"I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold" is one of a series of eight abstract portraits of friends, inspired by Gertrude Stein's word-portraits, that Demuth made between 1924 and 1929. This painting pays homage to a poem by William Carlos Williams. Like Marsden Hartley's "Portrait of a German Officer" and Arthur Dove's "Ralph Dusenberry," this portrait consists not of a physical likeness of the artist's friend but of an accumulation of images associated with him — the poet's initials and the names "Bill" and "Carlos" that together form a portrait.
Williams' poem "The Great Figure" describes the experience of seeing a red fire engine with the number 5 painted on it racing through the city streets. While Demuth's painting is not an illustration of Williams's poem, we can certainly sense its "rain/and lights" and the "gong clangs/siren howls/and wheels rumbling." The bold 5 both rapidly recedes and races forward in space, and the round forms of the number, the lights, the street lamp, and the arcs at the lower left and upper right are played against the straight lines of the fire engine, the buildings, and the rays of light, infusing the picture with a rushing energy that perfectly expresses the spirit of the poem.
I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold, also known as The Figure 5 in Gold, is a 1928 painting by American artist Charles Demuth. It has been described as influenced by Futurism and Cubism. Painted as a homage to Demuth's friend William Carlos Williams, the painting references Williams' poem The Great Figure, which describes a fire engine speeding through the streets of New York on a rainy night. The painting's title is a phrase from the poem.
Demuth was known as a painter in the Precisionist style, incorporating clean lines and geometry into images. Art historian H.W. Janson mentions Demuth's interactions with Cubist painters in New York, and the connections between Futurism and Precisionism styles. This particular work was part of a series of five abstract, poster-style portraits Demuth painted between 1924 and 1929 in homage to his personal artist and writer friends: William Carlos Williams, Georgia O'Keeffe, Arthur Dove, Charles Duncan and John Marin. He and Williams had become friends when they were both living in the same boarding house in Philadelphia while Demuth was studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and Williams was attending the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. As with I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold, each painting incorporated the artist's name. This portrait series is often described as also including writers Marsden Hartley, Gertrude Stein, Eugene O'Neill and Wallace Stevens, but those four were never completed. The Yale University Art Gallery has the preliminary sketch, in watercolor and graphite, for the Marsden Hartley portrait.
William Carlos Williams claims that the inspiration for the 32-word poem The Great Figure (1920) came from seeing a fire engine pass him by, sounding gong clangs and siren howls as it receded in the night. He said he was so struck by the sight that he took paper and pencil out of his pocket and wrote the poem, standing there on the sidewalk. Two lines: "I saw the figure 5/in gold" were taken by Demuth for his painting's title. The upper right corner has an arc, implying a fragment of a large number five, repeated three times in progressively smaller, complete number fives to create an impression of the fire engine moving away from the viewer. The fire engine itself is reduced to an abstracted form composed of red rectangles, but there is a hint of a ladder on the right side and an axle across the bottom. Above the truck are globular streetlamps flanked by sidewalks and buildings in blacks and grays. Demuth conveyed his friendship with Williams by incorporating fragments of his name: "Bill" across the top, and "CARLO" (the "O" cut off and the "S" missing entirely) in yellow dots as in an illuminated theater sign. Across the bottom the painter has placed his own initials "C.D." and also the poet's "W.C.W." in the same size and color.
The painting was first exhibited at Intimate Gallery, New York as "Charles Demuth: Five Paintings," April 29 – May 18, 1929. It is in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, United States of America (MMA). It is described as a combination of oil paint, graphite, ink, and gold leaf on paperboard. Dimensions 35 1/2 x 30 inches (90.2 x 76.2 cm). Demuth died in 1935, at the age of 51 years. He bequeathed the painting to Georgia O'Keeffe. She gifted it to the MMA in 1948 as part of the Alfred Stieglitz Collection. The painting has never been sold.
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