Artist: Charles Demuth (American, Lancaster, Pennsylvania 1883–1935 Lancaster, Pennsylvania)
Medium: Oil, graphite, ink, and gold leaf on paperboard (Upson board)
Dimensions: 35 1/2 x 30 in. (90.2 x 76.2 cm)
Credit Line: Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1949
Accession Number: 49.59.1
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 was a versatile artist and tailored his style to suit his subject matter. His delicate watercolors of fruits and flowers are lyrical evocations of nature, while his paintings of the modern urban and industrial landscape, on the other hand, are tightly controlled, hard, and exact. Aptly called Precisionist, these works show the influence of European Cubism and Futurism, but 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 that Demuth made between 1924 and 1929, which were exhibited at Alfred Stieglitz's gallery "291." This particular painting pays homage to a poem by William Carlos Williams. Like Marsden Hartley's painting Portrait of a German Officer (49.70.42) and Arthur Dove's assemblage Portrait of Ralph Dusenberry (49.70.36), and Gertrude Stein's word-portraits, 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's 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 exact illustration of Williams's poem, we can certainly sense its "rain/and lights" and the "gong clangs/siren howls/and wheels rumbling."