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Title: Figures and Things: Charles Demuth, 1908-1935
Authors: Levenson, Abra
Advisors: DeLue, Rachael Z.
Contributors: Art and Archaeology Department
Keywords: American
Charles Demuth
Stieglitz Circle
Subjects: Art history
Issue Date: 2018
Publisher: Princeton, NJ : Princeton University
Abstract: Between 1923 and 1929, Charles Demuth (1883 – 1935), an early-20th century American painter perhaps best remembered today for his Machine-Age precisionist landscapes, executed a series of ten non-mimetic portraits of artists and writers active in and around the American avant-garde. All ten portraits in the series transgress the traditional conventions of their genre, eschewing the body proper to depict their subjects instead by way of objects, words, and graphic inscription, and often by reference to—or “in the guise of,” so to speak—his or her signature work or style. Bracketed between ca. 1908, the year that marks the onset of Demuth’s mature production, and 1935, the year he succumbed to diabetes at the age of fifty-two, this study uses the “poster” portrait series as a lens to distill a set of conceptual engagements and formal problems across Demuth’s complex and varied practice. While most scholars have treated the artist’s delicate floral still lifes and intimately-scaled watercolor figure studies in isolation from the precisionist landscapes for which he is best remembered today, I argue that the portraits crystallize an underappreciated thread running across Demuth’s practice—his persistent interrogation of the determinants—and limits—of pictorial meaning, genre chiefly among them. While Figures and Things trains its primary focus on Demuth, it also casts a wider view. Using the poster portrait series as a fulcrum to open onto a wider rereading of Demuth’s oeuvre, I position Demuth in turn to pry open the mythos of unity and rupture central to the art-historical narrative of American Modernism more broadly—a narrative, and by extension a revision, which exceeds any one individual actor. Arguing neither for Demuth’s exceptionalism nor against his marginality, I treat his singularity as a lens that brings into focus a richer and more complex account of the formal questions and historical pressures that shaped picture making in the early decades of the last century.
Alternate format: The Mudd Manuscript Library retains one bound copy of each dissertation. Search for these copies in the library's main catalog:
Type of Material: Academic dissertations (Ph.D.)
Language: en
Appears in Collections:Art and Archaeology

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