Zinnias and Red Salvia is a highly important watercolor painted in 1933 by Charles Demuth while he was living in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Although he investigated a number of subjects in the early 1920s, including buildings, his abstract poster portraits, and still lifes, by the late 20s and early 30's, Demuth dedicated himself chiefly to still life painting alone, working for nearly six years developing his distinctive watercolor technique. His works from this period remain some of the artist's finest achievements, and firmly establish Demuth as one of America's most accomplished watercolorists.
Demuth's richly painted flowers are almost invariably common ones that might be found in any Pennsylvania garden. As Carol Troyen observes, "In most of the watercolors of the '20s, Demuth's preferred subjects were not hothouse flowers, but ordinary ones such as these, seemingly artlessly arranged in tribute to their natural beauty." To this everyday subject matter Demuth applies an innovative technique, particularly in his later still life compositions, which often revolve around his use of "negative" space. In the later works, the artist often uses the stark white of the paper, or a pale translucent wash, as a forceful element in the painting. This development departs from his earlier style of utilizing the entire surface of the watercolor paper, often painting backgrounds completely in broad washes of purple or grey. By the 1920s, Demuth began to more fully explore the spatial possibilities of his subjects, increasingly isolating fruit or flowers in his work against a white background, and relying on spare pencil lines to suggest details. In this way Demuth creates a tension between painted and unpainted elements of his still life compositions. Each work is complete (and usually signed and dated by the artist), and yet many compositional elements are themselves unfinished.
In her book on the artist, Emily Farnham discusses Demuth's experimentation with this new artistic device: "Still another factor in Demuth which seems to have affected the New Realism is his frequent use of a pristine, immaculate, antiseptic white ground. It was notably in his watercolor still lifes that he habitually placed exquisitely delineated positive objects (peaches, eggplant, striped kitchen towels) against a luminous unpainted ground. This device has reappeared during the sixties in the works of Californian [Wayne] Thiebaud, who employs pure white grounds behind relief-like human figures as means toward the psychological and technical isolation of his subjects." (Charles Demuth: Behind a Laughing Mask, Norman, Oklahoma, 1971, p. 185)
Zinnias and Red Salvia exemplifies Demuth's progressive method, most prominently with an unpainted zinnia defined chiefly by its outline. In places he uses almost pure color, especially with the red salvia which, in visual terms, seems to vibrate on the page, creating an immediacy and beauty that were Demuth's chief aim. In 1923, for example, writing to his dealer Alfred Stieglitz, who had selected a still-life for his personal collection, Demuth cautioned against over-analysis. "I'm so glad you want the eggplant [Eggplant and Peppers, 1922, Fisk University, Nashville] I kept it here, it turned into a heart--maybe mine. Anyway, I hope no one will discover 'Art' or 'Painting' engraved on it." (Sue Reed, et al, Awash in Color, Boston, 1993, p. 211). Here, 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 the artist's 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." (Awash in Color, p. 213).