Demuth's Portrait of a Poet

Article excerpt

This zestful painting by American modernist Charles Demuth has achieved the dubious status of widespread familiarity. It has long been an icon of modern art. But confronted again head-on, "I Saw the Figure Five in Gold" startles you with its potent originality. It almost literally outshines and outmaneuvers any danger of its becoming a cliche. You might think about it absently as a well-worn part of art history. But to encounter it in its complex immediacy is to see what a dynamic invention it actually is.

The painting celebrates a poem. It is also sometimes described as a kind of portrait of the writer of the poem, William Carlos Williams. There are references to Williams in the painting that are like a subtext. Demuth even placed the poet's initials alongside his own. The poem is called "The Great Figure" and begins: "Among the rain/ and lights/ I saw the figure 5/ in gold/ on a red/ firetruck...." It is an Imagist poem, intended to have the objectivity of a painting. It captures a brief experience. (Williams described the moment also in his autobiography.) The poem is short, not narrative. Like a haiku, it is meant to be as instant and momentary as a procession of words can be. …