Saturday, December 15, 2007

Charles Demuth: Gay Male 20th Century Artist of Lancaster Pennsylvania

Warning! If you find images that express gay male sexuality disturbing, do not look below.

There, I’ve said it. “Gay,” and “male” are the primary focus of my discussion of Charles Demuth. I am intent on doing so because, as a former resident of Lancaster, Pennsylvania of 38 years, I almost always encountered an aversion to the fact of Charles Demuth’s gay identity. It was similar to the Clinton solution to gays in the military. For instance, Today I went to the Website of the Demuth Foundation, and explored it carefully. There is one overt reference to Chares Demuth’s homosexuality. And in opposition to that, there is an entire section of carefully worded references to his friendships with women. Of course, I know that most people in our culture would express the opinion that his sexuality had nothing whatsoever to do with those beautiful floral watercolors and fundamental precisionist paintings that earned him his place as an important American artist of the Twentieth Century.

Never the less, the view from one of my studio windows in Lancaster included Charles Demuth’s back yard just a half block away, and I always felt as though I was his neighbor, at least in place if not time. I always found Charles' (“Deme" as his friends called him) early paintings, so many of which were centered on his marginalized homosexual lifestyle fascinatingly subversive. These works - among them, the two I’ve used here, “Turkish Bath with Self Portrait,” and “Three Sailors,” give an indication of how strongly Charles felt his gay male sexuality at a time when such a sexuality was one of the most taboo characteristics of any gay individual’s life.* The images were the vehicle Charles used to express his homosexual identity with such conviction in the Art World sub culture. I often wonder if he hoped and/or knew that these images would escape their subversive location.

I placed these two images in my first category, art about the male body. However, they reach beyond the confines of my easy categorization because they demonstrate Charles' happy exploration of his sexual identity. The images show no guilt, no remorse, no pain. Charles Demuth reveled in his gay male sexual identity at a time when he was living and studying in Philadelphia, New York City, and Paris, in personal contact with some of the greatest artistic minds of his era, and discovering his place in that world. Thus, they conquer the time between his life and mine, and they straddle and conquer the limitations and secret space, hidden, but expressed by the extremes of the two categories I’ve created.


Weinberg, Jonathan, Speaking for Vice: Homosexuality in the Art of Charles Demuth, Marsden Hartley, and the First American Avant-Garde. (1995) Boston: Yale University Press.

Kellner, Bruce, Letters of Charles Demuth, American Artist, 1883-1935: With Assessments of His Work by His Contemporaries. (2000) Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Fahlman, Betsy, Pennsylvania Modern: Charles Demuth of Lancaster. (1983) Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art.

*“Turkish Baths with Self Portrait,” Charles Demuth (1918), Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia,, a not copyrighted image. Last modified November 27, 2007, viewed Sunday, December 9, 2007, 9:08 AM EST.

*“Three Sailors,” Charles Demuth (1917), glbtg: an encyclodedia of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, and queer culture,,zoom.html . © 2002 glbtg Inc., viewed Sunday, December 9, 2007, 9:21 AM. EST.

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