Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor
Demuth's Portrait of a Poet
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. …