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

Zinnias: A Double-Sided Work

Details
Charles Demuth (1883-1935)
Zinnias: A Double-Sided Work
signed and dated 'C. Demuth 1920 Lancaster Pa.' (lower left)
watercolor and pencil on paper
17 7/8 x 11 7/8 in. (45.4 x 30.2 cm.)
Executed in 1920.
Provenance
Mrs. Cornelius J. Sullivan, New York.
Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, New York, acquired from the above, 1936.
Estate of the above.
Acquired by the late owners from the above, 1958.
Literature
E. Farnham, Charles Demuth: His Life, Psychology and Works, vol. II, Ph.D. dissertation, Ohio State University, 1959, p. 567, no. 396.
J. Barnitz, et al., The David and Peggy Rockefeller Collection: Art of the Western Hemisphere, vol. II, New York, 1988, pp. 107-09, no. 52, fig. a, illustrated.
Exhibited
Wallingford, Connecticut, The Choate School, January 3-February 1, 1965.
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Lot Essay

Like his close friend and fellow Stieglitz Circle artist Georgia O’Keeffe, Charles Demuth was fascinated by the sensual, natural beauty to be found within the simplicity of a flower or piece of fruit. In the early 1920s, Demuth investigated a number of subjects, such as architecture and abstract poster portraits, including one of O’Keeffe, yet throughout these years he was also endlessly inspired by the local flora in the gardens and markets of his Lancaster, Pennsylvania, community. Of his strikingly modern watercolor compositions, Gerald S. Letz explains, “His still lifes form a virtual catalogue of the beauties of Lancaster’s flowers, and the lush ripeness of its fruits and vegetables…all readily obtainable from the curb markets near his home, or at the Central or Southern markets, only a little farther away. And it is also likely that some of the flowers may have come from the garden his mother Augusta so carefully tended behind their home on East King Street.” (Homage to Charles Demuth: Still Life Painter of Lancaster, Ephrata, 1978, p. 22) As epitomized by Zinnias, the still-life paintings executed in his small studio overlooking this garden represent the most immediate and intimate body of Demuth’s work, and moreover form one of the most important watercolor series of modern American art.

Demuth’s floral still lifes “are indeed remarkable in the way in which they demonstrate the artist's capacity to extract the essential character of a flower or other object as well as his tender, ‘affectionate attitude toward the commonplace.’” (E. Farnham, Charles Demuth: His Life, Psychology and Works, vol. I, Ph.D. diss., Ohio State University, 1959, p. 295) As in many of his works from this period, in Zinnias the artist creates an oval composition with the twisting leaves and branches reaching upward to create a sense of verticality. Each zinnia blossom is a rich area of almost pure color, whether yellow, red, pink or orange, and each flower is carefully positioned so as to be unique among the bouquet in shape, direction and hue. Using a wash-and-blotter technique, areas of the carefully delineated blooms and leaves have been given texture that allows them to almost shimmer with light, adding a more natural element to the sharp-edged, precisionist depiction.

More dramatically, a few segments of the composition are purposefully left uncolored, further emphasizing the remarkable presentation of these flowers against a blank background and without context. As James E. Breslin writes, “One striking feature of Demuth’s watercolors is the dramatic use he makes of the white paper: abstracting his flowers and vegetables from any background, he floats and isolates them in empty space—at once permitting him to define their contours with sharp, distinct lines, yet to remind us that these objects are abstracted, lifted from any context, for heightened aesthetic contemplation; the space they dwell in is an artistic space.” (“William Carlos Williams and Charles Demuth: Cross Fertilization in the Arts,” Journal of Modern Literature, vol. 6, no. 2, April 1977, p. 251)

In Zinnias, as in all of his most successful watercolors, Demuth creates a picture of vivid beauty, captured with his daring color sense, crisp draftsmanship and sure sense of pictorial space. In a tribute to the artist after his death, the critic Henry McBride acknowledged his distinctive accomplishment, noting that “the proper place for a Demuth flower, I sometimes think, is in the hands of an educated gardener--one who knows what a flower is and what an artist is.” (quoted in S. Reed, et al., Awash in Color, Boston, 1993, p. 213)

The present work includes another floral composition on the reverse that is closely related to Demuth's Zinnias and Pinecones (1918), which was the first work by the artist to be acquired by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

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