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I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold
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Arty Fact

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I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold is a shining declaration of friendship. And no, this wasn’t painted by Sesame Street’s Count von Count.

The artist was Charles Demuth, an American painter who went shoulder-to-shoulder with giants like Georgia O’Keeffe and Marsden Hartley. He is best known as a precisionist, a somewhat brief American art movement that was a response to nearly every avante garde art style that erupted out of early twentieth century Europe like a volcano of paint and non-Euclidean forms. Just look at cubism, fauvism, or futurism and you’ll see how the precisionism of The Figure 5 in Gold is a rather neat response to all of them. That’s the American way: clean it up and gild it with an attractive sheen.

This painting is part of Demuth's poster portraits series. Each portrait was for a close friend, which is beyond charming (although imagine the devastation that one friend must’ve felt who didn’t get a portrait dedicated to them). Figure 5 was for his friend William Carlos Williams, the famous American poet, and is the most famous of the set. The title isn’t an obscure inside joke long forgotten to their bromance, but a line from Williams’ poem The Great Figure.

The poem, which is incredibly short and worth a read, was inspired by an experience Williams had where a fire truck sped past him with glitz and glamor, the number five, and the din of alarm bells on a rainy day. It sparked something in him, and he wrote the poem right then and there on the sidewalk. The whole painting, is in fact, a rather literal visualization of the poem. We see the row of lights, the darkness of night; we get a sense of clamor and speed, of a cold rainy night. Of course, there’s no firetruck, but the poem itself doesn’t make clear what the golden five is on or even is.

What’s interesting is that Demuth himself always wanted to be a writer and Williams an artist. The painting, then, can be read as such a heartfelt gift: Demuth literally transformed Williams poem into a painting, something the poet could never do. Williams, after Demuth’s death, would return the favor with his poem “The Crimson Cyclamen”. How sweet!

Sources

Sources

  1. Smith, William. "Williams & Demuth: Poet & Painter." Mansfield University. Accessed April 2019. http://web-archives.mansfield.edu/~art/papyrus2WilliamSmithwilliams.htm.
  2. Breslin, James E. "William Carlos Williams and Charles Demuth: Cross-Fertilization in the Arts." Journal of Modern Literature 6, no. 2 (1977): 248-63. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3831169.
  3. Hughes, Robert. "Charles Demuth amid the Silos." Time. June 24, 2001. Accessed April 2019. http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,145557,00.html.
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This poem The Great Figure was written by the famous American poet William Carlos Williams and Charles Demuth's close friend.

Among the rain

and lights

I saw the figure 5

in gold

on a red

firetruck

moving

tense

unheeded

to gong clangs

siren howls

and wheels rumbling

through the dark city.

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Here is what Wikipedia says about I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold

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.

Check out the full Wikipedia article about I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold.

Comments (1)

pogo agogo

I LOVE this one! I think Futurism and Precisionism is seriously my favorite art movement. It hits that part of my brain that yearns for order 😆