There is a story regarding the poet William Carlos Williams and the painter Marsden Hartley that recounts an early shared experience. Dr. Williams was working at the time at the Post Graduate Clinic in New York and after his shift had made arrangements to visit Hartley’s studio. Hartley however, was either late or had totally forgotten the appointment and Williams sat for a few minutes on the stoop in front of the building. It was getting dark, streetlights were coming on and firetrucks were racing past. Williams got out a piece of paper and wrote down, or sketched out, the entire scene. It became his poem “The Great Figure” and was published as part of his collection Sour Grapes in 1921.
A few years later Charles Demuth began a series of eight abstract “poster portraits” as tributes to other modern American artists, amongst them were Georgia O’Keeffe, John Marin and Arthur Dove. Although these were not literal likenesses, Demuth created these portraits using imagery that related to each sitter. In William Carlos Williams’ case urban sights and sounds, cubist directional lines and a number on the side of a passing firetruck are all incorporated into this one particular painting.
“The Great Figure”
“Among the rain
I saw the figure 5
on a red
to gong clangs
and wheels rumbling
through the dark city”[i]
Williams’ poem became a classic example of the new writing in America known as Imagism. Charles Demuth’s painting was purchased by Alfred Stieglitz and later donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. And later still, during the Pop Art period, Robert Indiana appropriated this image for a series of his own paintings and silkscreen prints titled the “American Dream.” Examples of these works are now in the collection of the Indianapolis Museum of Art.
[i] Williams, William Carlos; The Collected Poems: Volume I; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1986; p. 174.