temperas, "These semiabstract landscapes are original to Demuth and incorporate his own Cubist techniques in which he used prisms, facetings, spotlight effects--all those elements which add up to a 'box of tricks'" (A.L. Eiseman, Charles Demuth, New York, 1982, p. 60)

The title of In the Key of Blue references John Addington Symonds' 1893 essay on aesthetics of the same name in which the author contemplates the limitations of language to convey color. Symonds states the premise of his essay as "to try the resources of our language in a series of studies of what might be termed 'blues and blouses.' For this purpose I resolved to take a single figure--a facchino with whom I have been long acquainted--and to pose him in a variety of lights with a variety of hues in combination." ("In the Key of Blue," In the Key of Blue and Other Prose Essays by John Addington Symonds, London, 1893, p. 4) In the Key of Blue most likely to alludes to Symonds' second study as it is a visual representation of: "A symphony of blues and white-- You, the acacias, dewy-bright, Transparent skies of chrysolite. We wind along these leafy hills; One chord of blue the landscape thrills, Your three blent azures merged in those Cerulean heavens above the blouse. The highest tones flash forth in white: Acacia branches bowed with snow Of scented blossom; broken light; The ivory of your brows, the glow Of those large orbs that are your eyes: Those starry orbs of lustrous jet In clear enameled [sic] turquoise set, Pale as the marge of morning skies." ("In the Key of Blue," In the Key of Blue and Other Prose Essays by John Addington Symonds, p. 6) In the present work, Demuth masterfully employs his visual vocabulary much as Symonds dexterously utilizes his linguistic skill to convey the nuances of color and effects of light. Marsden Hartley wrote of Demuth's highly-developed visual vernacular in his 1935 eulogy, "Charles loved the language of paint with the fervor of an ardent linguist, and this side of his work alone, is thoroughly achieved." ("'Farewell, Charles': An Outline in Portraiture of Charles Demuth--Painter" as quoted in T.E. Norton, ed., Homage to Charles Demuth: Still Life Painter of Lancaster, Ephrata, Pennsylvania, 1978, p. 80)

William C. Agee refers to In the Key of Blue along with A Sky After El Greco (Arizona State University) as Demuth's two best pictures of 1919. He writes of the seminal importance of the temperas of this year, "They are technical marvels of color and Cubist complexity in which Demuth's fusion of ever-shifting areas of line and color seems to be the result of the most painstaking craftsmanship... What is more, these works established a motif--of sails and sky--that soon appeared in the art of Stuart Davis, Man Ray, and Charles Sheeler." Agee goes on to comment on the far reaching art historical precedent set by the group of works that include In the Key of Blue, "Davis in particular was affected by the schematic structure of Demuth's 1919 work; the influence is evident in Davis's linear Cubist formats of 1924 and 1932, the formats that informed so much of Davis's later art and that in turn influenced David Smith." ("Demuth and the Whitney" in The New Criterion, June 1988, pp. 43, 44) In the Key of Blue and the related temperas of 1919-20 comprise a pivotal body of work in which Demuth established a new and inimitable aesthetic, the glimmers of which continue to color American Art.

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