The special exhibit entitled Stieglitz and His Artists which recently closed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art had on view an American masterwork which was the fruit of collaboration between a physician-poet and a painter. The name of the painting is “I saw the Figure 5 in Gold” by Charles Demuth, and his collaborator was William Carlos Williams.
Charles Demuth was born in Lancaster, PA in 1883. While attending art school in Philadelphia he met a medical student named William Carlos Williams, and they became lifelong friends. Demuth was diabetic, and in a 1924 photograph by Stieglitz he appears emaciated. This was most likely the result of diabetes treatment in the days before insulin — a rigid diet with severe restriction of food intake. Demuth was one of Steiglitz’s circle of artists who included Charles Sheeler, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, and Georgia O’Keefe.
William Carlos Williams finished medical school, trained in New York City, and settled in Rutherford, New Jersey where he lived until his death in 1963. Between patients he composed poetry, and became one of America’s foremost and beloved poets. One of his poems, entitled “The Great Figure,” describes a vision of a fire truck rushing by with the number “5” painted on its side.
In 1928 Charles Demuth painted a tribute to his friend by committing to oils his visual interpretation of the poem, bursting with red and gold. Correspondence between the physician-poet and the artist shows that Williams’ suggestions contributed to the development of the painting. Demuth clearly gives his friend credit within the work.
The painting is in the Precisionist style that Demuth developed along with Charles Sheeler and Georgia O’Keefe, which was inspired by Cubism in Europe. The style combines realism with geometric abstraction, and was an important early step in American Modernism. The painting incorporates the name “BILL” at the top, as well as the name “CARLO” hidden partially behind an abstract New York City skyscraper. At the bottom of the painting are the initials CD for the painter and WCW for the poet. One can interpret these initials as signatures of Charles Demuth and William Carlos Williams, co-creators of the painting.
In 1935, three years after completion of the painting, Demuth died. His biographer, Herbert Leibowitz, notes that this was a profound loss for Williams, who wrote a long poem in tribute to his deceased friend entitled “The Crimson Cyclamen.” Whether there was anything more than friendship between these two artists, history has left few clues.
A chapter in Williams’ autobiography offers no hint of anything more than a poetic, platonic relationship with the painter. Charles Demuth was openly gay, and expressed his sexuality in erotic watercolors of bathhouses in New York City. William Carlos Williams was married with children — a fact that did not deter several extramarital affairs that he confessed to his wife at age 70 while confined to a mental hospital.
Whatever their relationship outside of poetry and painting, they decided it was nobody’s business and it should remain so. Each artist left a substantial opus of 20th century American art. Charles Demuth the painter and William Carlos Williams the physician-poet remain forever joined in oil paint. “I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold” is part of the permanent collection at the Met, and will likely be on view again. I recommend viewing it for anyone interested in the blending of poetry, medicine, and art, and the human drama that accompanies each.
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References for this post included:
The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams. New Directions 1967 (out of print).