Artworks
My Egypt
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Egypt conjures images of deserts, pyramids, and hieroglyphics, not a scene from a Pennsylvania farm...but Charles Demuth had other plans.

Egypt can mean many things, though. Basquiat communed with the ancient Egyptians in his Kings of Egypt series, highlighting the pharaohs in the strange and enigmatic way that only Basquiat could. Other artists have reflected on Egypt as a biblical place, as in The Flight out of Egypt. But sometimes, you can find the grandeur of the Egyptian pyramids right in your own backyard. This is exactly what Demuth thought of when he saw the huge steel and concrete grain elevator of a neighboring farm looming over the other buildings in his hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

The grain elevator in question belonged to the John W. Eshelman & Sons company, and Demuth made this painting during the exciting inaugural boom of American industry. Many artists, like Thomas Hart Benton and Charles Sheeler, were fascinated by this unprecedented rise in machines and factories. Eshelman & Sons used their towering grain elevator to make and distribute animal feed across the nation. Although you may not realize it today, the Lancaster of the early twentieth century was a booming business and manufacturing center. But like all good former industrial towns, hipsters are taking over, and nothing is safe from getting repurposed. For instance, the building that once housed the largest umbrella factory in the world is now an apartment building.

With its braggy title, Demuth elevates the architecture of American industry to the level of the Egyptian pyramids. It is both optimistic, looking toward the bright future of all that machines can do, but also anxious, because fear of technology is nothing new, and we’ve all seen movies like "I, Robot." This tenuous relationship with industrial technology characterized this era of American history; but whether it was good or bad, industry was changing the way that Americans thought of themselves and their nation.

Demuth’s association with pyramids might refer how awesome he thought those huge grain silos were. It also might refer to the Egyptians’ perception of the afterlife, which would have been comforting to the ailing artist. Demuth suffered from the painful effects of diabetes over the course of his life, and he painted this work while confined to his bed. Although he was bedridden like Frida Kahlo, he was certainly less dismal than she was. The rays of sunshine that take over many of his paintings always shed a little light.

Sources

Sources

  1. Lancaster Online. “Jack Eshelman and an era’s end.” https://lancasteronline.com/opinion/editorials/jack-eshelman-and-an-era-.... Accessed 17 October 2019.
  2. Murphy, Jessica. “Precisionism.” In The Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. Department of Modern and Contemporary Art. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/prec/hd_prec.htm. Accessed 17 October 2019.
  3. The Demuth Museum. “About the Artist – Charles Demuth.” http://www.demuth.org/about-demuth.html. Accessed 22 October 2019.
  4. Whitney Museum of American Art. “My Egypt.” Collection. https://whitney.org/collection/works/635. Accessed 17 October 2019.
  5. Whitney Museum of American Art. “My Egypt.” Watch & Listen. https://whitney.org/WatchAndListen/1106. Accessed 17 October 2019.