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Nospmas. M. Egiap Nospmas. M.

On view

Nospmas. M. Egiap Nospmas. M.

Artist: Charles Demuth (American, 1883 - 1935)

Date: 1921
Medium: Oil on canvas
Dimensions:
Overall: 24 × 20 1/4 × 1in. (61 × 51.4 × 2.5cm)
Framed: 33 1/2 × 29 1/2 × 13/16in. (85.1 × 74.9 × 2cm)
Signed: Verso: '[title] / C. Demuth / Lancaster, Pa. / 1921'
Credit Line: Museum Purchase
Object number: 68.29
Text Entries

Lancaster, Pennsylvania, was the lifelong home of Charles Demuth, a major early American modernist and Precisionist. Most of his works were painted here and many treat Lancaster subjects, ranging from vaudeville themes to still-life arrangements inspired by produce available at the local farm markets and his own flourishing garden—which he and his mother maintained in back of his house on East King Street—to views of the city’s buildings.

Demuth’s paintings inspired by Lancaster’s architecture remain among the artist’s strongest and most fascinating works.(1) He painted his first on this theme in 1919 and his last in 1933, although he continued to explore other subjects throughout this period. When they were first shown, his architectural scenes did not receive the favorable reception that greeted his more accessible vaudeville and still-life subjects, and the critics struggled to sort out their strongly formal characteristics and evocatively elusive meanings.(2)

Demuth painted about twenty works of Lancaster structures and almost all of them treat specifically identifiable sites within the city.(3) Probably none of his subjects is more familiar than the John W. Eshelman Feed Company’s grain elevators, erected in 1919, which once stood at 244 North Queen Street, just a few blocks away from the artist’s home near the city’s center. This site, one of several local groups of buildings that served as the source for multiple paintings by the artist, possessed a rich personal resonance for him.(4) Not only did it inspire Demuth’s most famous work, the powerfully iconic My Egypt of 1927, but also his Buildings, Lancaster of 1930 (both, Whitney Museum of American Art), which depicted other structures that were a part of the Eshelman complex.

Demuth gave unusual titles to these paintings and the strangest one surely is Nospmas. M. Egiap Nospmas. M., a side view of the Eshelman grain elevators.(5) The quixotic title has long been problematic for Demuth scholars, and while several explanations have been proposed, none are conclusive, and it may never be satisfactorily deciphered. It has frequently been observed that, read backward, its letters form a seemingly recognizable name, “M. Sampson Paige M. Sampson.” While this may indeed be significant, no similar name appears in Lancaster city directories of the period, nor has the identity of the “Monsieur Sampson”(6) suggested by Emily Farnham been discovered. One theory was that the title relates “page Sampson . . . tear these buildings down,”(7) yet it is not clear why Demuth would have favored the demolition of these structures. He frequently painted industrial images, regarding them as positive aspects of the Lancaster cityscape. Alvord L. Eiseman has proposed a link to the biblical Sampson,(8) but while the elevators may have retained an emblematic biblical connotation dating from Demuth’s youth,(9) this explanation too provides little in the Way of clarification. Other letters appear within the composition. Some are shortened from words such as “flour,” but others are too cryptic to be decoded and the visual references, such as signs and billboards, which may have suggested them to the artist, have long since disappeared. They may also contain as yet undiscovered connections to the writings of his friends Gertrude Stein, William Carlos Williams, or Marcel Duchamp.

Demuth painted comparatively fewer works on architectural themes than he did of other subjects, and they represented major artistic statements to him. Begun at the beginning of a period of increasingly fragile health from the debilitating effects of the diabetes which eventually caused his death, they mark a shift in medium from watercolor to oil and tempera, as well as a distinct increase in scale. Although many of his Lancaster architectural paintings feature bold primary colors, the Utica picture was executed utilizing a more restrained palette of white, subtle pinks, muted reds, and grays. The first of Demuth’s paintings to record the Eshelman buildings, it was executed in 1921, six years earlier than My Egypt, and thus assumes a pivotal importance in the artist’s aesthetic explorations of local images. When Demuth died in 1935, Nospmas. M. Egiap Nospmas. M. was one of a group of works he willed to Georgia O’Keeffe.(10) Sometime later it entered the possession of Edith Gregor Halpert’s Downtown Gallery, which handled the Work of Demuth and many of his contemporaries. In 1968 it was purchased from this gallery by the Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute Museum of Art.

Notes

1. See Betsy Fahlman, Pennsylvania Modern: Charles Demuth of Lancaster, exhibition catalog (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1983), for the most recent discussion of these paintings.

2. The earliest known exhibition of the Utica picture was in December 1922, when it was shown at New York’s Daniel Gallery, where the artist had his first one-man show in 1914.

3. Several of his depictions of Gloucester and Provincetown architecture record known structures. His Bermuda paintings, begun during the winter of 1916-17, however, were not site specific.

4. See Kara] Ann Marling, “My Egypt: The Irony of the American Dream,” Winterthur Portfolio, vol. 15 (Spring 1980), pp. 25-39.

5. I am grateful to Robert LeMin of Lancaster, whose photograph of the grain elevators, taken several years before their demolition in July 1977, enabled me to conclusively identify the painting’s subject. See fig. 10 of my “Charles Demuth’s Paintings of Lancaster Architecture: New Discoveries and Observations,” Arts Magazine, vol. 61 (March 1987), p. 26.

6. Emily Farnham, Charles Demuth, Behind a Laughing Mask (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971), p. 184.

7. Letter from Mary E. Marshall to the Downtown Gallery, August 22, 1950, curatorial files, Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute Museum of Art.

8. Alvord L. Eiseman, “A Study of the Development of an Artist: Charles Demuth” (Ph.D. dissertation, New York University, 1976, p. 362).

9. One local resident recalled that while Demuth was a student in Lancaster one of his teachers related the story of how Augusta, in giving Biblical instruction to her young son Charles, used the grain elevators as a local illustration to the story (Gen. 41) of how Joseph could have stored corn for the seven lean years in Egypt.

10. Robert Locher inherited Demuth’s drawings and watercolors; O’Keeffe was left the remainder of his paintings.

 

Copyright
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