I saw the figure 5
on a red
to gong clangs
and wheels rumbling
through the dark city
--The Great Figure by William Carlos Williams
Inspired by his the poem “The Great Figure” by his friend William Carlos Williams, Charles Demuth set out to paint a “portrait” of the poet from the image of the poem. Demuth’s poetical portrait, titled I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold (above, from 1928), captures the speed and power of not only the roaring fire engine but that of the poet himself. Born November 9, 1883, Demuth became the quintessential precisionist painter of that small American school, taking the idea of photographic realism and marrying it to a poetic ideal, proving that the two art forms could peaceably coexist. Demuth’s association with Alfred Stieglitz and his circle allowed him to further his art and retain the position he has today.
Struggling with his homosexuality in America, Demuth traveled to Paris, seeking a more accepting culture. Hearing a group of American artists talking at a nearby café table, Demuth introduced himself and met Marsden Hartley. Hartley, in turn, introduced Demuth to his friend and supporter Stieglitz, which led to Demuth meeting Georgia O’Keeffe. Works such as After Sir Christopher Wren (above, from 1920) appeared in the shows that Stieglitz held for Demuth in his galleries, helping launch his career as an artist. O’Keeffe took care of the Demuth’s reputation at the end of his life. After Demuth entrusted his works to O’Keeffe’s care in his will, O’Keeffe carefully arranged with museums for them to become parts of the permanent collections, ensuring that he’d have a place in the annals of the American avant garde of the early twentieth century.
Throughout his public career, Demuth painted intriguing, almost architectural works such as My Egypt (above, from 1927). Privately, Demuth painted more sexually explicit homoerotic works, including a self-portrait set in a bathhouse. Those works related to his sexuality are at the center of a critical reevaluation of Demuth’s work today. Hopefully, this reevaluation will still allow the painter of complex, fractural scenes to emerge as a more rounded individual and not reduce him to simply a function of his sexual orientation.