Demuth was born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and studied at both Drexel Institute and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. As a young man, Demuth traveled to Paris where he was part of the avant-garde movement and was influenced by the art of Marcel Duchamp. He created many watercolors with a breadth and force of brushwork and color that reflect the Fauve movement in Paris. Demuth is known as one of America’s first “moderns.” Many of his paintings were left in the hands of fellow artist and friend Georgia O’Keeffe who helped ensure his legacy after his death.
Daisies is a typical example of Demuth’s style of incorporating bright colors, fluid lines and luminous washes in his watercolors. His quick sketches in pencil emerge through the clouded shapes and brushstrokes, acting as fine details that anchor the painting. Each petal is carefully outlined within a greater whole. They are distinct yet not separated.
Acrobats depicts a simple yet charming scene of an elegantly dressed couple dancing. In the scene, the man lifts up his partner with ease and dips her forward with her legs swung high in the air. Her face, with eyes shut, is calmly composed and tranquil as her body defies gravity. Since Demuth’s original pencil sketches are left visible underneath the blend of primary colors the figures are kept distinct from each other. The bright yellow circle acts as a spotlight behind the couple though they seem unaware of the outside world and any observers.
In contrast, Burchfield was born in Ohio and was inspired by the rural landscapes of his childhood. Seeking to become an illustrator, he enrolled in the Cleveland School of Art. However, he preferred watercolor scenes and returned to painting, which he believed allowed more emotion and movement to translate into his artworks. Burchfield explains why his vibrant landscapes never include figures,
It’s my feeling that carries the human element. This is what has to put the sense of life in it.
Burchfield was never an active part of the New York City art scene as he preferred to remain somewhat isolated.
In a richly orchestrated interplay of motif, including the foliage of the bushes, the grass, the flame-like petaled flowers, the orioles, and the writhing arabesques of the elm branches, Burchfield portrays nature as an animated and vital life force in Lavender and Old Lace. The overgrowth of plants that slowly encroaches on the dilapidated manmade structures demonstrates nature’s willful attempts at reclamation and symbolizes the inevitability of human mortality. The artist integrates semi-abstract conventions in an otherwise straightforward farm scene. The trees and forests in the background are represented as Gothic architectural structures where the intersecting branches appear as leaded frames of stained glass windows. A strange light which seems to come from within the tree passes through the Gothic arch-shaped openings in the branches, giving the scene a majestic and ethereal quality.
Following is an additional example, Early Spring Mood, by Burchfield. It also exemplifies his stylistic choices.
Do you prefer one artist over the other ? Why or why not? Both have painted examples of nature. Which is more “natural”? Do Burchfield’s works convey a sense of humanity despite the absence of people? Or does Demuth’s Acrobats outshine them?
Check out The Great America Watercolor, on view through July 3 in the McKernan Gallery at the NBMAA. See these works in person, and many more by American artists from 1800 to the present.