Calla Lilies (Bert Savoy)

Charles Demuth

1883 - 1935

Calla Lilies (Bert Savoy)


Oil on composition board
41 x 47 1/2 in. (104.1 x 120.7 cm)
Framed: 46 x 52 x 1 1/2 in. (116.8 x 132.1 x 3.8 cm)

Demuth painted “poster portraits” of friends during the 1920s, including O’Keeffe, Arthur Dove, and Charles Duncan. The paintings depict their subjects through symbolic elements that refer to their lives. Bert Savoy was a famous female impersonator in New York vaudeville who died in 1923 when struck by lightning on a beach in Long Island. The shell and wave refer to the beach, and calla lilies are traditionally associated with funerals.

Demuth often included the name of his subjects on his poster portraits, but omitted Savoy’s, disguising his identity just as the actor hid his biological gender on stage. Calla lilies are also used in weddings, representing the union of male and female, which would also have been appropriate for Savoy. Viewers unfamiliar with Savoy and his death would experience the painting simply as a lyrical still life, but those able to read the codes would discover the actor’s identity and understand the reference to his, and Demuth’s, homosexuality.