Demuth was born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and kept close ties to his hometown, although he moved in highly sophisticated circles in New York, Provincetown, and Paris and delighted in the bohemian lifestyle he found in these places.
He had a childhood of much isolation and illness and throughout his life, had a sense of being an outsider.
He first studied at the Drexel Institute in Philadelphia and after a trip to Europe in 1904, became a student of Thomas Anschutz at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts until 1911. Then he went to Paris for two years and began his pursuit of modern art, becoming associated with avant-garde literary persons including Gertrude and Leo Stein and modernist painters Matisse, Braque, Derain, Dufy and Vlaminck. He attended the Academie Julian, Academie Colarossi and Academie Moderne.
His early paintings were simple floral and figure studies in watercolor with shifting tonalities of color, and he also did watercolor illustrations for books and plays including works by Henry James and Emile Zola.
Returning to America in 1914, he became one of the modernist artists associated with Alfred Stieglitz and was also among the group of intellectuals around Marcel Duchamp and the Dada Movement. He and Duchamp spent much time in Harlem jazz clubs and Greenwich Village bars, and he loved the life of the big city libertine. A close friend was Marsden Hartley, and they went to Bermuda together in 1916 and 1917.
From 1915, much of his effort was devoted to figurative subjects, and a recurring theme was acrobatic figures, which reflected an early 20th century American interest. His art reputation was established with his New York solo exhibition in 1915 at the George Daniel Gallery. Shortly after that he experimented with Cubism, and his first Precisionist work was done in 1919. Much of his Precisionist subject matter was the empty-seeming urban landscape, barren of human emotion and reflective of post-World War I disillusionment.
During the 1920s, his work became increasingly realistic and more focused on line and shape and color. He suffered from diabetes and turned to small-scale still lifes and floral studies that, unlike his urban studies, were loaded with personal feeling. Between 1924 and 1929, he did many portraits of friends with objects representing their lives. Special friends were Georgia O'Keeffe, John Marin, and Marsden Hartley.
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