Lighting Up the Realms of Gold: Charles Demuth and William Carlos Williams

What’s  There

500px-Demuth_Charles_I_Saw_the_Figure_5_in_Gold_1928It’s the time you spend on your rose.

–  The Little Prince

Generally, by the time you are real
most of your hair has been loved off.
– The Velveteen Rabbit




Surface-Features Opportunity

Here’s a chance to sharpen up your vision of the facts.

  • Take a good look at this painting. Give yourself at least twenty minutes.  Just pay attention to any detail actually there on the surface, shapes, sizes, colors, words – any detail no matter how small.
  • Try not to give meaning to the painting while you’re taking this surface-features excursion.  Also,  do as little evaluation, judging, critiquing, as yo can.
  • Keep doing this till you run out of details.  You won’t!  But you will get the hang of it in twenty minutes.
  • Now, step back and look at the whole painting again.  Did you brighten it up?  Did you love off some of its hair?

My Commentary follows.

However –

You will spoil your fun if you read my commentary without doing the surface-features game first. 


When my students and I used to do this together, we’d go around and ask each person to point out something in the painting that hadn’t already been noted.  We kept on for several rounds.

What happened was that each time a detail was pointed out it was as if that bit of the painting had a spot light on it.


The painting got more and more vivid as we went along.


By the time we stepped back and looked at the painting whole, it was a new painting, brilliantly visible.

The same painting, but seen intensely.

And no one even felt like criticizing it. We had entered the realms of gold.

William Carlos Williams and the Figure 5

After reading a poem by his friend William Carlos Williams, Charles Demuth did this painting, I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold, in 1928 — it hangs in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Here’s the poem:


The Great Figure

Among the rain

and lights

I saw the figure 5

in gold

on a red





to gong clangs

siren howls

and wheels rumbling

through the dark city.

Art Lesson

Notice how the words can illuminate the painting


how the painting can illuminate the words.

2 thoughts on “Lighting Up the Realms of Gold: Charles Demuth and William Carlos Williams

  1. I don’t remember reading the poem that inspired the painting. The poem really does add another entire dimension to the painting. In our class, way back when, I remember us all taking a little piece of the painting and reproducing it on larger pieces and which we then laid/taped all pieces together like one giant puzzle. It was so interesting to see how variously each piece had been drawn, yet how amazingly they all fit together . . . I guess we didn’t need the poem that of inspiration–we’d been writing our own poem . . .


    • Thanks for your observations, Carol. Too bad we can’t do that Figure 5 group-individual project online. It had a life of it’s own and was a wonderful metaphor — or graphic demonstration, really — of how each of us works on his or her own piece of the cosmic picture that’s being generated every instant. The more care I give to my piece of the picture the clearer the whole view becomes. So we’re all vital. And so forth. Clark


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