PRINT November 1978

Demuth’s Poster Portraits

DEMUTH’S “POSTER PORTRAITS” OF THE 1920s, with the format of large advertisements, are somehow less insistently raucous than the Pop art of the 1960s. This is because many of the objects in them are without trace of even popular clichés of the 1920s, like the razor in Gerald Murphy’s painting (Dallas Museum, 1924), or Stuart Davis’ 1921 Lucky Strike wrapper (Museum of Modern Art), or his bottle of Odol, 1924. They have a kind of superannuated quality, even for then,like the plaque and oval of flowers in the Charles Duncan poster.

Probably the closest any of Demuth’s posters really comes to Pop is I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold, the William Carlos Williams one, where the advancing figure 5s compare with Jasper Johns’ inert rows of numbers or with Robert Indiana’s emblazoned numbers; Indiana did model his Demuth Five, 1963, and other of his paintings upon it. Otherwise, they are quite different, in purpose as well as form. Their seemingly haphazard and random objects and words were meant to evoke the presence of a friend or associate from Demuth’s world of art and letters by alluding cryptically to his or her interests, or style of art or writing. More than that: I’ve come to see that the very means of arrangement of the objects—their number and shapes—suggest the personality of the “sitter.”

There are eight, perhaps nine posters (rather than the seven I once believed there to be),1 including one of a nonposter character: a picture of calla lilies rising out of a shell that had been intended as an object-substitute for an actor and female impersonator named Bert Savoy,2 to whom Demuth (a homosexual) had been introduced backstage by his friend Robert Locher.3 A shell in this Savoy painting had already appeared in a painting by Georgia O’Keeffe of 1919, Music—Pink and Blue No.1, and it belonged to her: “I knew one of his girl friends who gave me a beautiful shell because she knew he had always wanted it, and she wanted him to see that she gave it to me. The shell is in that large portrait of calla lilies at Fisk.”4 Demuth saw, then, in the erotic suggestiveness of the undulating flower, an appropriate object-substitute for one who traded on the aura of sexuality.

An unfinished crypto-portrait of another homosexual, the painter Marsden Hartley, where the poster format seems more evident, and where a calla lily is again the prominent symbol, Emily Farnham describes thus: “Framed in open window, large flowerpot holding red calla lily with yellow pistil and green leaves. On left, letters of the name HARTLEY give vertical emphasis. Various notations inscribed on work: all red, snow winter, quite blue, white clouds.”5 The unfinished Hartley poster is related to the subject of some of that painter’s still lifes, like the Lilies in a Vase, c.1920 (Columbus Gallery of Fine Arts). Both the Savoy painting and the unfinished Hartley poster are undated, but I would venture that Demuth began in 1920 or 1922 with a sort of homage to Hartley’s own painting by offering a similar subject, then seizing on the appropriateness of the lily as an allusion to Hartley’s homosexuality and using the motif in a similar way with Savoy.

The poster portrait of Eugene O’Neill, a far better known theatrical figure than Bert Savoy, was painted by Demuth in 1927 and entitled Longhi on Broadway. It shows a leafy bough inserted into a whiskey bottle, with a red mask hanging from the neck of the bottle and a blue mask leaning on it, pink, orange and blue pamphlets and magazines: they refer to the 18th-century Italian painter Pietro Longhi, who painted masked dancers and other masked figures of the Venetian aristocracy; also, as a pair they obviously represent the theater; and, more specifically, they recall that from 1924 O’Neill used masked actors in some of his plays. the most famous being The Great God Brown.6 If the leaves in the whiskey bottle were elm, the pairing might be a clever reference to O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms;7 although, as a vine, they still symbolize wine by alluding to Dionysos, to whom, moreover, the first theaters and performances were consecrated in ancient Greece. Knowing O’Neill’s cognizance of Greek myths, Demuth might well have intended this interfolding of meanings, with fruit as fertility upholding the Dionysos connection.

Sarah B. Feigin and Nancy Beere suggest connecting the spoon at the left of the picture with the suicide by cocaine of Louis Holliday, who had been supplied the drug by Terry Carlin, an addict friend of O’Neill. Holliday’s unfortunate death would have been especially poignant and meaningful for both Demuth and O’Neill, since they were both present during the fateful night in January 1918.8 Could Demuth have been thinking that in ancient Greek orgiastic rites the death (and subsequent resurrection) of Dionysos was widely celebrated? The pamphlets and magazines that form a sort of base for the still-life objects could have been found scattered about O’Neill’s home. Did Demuth choose them with deliberation? L’Amour de l’Art is the almost obscured title to the right (the magazine was published from 1920 to 1940), and the letters L’, A, N, and T on the publication upon which the magazine is standing are p art of the title of another art periodical, L’Art Vivant, whose date of November1927 helps to date the painting as well. O’Neill would have been interested in the broad scope of L’Art Vivant, a bimonthly which appeared from 1925 to 1931, and dealt with a wide variety of subjects—painting, fashion, furniture design, book illustration, automobile construction and architectural layouts—much as he was attracted to the work of the composer George Antheil, whose Ballet Mécanique score, written in 1924, was performed in New York in April 1926 and in Paris in June 1926, with xylophones. electric bells, ten pianos and a single piano player. The identity of the publications marked “If” and “Elsie” remains a mystery.

Setting up one-to-one equivalents between an object in a poster and some aspect of the “sitter” may, in certain cases, obscure the richness of Demuth’s conception. The same mask which works so easily in recalling O’Neill’s profession as playwright becomes a little shaky in connection with Gertrude Stein, in whose portrait it is even more prominently displayed. If Stein was, like O’Neill, a dramatist, she was not exclusively so. But what does make the mask in Stein’s portrait even more appropriate is the Buddha-like, or masklike, appearance of her own face, as can readily be seen in photographs.9 The O’Neill poster portrait developed out of an actual poster used as a theatrical advertisement, and Demuth worked this Stockbridge Stocks up as an oil.10 I believe that after he painted the O’Neill poster Demuth came to see the overlaying of the mask’s meaning in the Stein portrait, where it was made both to allude to a profession and to catch the sitter’s appearance. The numbers that appear—“1, 2, 3”—and the word “Love” repeated twice have to do with Stein’s manner of writing. It’s more than the mere repetition which counts here with Demuth, but the word or the phrase written or said specifically three times.

Stein was fascinated by threes, which appear throughout her work in various ways. Her Three Lives was published in 1909. In her Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas of 1933, she observed meeting geniuses in threes, dancers in threes. and wives of geniuses in threes: “But that is not my fault,” she wrote, “it happens too be a fact.”11 The word “love” is also frequently repeated in Stein’s writings, but so, too, are a lot of other words. And if she wrote much love poetry in the Majorca period at the end of the ’teens, that is not sufficient to explain Demuth’s singling out this one word for her poster. Demuth’s choice of “love” may have had to do with their past relationship, when Gertrude Stein’s Paris apartment at 27 rue de Fleurus served as a warm haven for expatriate and visiting American artists, Demuth being among them in 1912. Stein took note of Demuth in her autobiography, recalling that when she knew him he was more interested in writing than in painting.12

As with the O’Neill and Stein posters, where there are allusions to O’Neill’s use of masked actors and Stein’s frequent repetition of words, in other posters, too, Demuth incorporated cues to the style of painting or writing associated with the “sitter.” The Williams poster, usually called I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold, is a pictorialization of the poet’s description of a fire engine in his one-sentence poem “The Great Figure”:

Among the rain
and lights
I saw the figure 5 in gold
on a red
to gong clangs
siren howls
and wheels rumbling
through the dark city.

The three bright figure fives, set against the metallic red section of a fire engine, advance abruptly toward the spectator, while receding ray lines pull back toward the dark city mentioned in the poem. Similarly, the landscape in the Arthur Dove poster and the plant in the Georgia O’Keeffe one allude to frequent motifs in paintings by those respective “sitters.” But Demuth also mimicked the stylistic manners of the visual artists, softly undulating for Dove, more agitated and flamelike for O’Keeffe. Actually, it was on the flamelike properties of O’Keeffe’s flora that Demuth, who would bring out an eerie fleshiness in many of his own plants and other still-life objects, apparently focused.

In 1927, in the foreword for the catalogue of an O’Keeffe exhibition, he described her paintings as “a movement of flames.” Flames of the spirit? Flames of the flesh?—perhaps one flame only, of creation, however, it consumes—that is success in a flame . . . it always burns and moves.”13 As Demuth was sensitive to the mechanisms of O’Keeffe’s style it seems reasonable to assume that he was no less so in the case of John Marin, who, with O’Keeffe and Dove, were in the 1920s the artists Stieglitz strove to promote most through his Intimate Gallery. Marin by then had modified the Cubist esthetic into a means of transcribing hidden forces and valences within nature,14 or, as he put it in his own picturesque speech:

Too, it comes to me as something in which I am curiously interested. I refer to weight balances. As my body exerts a downward pressure on the floor, the floor in turn exerts an upward pressure on my body. Too, the pressure of the air against my body, my body against the air, all this I have to recognize when building the picture.15

A prominent arrow in the Marin poster, which I once connected with Marin’s patriotism, I now feel should be seen in terms of Marin’s actual painting—which has to do with valences, directions of forces, weights and pressures. Force-lines suggestive of arrow shapes can be made out in more than half of Marin’s paintings after 1910,16 and this must be what Demuth intended to indicate. In this context, the word “Play,” set directly on the arrow, fits nicely. It is a word which comes up in several places in Mann’s writings in reference to such forces, as in a well-known statement published in 1913 in Camera Work:

I see great forces at work; great movements; the large buildings and the small buildings; the warring of the great and the small; influences of one mass on another or smaller mass. Feelings are aroused which give the desire to express the reaction of these “pull forces,” those influences which play with one another; great masses pulling smaller masses, each subject in some degree to the other’s power.17

Of all the posters, the most enigmatic is that of Charles Duncan, a fringe member of the Stieglitz Circle.18 One might well wonder why the obscure Duncan, who was not Demuth’s friend and was not publicized or appreciated during the 1920s (or today), should have been chosen at all. The others, with the exception of Bert Savoy (whose portrait is not a poster in the true sense anyway), were all leading figures in the world of avant-garde art and literature. Eugene O’Neill might have been the link between Duncan and Demuth, pressing for or suggesting Duncan’s inclusion in the set of posters. Emily Farnham has told me that Duncan was married to O’Neill’s wife’s (Agnes Bolton’s) sister.19 In the Duncan poster there seem to be plaques with a poster- or billboard-like appearance, which are probably a clue to Duncan’s profession: to support himself he worked as a painter of big outdoor advertising signs. This had been reported to me by the painter Louis Bouché on January 28, 1966, and confirmed by O’Keeffe in her letter to Feigin: “Duncan was a sign painter, and had some drawings along with my first showing of drawings at 291. I haven’t seen him since the early twenties and know nothing about him.” Through Duncan’s poster, then, Demuth has suggested a format of painting which was public, large scale and commercial, a kind not then generally considered worthy of esthetic consideration. Demuth included large signs in several of his own paintings in the 1920s, such as Hotel, c. 1921.

While most of the objects in the posters have to do with a style of painting or of writing, others are cues to a profession and also, even, a political persuasion. A sickle in the Dove poster alludes to the fact that for years Dove had made most of his living as a farmer, and was even awarded a prize by the Farm Board of the State of Connecticut.20 A ribbon on the sickle indicates a farmer who has been tied down, domesticated: having divorced his first wife. Dove married the painter Helen Torr, and from 1920 or 1921 the two, blissfully devoted, lived in a houseboat in which they cruised about Long Island Sound and the Harlem River. Feigin noted that the reverse of the Dove poster is inscribed: “For Helen with Love from Demuth.” Helen Torr was commonly called “Reds”—she even signed her letters that way21—and the bright red ribbon attached to the sickle becomes her symbol, as the sickle itself is Dove’s. In the Marin poster a field of stars and stripes denotes Mann’s ultra-conservative political views. Dove’s son William once told me that Marin had always been a rock-bound Republican,22 and it has been observed that Marin characteristically colored his speech with Yankee aphorisms.23

Demuth’s posters do more than provide a number of objects which serve as clues to be decoded. There is in them an uncanny feel for the person involved, especially in the selection of one particular object as an attribute when another might have conveyed a similar meaning. It is where the visual properties of the posters and the “literary” meaning of the objects depicted in them coalesce that the greatest richness is to be found.

Thus Demuth chose to represent Williams by the fire engine described in the poem “The Great Figure” rather than by another image from Williams hundreds of other poems, which would just as well have simply identified the “sitter.” The special appropriateness of that image lies in the fact that Williams was blustery in his demeanor, and audacious even in his manner of poetry construction. The eruptiveness of the Williams poster in every way befits the poet’s well-known turbulent extroversion. The breakdown of space and light (which parallels the rain and lights of the poem) makes for a Futurist sort of surface activity, and the gilt color of the “5s” and the bright red of the fire engine’s body make for a ringing forcefulness.

In the Stein poster, the central placement of the frontalized mask, which takes on the features of Gertrude Stein24—and which the viewer is made to confront—serves to convey the implacable, obdurate power of the writer. One can imagine the stolid body of Gertrude Stein situated behind it. This dominant mask is a fit symbol for the woman who managed the Paris salon to which artists and writers flocked before and after World War I. The viewer sees the objects in the O’Neill from above. They are at a greater distance from him, as well as in a greater state of disarray, and greater in number and variety than those in any of the other posters. Perhaps the experience is something akin to that of the theater, where the action unfolds at a remove, on the stage; and perhaps it is particularly akin to seeing one of O’Neill’s plays, with its energy and conflicts. The objects in the O’Keeffe poster, on the other hand. are arranged in a stable triangular format, with a sense of the hieratic. Beside the objects, there are the letters of O’Keeffe’s name printed as a Latin cross, from the top of which rays extend forming a halo. (This arrangement is in marked contrast to the Marin, Duncan, and Dove posters, where the sitter’s name appears horizontally.) And there is something passionately ascetic about the way O’Keeffe acts and thinks.25 Some of Stieglitz’s many photographs of her reveal her lucid, penetrating eyes, and show her as a woman of earnest and powerful convictions. (It would be tempting to relate the Latin cross, as well, to O’Keeffe’s painting; but it does not appear as a motif in her work, as far as I can determine, until 1929, while her poster was completed on Valentine’s Day, 1924.)26

Demuth’s posters were not the only composite portraits (featuring an ensemble of objects alluding to the “sitter”) made in America between about 1915 and 1935. In the decade before Demuth’s paintings Marius De Zayas made photogravures which he called “geometric equivalents,” consisting of combinations of lines, trajectories and mathematical formulae, and Francis Picabia made a number of machine-portraits. Like Demuth’s portraits, De Zayas’ “geometric equivalents” were meant as portraits of specific people (Alfred Stieglitz, Mrs. Eugene Meyer, Jr., Theodore Roosevelt, Paul B. Haviland and Francis Picabia),27 as were some of Picabia’s machine paintings (Alfred Stieglitz, Paul B. Haviland, Marius De Zayas). Unlike Demuth’s posters and Dove’s collages, they consist not of an assemblage of various recognizable objects, but, in De Zayas’ case, of geometrical configurations and formulae; and, in Picabia’s, of single machines, pseudo-machines, or appliances. For De Zayas the equations were symbolic of the subject’s spirit; for Picabia qualities of the machine indicated the subject’s nature, as with the broken-down camera standing for Stieglitz.28 I suspect that Picabia’s totemistic conception of the machine (which was similar to that of his fellow European, Marcel Duchamp),29 while not providing specific imagery for the posters, led Demuth to use his painted objects not merely as symbols but as purveyors of personality traits.

Hartley, Dove (who worked in collage in this vein) and Florine Stettheimer (who showed the sitter himself amidst the welter of objects) also made symbolic portraits. But, for instance, in Hartley’s Portrait of a German Officer of 1914 (Metropolitan Museum), dedicated to his friend Karl von Freyburg, who was killed on the Western Front in September 1914 and whose initials were worked into the epaulets, spurs and flags, we learn nothing of how this man differed from other military officers. Similarly, in Dove’s 1924 collage Ralph Dusenberry (Metropolitan Museum), a bit of flag alludes to Dusenberry’s patriotic side; a printed song sheet of “Shall We Gather at the River?” to the song he would sing when drunk; a carpenter’s rule used as a frame to his job as a handyman, etc. Dove provides a dense interplay of cues cleverly serving to build up the attributes of a person, but always these are external roles and behavior. Demuth evokes the lineaments of personality.

Abraham A. Davidson


1. Abraham A. Davidson, “The Poster Portraits of Charles Demuth,” Auction, September 1969, pp. 28–31. A pencil sketch meant as a study for a poster portrait of Wallace Stevens recently came to light. In the Weyand Collection since 1956 (Richard Weyand inherited a bulk of Demuth’s work from Demuth’s lifelong friend Robert Locher at that time) and sold at Sotheby Parke Bernet on Octboer 28, 1976, it shows some feather quills against a checkerboard pattern. It is illustrated in Sanford Schwartz’s “Glimpsing the Hidden Demuth,” Art in America, September-October 1976, p. 103. There is no mention or illustration of a finished oil painting, possibly it was never painted.

2. The painting had been identified as such in 1929, the year it was painted, New York Sun, April 10, 1926.

3. Emily Farnham in Charles Demuth, His Life, Psychology and Works, Unpublished Ph. D. Dissertation, University of Ohio, 1960, cites as the source an interview with Robert Locher. Demuth’s good friend, Demuth’s own homosexuality and the sexual allusions in his art have been noted. See, for example, Kermit Champa’s, “Charlie Was Like That,” Artforum, March 1974, pp. 54–59.

4. She recalled this to one of my students, Sarah B. Feigin, in a letter of October, 1974.

5. Farnham, p. 674.

6. For a brilliant study of 1he use of the mask in O’Neill, see Eugene M. Waith’s Eugene O’Neill, An Exercise in Unmasking, in John Casper, ed., O’Neill, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1964, pp. 29–41.

7. For a thorough exposition of O’Neill’s reaction to drink, see the chapter entitled “Dion Anthony’s Curse,” in Louis Sheafer’s O’Neill: Son and Artist, Boston, 1973, pp. 173–178.

8. The group congregated first in the popular artists hangout called “the Hellhole,” then moved on to other places in Greenwich Village. A detailed account of the events leading up to the suicide can be found in Arthur and Barbara Gelb, O’Neill, New York, 1973, pp. 367–68. Following Holiday’s death, according to the Gelbs, “Charles Demuth went about like a man in a trance” and “Holiday’s death was a painful memory O’Neill carried with him always.”

9. See the many photographs of Gertrude Stein in James R. Mellows’ Charmed Circle: Gertrude Stein and Company, New York, 1974.

10. Not listed within Farnham’s extensive catalogue raisonée, the painting was in the Downtown Gallery, New York, through the early and mid-1960s.

11. Gertrude Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, New York, 1933, p. 167.

12. Stein, p. 163.

13. Forward to exhibition catalogue, Georgia O’Keeffe Paintings, Intimate Gallery, New York, 1927.

14. See my “John Mann, Dyanism Codified” in Artforum, April 1971, pp. 37–41.

15. Excerpt from John Marin, “John Marin by Himself,” Creative Art, October, 1928.

16. See illustrations in Sheldon Reich’s John Marin, 2 volumes, Tucson, 1970.

17. John Marin, “Notes on 291,” Camera Work, 42 (April–July, 1913), p. 18.

18. He exhibited in May 1916 at 291 with Georgia O’Keefe and Rene Laferty, Waldo D. Frank et al., ed. America and Alfred Stieglitz: A Collective Portrait, Garden City, 1934, p. 314.

19. Telephone conversation with Emily Farnham, August 1976.

20. Frederick S. Wight, Arthur G. Dove, Berkeley, 1958. p. 41.

21. Wight, p. 48.

22. Interview with Arthur G. Dove’s son William Dove, April, 1962.

23. Sam Hunter, Modern American Painting and Sculpture, New York, 1959.

24. In this matter, the recollection of Gertrude Stein by the English poet and novelist Winifred Bryher is illuminating: “Two penetrating eyes in a square impassive face seemed to be absorbing every detail of my appearance.” This was during the early 1920s. (Mellow. p 242.)

25. A personal experience may be relevant here. In the autumn of 1971 I attended a function at Bryn Mawr College, at which the late Hannah Arendt and Georgia O’Keeffe were honored as outstanding women. Arendt delivered an extraordinary speech, but O’Keeffe said nothing (the President of the college explained that that had been her wish) While seated on the stage. O’Keeffe seemed to exude a radiance, an air of imperturbability, which I thought affected others as deeply as me. The hall was jammed, and as the crowd filed out a bottleneck developed O’Keeffe, unable to move, stood next to me for about five minutes. I thought of telling her that I liked her paintings. then realized that such a statement would be superfluous. Later, I realized that never before had I attended a function where the honoree neither spoke a word nor (as far as I could see) had a word spoken to her.

26. Letter from Demuth to Alfred Stieglitz, February 5, 1928. Stieglitz Collection, Collection of American Literature, Yale University Library.

27. With explanatory essays of De Zayas. these are illustrated in Camera Work, no. 47 (April 1914). See also Craig R. Bailey, “The Art of Marius De Zayas,” Arts Magazine, Sept. 1978, pp. 136–44.

28. William A. Camfield, “The Machinist Style of Francis Picabia,” The Art Bulletin, XLVII (September–December 1966), p. 314.

29. In the latter hall of the second decade Demuth would visit New York’s Dadaist circle at Walter C. Arensberg’s apartment on West 67th Street, where Picabia and Duchamp figured very prominently.