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Williams & Demuth: Poet & Painter
By William Smith
At an early moment in the long friendship between poet/physician William Carlos Williams and American painter Charles Demuth, both young men had found themselves at an impasse. Williams, then a med school student at Penn, and Demuth, an art student at Drexel, had just recently met while tenants at the same Philadelphia boarding house. Training for a career in medicine, Williams had been “trying to decide whether or not to become a painter” (Farnham 48). Ironically, the future painter, Demuth had been rethinking his choice of art while “entertaining thoughts of becoming a writer” (Farnham 48). One could only imagine what interesting and thought provoking conversation had sparked between the two that had cemented their choices and set them off on their respective paths to greatness. Perhaps, it was Williams’ early interest in painting (Perkins 303), or Demuth’s affection for writers such as Gertrude Stein or Eugene O’Neill (Farnham 7), that made the two men meet on common ground. Regardless, Williams and Demuth, poet and painter, blurred the lines between the visual and the written -- what is seen and what the mind is tricked into believing it is seeing.
The early part of the 20th century was an exciting time in American art and literature. Such literary giants as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Stein were crisscrossing the Atlantic and mingling in circles with the likes of painters Pablo Picasso, Marsden Hartley, and Charles Sheeler. Williams and Demuth had traveled in the same circle. Visiting Paris had become almost a rite of passage for anyone with the means, and more than a passing interest in culture, and many an American intellectual found himself or herself rubbing shoulders with the likes of Anais Nin or Henry Miller. Both Williams and Demuth had separately logged their time there. But Williams was a doctor, husband, and father first, while Demuth had life-long health issues as well as commitments in New York as a member of Alfred Stieglitz’s “Group of Five.”
As Demuth embarked on his life as a painter, and Williams gravitated toward writing – specifically poetry, both men remained friends and realized that though they had chosen separate mediums to express themselves, in truth there was really no difference between their respective arts. In a letter to Williams, Demuth expressed just that:
“It’s worth all the worry & tears, after all. To feel the joy of creating for a single moment seems to repay one for a year’s work. Of course, I know, so do you, that at times it’s hell” (Farnham 48).
Throughout Williams’ life, he seemed to enjoy the company of painters just as well as the company of fellow writers. In addition to his connection to Demuth, the poet was also friends with other notable artists including Marsden Hartley. In fact, it was Williams’ association with Hartley that indirectly led to Demuth’s perhaps most well-known work: I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold (Homage to William Carlos Williams) (1928. Oil on composition board, 36 X 29 ¾ in. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: The Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1949).
Charles Demuth. I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold (Homage to William Carlos Williams) 1928.
In his autobiography, Williams recalls a summer day outside Hartley’s Manhattan apartment that had led to the creation of a poem:
“As I approached his number 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 figure 5 on a red background flash by” (Williams 172).
Williams recalled the image had left such an impression on him, he “took a piece of paper out of my pocket and wrote a short poem about it” (Williams 172). The result was Williams’ poem, “The Great Figure”.
Among the rain
I saw the figure 5
on a red
to gong clangs
and the wheels rumbling
through the dark city.
As an imagist, Williams painted images with words. In this poem as well as others (particularly "The Red Wheelbarrow”), Williams relied heavily on description and colors to inject a sense of place in his writing. As a result, his poetry is some of the most evocative yet sparse writing in contemporary American literature.
Amazingly, Demuth captured the same scene, relying on Williams’ poetic description. The results are startling. Demuth recreated the red and gold colors as his friend had recalled them, as well as the sense of movement through a dark, city street. His decision to use three consecutive gold number fives, each one nested within the other, instills the work with the feeling the fire truck is speeding toward the observer. Demuth does the same with headlights, playing loosely with perspective. Likewise, the alternating bands of gray, white, and black running diagonal across the painting, indeed lends the composition a sense that it is nighttime and raining.
Finally, so there is no confusion where the artist has channeled his inspiration, Demuth includes the names “BILL,” “CARLO,” and the initials “W.C.W.” as a thinly veiled reference to his poet friend.
Though it is perhaps Demuth’s most famous painting, sadly it was created “near the end of Demuth’s life” (Hughes 379), and therefore, Demuth probably did not live long enough to see the fruits of his labor. Still, no doubt, he must have taken immense satisfaction in his creation: a poem told with a brush.
Williams returned the favor by dedicating his book Spring and All to Demuth (Costello I). Earlier, Williams had written the poem “Pot of Flowers” for Demuth’s watercolor of flowers, Tuberoses (Costello II). Again, the two had succeeded marrying the worlds of painting and poetry. Sadly, the last time Williams and Demuth would “collaborate” it was because of the painter’s death.
On October 23rd, 1935, Demuth died. His death was sudden and unexpected. His demise is somewhat of a minor mystery, though he was a diabetes sufferer. His old friend Williams theorized it was the artist’s often stubborn refusal to inject himself with insulin that caused his death (Farnham 174). At fifty-one, Charles Demuth was gone and whatever painted poems he’d yet to paint, were gone with him.
The poet Williams took the occasion of his friend’s death to create one more imagist poem for Demuth, “The Crimson Cyclamen.” It was a fitting elegy for the passing of his friend, described as an attempt to capture “the feeling of a Demuth still life through words” (Costello II).
“Color has been construed/ from emptiness/ to waken there—“ Williams writes.
Certainly, there are other poets – other artists, who have crossed mediums to achieve to some degree, the success that both Williams and Demuth had achieved. But what sets them apart from the rest is the friendship – the compassion, these two kindred spirits felt for each other and it is that emotion that resonates in their respective works.
Costello, Bonnie. “William Carlos Williams in a World of Painters.” The Boston Review. Vol. 4. 1978/1979. Online. Internet. 25 March 2006. Available: http://www.bostonreview.net/BR04.6/costello.html
Farnham, Emily. Charles Demuth: Behind a Laughing Mask. Norman, OK: Oklahoma UP, 1971.
Hughes, Robert. American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America. 2nd ed. New York: Knopf, 2004
Perkins, George and Barbara Perkins. Introduction/head note. Contemporary American Literature. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1988. Page 303-304.
Williams, William Carlos. The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams. New York: Random House, 1951.