Painting to Enjoy

Charles Demuth, I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold, 1928, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.




A great exhibition has just closed at the Ashmolean in Oxford, the subject being America’s Cool Modernism. I have not written a post on it but intend to highlight some of the paintings that were on show. This one by Charles Demuth (1883-1935) was one of the stars of the show. It shows the European influences of cubism and futurism but with a particular American angle.

The painting is dedicated to Demuth’s friend William Carlos Williams and inspired by the latter’s poem The Great Figure. In this poem Williams describes seeing a Fire Engine racing through New York, see the receding number fives. The Fire engine has been reduced to a group of abstract red shapes and only hints of ladders and spherical street lights place the machine in context. The sidewalks are in greys, blacks and whites. The dedication to his friend is in the text in the painting – BILL, CARLO(S) and in the monograms at the base.

Xa Sturgis, The Director of the Ashmolean described “the precise, ordered, impersonal, canvas in which all trace of the artist’s hand is expunged and an abstracted, empty version of the modern world is presented”

The painting was never sold, Demuth bequeathing it to Georgia O’Keefe and she donated it to the Metropolitan in 1948.