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Charles Demuth (1883-1935)
Oil, fabricated chalk, and graphite pencil on composition board
Overall: 35 15/16 × 30 in. (91.3 × 76.2 cm)
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Purchase, with funds from Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney
My Egypt depicts a steel and concrete grain elevator belonging to John W. Eshelman & Sons in Charles Demuth’s hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Painted from a low vantage point, the structure assumes a monumentality emphasized by the inclusion of the lower rooftops of neighboring buildings (suggesting the more traditional architecture of smaller family farms) at the bottom of the painting. In Demuth’s image, the majestic grain elevator rises up as the pinnacle of American achievement—a modern day equivalent to the monuments of ancient Egypt. A series of intersecting diagonal planes add geometric dynamism add a heavenly radiance to the composition, invoking the correlations between industry and religion that were widespread in the 1920s. Nonetheless, Demuth may have intended the title to allude to the slave labor that built the pyramids, intimating the dehumanizing effect of industry on the nation’s workers. Moreover, the pyramids and their association with life after death might also have appealed to the ailing artist, who was bedridden with diabetes at the time of the painting’s execution.