The last two acquisitions of the Demuth museums mark a kind of reunion.
One of the paintings, A Prince of Court Painters (No. 1), a watercolor and graphite on paper, was painted by Charles Demuth in 1918. The other, an oil on canvas called Alligator Pears, was painted in 1921 and given to Demuth by his dear friend Georgia OKeeffe.
Demuth did not keep the OKeeffe piece in storage, but instead brought it to light.
From the accounts and recordings we have of what his studio space looked like, we know that this Okeeffe painting hung in the studio and was something he looked at on a daily basis. It was part of his personal collection until the time of his death, explains Abigail Baer, executive director of the Demuth Foundation. So that’s just another aspect to help tell its story. It’s good to know that something he really liked and enjoyed is back.
How they got back
Like many museums, the Demuth is constantly evaluating its collection and looking for additions. The Demuth Foundation, the non-profit organization that manages the Demuth Museum and the Lancaster Museum of Art, has a dedicated acquisitions fund to make these additions possible.
Sometimes other donors help support the cause. In the case of a Prince of Court Painters, the Demuth Museum paid $ 16,380 in a recent Sothebys art auction. The purchase was made possible with money from the Acquisitions Fund, as well as additional financial assistance from donors Paul and Judy Ware. It is now one of Demuth’s 56 works in museum collections.
Much of Demuth’s work is well beyond what our organization can afford, says Baer. It is not uncommon for some of his works to have six digits. When things are auctioned off that we’re interested in that are feasible in terms of an estimate, we can act quickly to get them. Usually I do the physical auctions, but members of the board sit with me and watch the auction. It’s a little scary.
Alligator Pears was acquired by the Foundation as a bequest from a local collector. Baer says about 75% of the museum’s collection was acquired by donation. Alligator Pears, according to Baer, has remained in Lancaster since Demuth himself acquired it from OKeeffe.
After Charles died in 1935 his friend, painter Robert Locher had (Alligator Pears) and after Lochers died he went to one of Lochers’ friends, Baer says. He never actually left Lancaster in terms of ownership. It’s been on loan to the museum for the past 20 years, so we’ve seen it before, but now it’s officially part of our collection.
“A Prince of Court Painters” and “Alligator Pears” are currently not on display at the Demuth Museum, but the entire collection is available at demuth.org. Those interested in seeing the works in person are encouraged to check the Foundation’s website to find out when they will be displayed.
Demuth and OKeeffe first became acquainted in the late 1910s or early 1920s as part of the influential artist friends of photographer and gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz. OKeeffe then married Stieglitz, but she kept a close friendship with Demuth until the painters died in 1935.
The two artists corresponded regularly and seemed to have a great understanding of each other’s work even when critics didn’t.
I saw your paintings. I have looked at them closely several times, Demuth wrote in a letter to OKeeffe in 1926, postmarked. Your color was the most exciting thing in the art world this year. Why it wasn’t mentioned more shows, to me, how stupid art (painting) writers are; there it looks like no color has looked before and nothing has been said.
Demuth and OKeeffe even painted together at Demuths in Lancaster and in his mother’s garden. When she was in town, she stayed at the Weber Hotel, which was once located across from the Demuth Museum.
They each had a very unique style and approach to the way they looked at their subjects, Baer says. They often both work on the same flower, but that would turn out to be completely different.
One of the subjects they painted together were avocados, then known as alligator pears.
They were quite rare at the beginning of the 20th century. They haven’t quite gained the popularity they have now. And we know avocados are something Augusta Demuth cultivated, Baer says. At first I was wondering how Augusta would have avocados in Lancaster, as it’s not really the right climate, but there was actually a glass greenhouse on the property, and she kept an avocado tree there.
Baer says it’s not impossible that the subject of Demuths’ new acquisition, Alligator Pears, is something that OKeeffe was introduced to here in Lancaster.
Demuths A Prince of Court Painters is an example of the literary illustrations he created throughout his career, mainly from 1914 to 1919. The painter was never hired to illustrate a book, but literature including novels, news and plays provided him with a major source of inspiration. According to Baer, the painting is the second literary piece in the Demuth Foundations collection. The other is 1908’s The Real Thing.
A Prince of Court Painters is a representation of the character of Antoine Watteau from the Walter Paters 1887 Imaginary Portraits collection. Demuth also created illustrations and paintings based on works by Edgar Allan Poe, Henry James and others.
He was just an avid reader, says Baer. And he enjoyed these stories and was inspired to create something about his experience with them.
The latest paintings help to create a more complete portrait of Demuth, the artist and the person.
There are a lot of generous collectors in the area, says Baer. We have always been delighted to add works to our collection and to have more to offer our visitors and the art-loving public of Lancaster.