Between 1923 and 1929 Charles Demuth painted eight "poster portraits," which were a radical departure from his previous representational watercolors and are largely considered some of the most modern paintings of the decade. These symbolic portraits, three of which depict literary figures (William Carlos Williams, Eugene O'Neill and Wallace Stevens) and five of which depict artists (John Marin, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, Charles Duncan and Georgia O'Keeffe), incorporate various ciphers that allude to the subjects' psychological characters. I Saw the Figure Five in Gold (1928, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, fig. 1), for which the present work is the only known sketch, proved to be the most resonant of the works influencing a generation of post-war artists including Jasper Johns and Robert Indiana.
Demuth's "poster portraits" recall works by Marsden Hartley such as One Portrait of One Woman (1916, Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis), Francis Picabia's Ici, C'est Ici Steiglitz (1915, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) and Marius de Zayas', Alfred Steiglitz (circa 1912-13, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) in which the artists captured the quintessence of their subjects' intellectual dispositions through the depiction of inanimate objects associated with them. Demuth's works continue in this tradition, and indeed, other artists such as Arthur Dove, Florence Stettheimer and Man Ray were concurrently experimenting with this concept to varying degrees, yet Demuth's work is distinguished from his contemporaries in its commentary on the contemporary American cultural situation. The artist specifically chose subjects whom he associated with the current cultural and artistic development in America and employed bright colors and graphic designs to emulate advertisements and billboards, conduits that he perceived as uniquely American.
A reverential tribute to the poet William Carlos Williams, I Saw the Figure Five in Gold attempts to visually capture his poem The Great Figure and "intended to pay homage to [Demuth's and Williams'] mutual efforts to express the contemporary moment and achieve recognition in America, where technology was given primacy over the spiritual and artistic." The inspiration for the Williams' poem was a fire truck, which sped past the poet as he was on his way to Marsden Hartley's apartment. Williams described the experience: "I heard a great clatter of bells and the roar of a fire engine passing the end of the street down Ninth Avenue. I turned just in time to see a golden 5 on a red background flash by. The impression was so sudden and forceful that I took a piece of paper out of my pocket and wrote a short poem about it." (R.F. Frank, Charles Demuth: Poster Portraits, 1923-1929, exhibition catalogue, New Haven, Connecticut, 1994, p. 73)
In I Saw the Figure Five in Gold Demuth attempts to capture and express the forward motion and commotion associated with the fire truck and thus continues the exploration of synthesizing various viewpoints and perspectives in a single composition begun with works such as Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 1) (1911, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania). In contrast to earlier, Cubist inspired works, I Saw the Figure Five in Gold is executed in a distinctly Precisionist manner, with bold colors and clearly delineated, self-contained forms. Demuth, unlike his predecessors, endeavors to capture sound as well as movement within the confines of the canvas. The present work demonstrates the artist's creative approach to this conundrum and reveals his process and utilization of overlapped shapes and repeated forms to convey the cacophony and forward motion of the fire truck.