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I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold

Charles Demuth (American, Lancaster, Pennsylvania 1883–1935 Lancaster, Pennsylvania)

Object plac
Oil, graphite, ink, and gold leaf on paperboard (Upson board)
35 1/2 x 30 in. (90.2 x 76.2 cm)
Credit Line:
Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1949
Accession Number:
  • Description

    Born and raised in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Charles Demuth studied art at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia intermittently between 1905 and 1908. It was in Philadelphia that the artist first met the American poet and physician William Carlos Williams, the subject of this painting. Demuth continued his art training during trips to Europe between 1907 and 1921. In 1925 he was included in a group exhibition organized by Alfred Stieglitz, who later gave him a few one-man shows at his galleries. When Demuth died at age fifty-one, after suffering from diabetes for much of his life, an important and prolific career was cut short after only twenty years.

    Demuth, a versatile artist, tailored his style to his subject matter. His delicate, loosely handled watercolors of fruits and flowers pulsate with subtle, exquisitely balanced color. His paintings of the modern urban and industrial landscape, on the other hand, are tightly controlled, hard, and exact — in a style aptly called Precisionism. Although these works show the influence of Cubism and Futurism, their sense of scale and directness of expression seem entirely American.

    "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.

  • Signatures, Inscriptions, and Markings

    Signature: [lower left]: C.D.; [bottom center]: W.C.W. [William Carlos Williams]

  • Exhibition History

    New York: The Whitney Museum of American Art, April 22, 1999 - August 22, 1999. ¦The American Century: Art and Culture, 1900 - 2000¦. Pg. 169, 171, fig. 318, illus. in color.

    Spain: Reina Sofia, October 14, 1994 - January 16, 1995. Barcelona, Spain: Palau Robert, February - April 1995. ¦Salvador Dali: The Early Years¦. Exh. Cat. pl. 116, p. 184 (illus. in color).

    New Haven: Yale University Art Gallery, September 17, 1994 - January 8, 1995. ¦Charles Demuth Poster Portraits: 1923-1929¦. Exh. Cat. no. 68, p. 72 (illus. in color)

    Berlin: Martin-Gropius-Bau, May 8-July 25, 1993; London: Royal Academy of Arts, Sept. 16-Dec. 12, 1993. ¦Amerikanische Kunst im 20. Jahrhundert¦, cat. #45.

    New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, December 12, 1978 - February 4, 1979. ¦William Carlos Williams and the American Scene, 1920-1940¦. Checklist p. 163, color plate IV, p. 36.

    Moscow: Pushkin Museum, December 15 - February 15, 1978. Leningrad: Hermitage Museum, March 15 - May 15, 1978. Minsk: Palace of Art, June 15 - August 15, 1978. ¦Representations of America¦. (Catalogue was promised but never printed by the Russian government".

    Santa Barbara, California: University of California at Santa Barbara, Art Galleries. ¦Charles Demuth-The Mechanical Encrusted in the Living¦. Octboer 5 - November 14,1971.

    New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1970. ¦Masterpieces of Fifty Centuries¦. No. 393, p. 325 (listed and illus.).

    New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1965. ¦Three Centuries of American Painting¦. [Checklist arranged alphabetically].

    New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1950. ¦20th Century Painters: A Special Exhibition of Oils, Watercolors and Drawings Selected from the Collections of American Art in The Metropolitan Museum¦. P. 5 (checklist entry).

    New York: Museum of Modern Art, March 7 - June 11, 1950. ¦Charles Demuth¦. Cat. no. 144.

    Chicago, Illinois: Art Institute of Chicago, February 2 - 29, 1948. ¦Alfred Stieglitz: His Photographs and His Collection¦. No. 25.

    New York: Museum of Modern Art, June 10 - August 31, 1947. ¦Alfred Stieglitz Exhibition: His Collection¦. No. 10.

    Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Philadelphia Museum of Art, September - October 22, 1944. ¦History of an American, Alfred Stieglitz: "291" and After¦. P. 36, no. 297.

    New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, March 11 - April 13, 1941. ¦This is Our City¦. No. 18.

    New York: Whitney Musuem of American Art, December 15 - January 16, 1938. ¦Charles Demuth Memorial Exhibition¦. No. 92.

    New York: Brooklyn Museum, February 1 - 28, 1935. ¦8th Biennial Exhibition of Watercolor, Pastels and Drawings by American Foreign Artists¦. Cat. no. 30.

    New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, February 12 - March 22, 1935. ¦Abstract Painting in America¦. No. 30. [listed as: I Saw the Figure Five in Gold, n.d., oil, collection of the artist; not illustrated]

    New York: Museum of Modern Art, December 13, 1929 - January 12, 1930. ¦Paintings by 19 Living Americans¦. Cat. no. 3.

    New York: The Intimate Gallery, April 29 - May 18, 1929. ¦Charles Demuth: Five Paintings¦.

  • References

    Ritchie, Andrew C. CHARLES DEMUTH. Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1950. P. 15, p. 70 ill.

    Metropolitan Museum of Art. 100 American Painters of the 20th Century: Works Selected from the Collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York: 1950, p. xiv (listed), pl. p. 75 (ill.).

    Metropolitan Museum of Art. American Painting in the Twentieth Century. 1964. p. 136 (ill. discussed), p. 212 (short biography of the artist), p. 228 (bibliography on the artist).

    Nora B. Beeson. Guide to The Metropolitan Museum of Art. MMA. NY, 1972, p. 281, illustrated p. 282 (?) no. 10.

    Norton, Thomas E. The N'th Whoopee of Sight. Portfolio Magazine I. August/September 1979. Pg. 20, illus., pg. 26 discussed.

    Eiseman, Alvord L. Charles Demuth. New York: 1982. Discussed pg. 20, illus. pg. 77, plate 36.

    George H. Roeder, Jr. ""What Have Modernists Looked Art? Experiential Roots of Twentieth-Century American Painting," in American Quarterly, vol. 39, no. 1, Special Issue: Modernist Culture in America, Johns Hopkins University Press, Spring 1987, illustrated with caption p. 70

    Watson, Steven. Strange Bedfellows: The First American Avant-Garde. NY, London, Paris, 1991, illustrated p. 113

    Dennis, James M. Renegade Regionalists: The Modern Independence of Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, and John Steuart Curry. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1998, mentioned in text pp. 202-203; illustrated (b&w) fig. 120 p. 205

    Christie's, Postwar and Contemporary Art, Evening Sale, May 11, 2010; illus. pg. 90, discussed pg. 91 in the entry for lot 47, Jasper Johns "Figure 0", 1959.

    Wilmerding, John. “Review: Masterpiece: ‘I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold’ (1928) by Charles Demuth, Poetry in Motion, Expressed in Paint,” The Wall Street Journal, Saturday/Sunday, December 29-30, 2012, p. C13, illustrated (color).