Charles Demuth (1883-1935)
Watercolor and graphite pencil on paper
Sheet (Irregular): 16 1/4 × 12 3/16 in. (41.3 × 31 cm)
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Purchase, with funds from the Friends of the Whitney Museum of American Art and Charles Simon
Rights and Reproductions Information
© artist or artist’s estate
This watercolor by Charles Demuth is based on a short story by Robert McAlmon, set in the decadent, sex and drugs-filled world of post-World War I Berlin. Demuth recasts a scene from the story, which took place in one of Berlin’s “queer cafes,” as the opening of an art exhibition where a provocative woman in evening dress, a male homosexual couple, and a heterosexual couple look at Constantin Brancusi’s famous sculpture, Princess X, (1915-16), whose overtly phallic form scandalized many contemporary viewers. The title “Distinguished Air” is derived from the narrator’s description of the protagonist, a worldly but dissolute American. Here, the gentleman carrying a cane seems to gaze at the crotch of the sailor, obliquely mirroring the infatuation of McAlmon’s protagonist with a handsome soldier. In the 1930s, Demuth’s watercolors often contained themes of underground sexual freedom and licentiousness, subjects which likely had personal resonance for the artist as a homosexual in a culture which was largely inhospitable.