January 9, 2011

Charles Demuth 1883-1935

Charles Demuth (November 8, 1883 - October 23, 1935) was an American water-colourist who turned to oils late in his career, developing a style of painting known as Precisionism. Demuth suffered either an injury when he was four years old or may have had polio or tuberculosis of the hip that left him with a marked limp and required him to use a cane. He later developed diabetes and was one of the first people in the United States to receive insulin. He spent most of his life in frail health, and he died in Lancaster at the age 51 of complications from diabetes.

This painting pays homage to a poem by William Carlos Williams. Williams' poem The Great Figure describes the experience of seeing a red fire engine with the number five painted on it racing through the city streets. While Demuth’s painting is not an illustration of Williams’ poem, we can certainly sense its "rain and lights" and the "gong clangs, siren howls, and wheels rumbling." The bold 5 both rapidly recedes and races forward in space, and the round forms of the number, the lights, the street lamp, and the arcs at the lower left and upper right are played against the straight lines of the fire engine, the buildings, and the rays of light, infusing the picture with a rushing energy that perfectly expresses the spirit of the poem.

The Great Figure

AMONG the rain
and lights
I saw the figure 5
in gold
on a red
moving tense
to gong clangs
siren howls
and wheels rumbling
through the dark city.

William Carlos Williams

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