American watercolorist who turned to oils late in his career, developing a style of painting known as Precisionism. One of America's first modernist painters, he was also one of the earliest artists in the USA to expose his gay identity through forthright, positive depictions of homosexual desire.
"Search the history of American art," wrote Ken Johnson in The New York Times, "and you will discover few watercolors more beautiful than those of Charles Demuth. Combining exacting botanical observation and loosely Cubist abstraction, his watercolors of flowers, fruit and vegetables have a magical liveliness and an almost shocking sensuousness. His most famous painting, The Figure Five in Gold, was inspired by his friend William Carlos Williams's poem "The Great Figure". Roberta Smith described the work in The New York Times: "Demuth's famous visionary accounting of Williams, I Saw the Figure Five in Gold, [is] a painting whose title and medallion-like arrangement of angled forms were both inspired by a verse the poet wrote after watching a fire engine streak past him on a rainy Manhattan street while waiting for Marsden Hartley, whose studio he was visiting, to answer his door."Describing its importance, Judith H. Dobrzynski in The Wall Street Journal wrote: "It's the best work in a genre Demuth created, the "poster portrait". It's a witty homage to his close friend, the poet William Carlos Williams, and a transliteration into paint of his poem, "The Great Figure". It's a decidedly American work made at a time when U.S. artists were just moving beyond European influences. It's a reference to the intertwined relationships among the arts in the 1920s, a moment of cross-pollination that led to American Modernism. And it anticipates pop art."
The work is one of nine poster portraits Demuth created to honor his creative friends. The others were devoted to artists Georgia O'Keeffe, Arthur Dove, Charles Duncan, Marsden Hartley, John Marin, and writers Gertrude Stein, Eugene O'Neill, and Wallace Stevens.
Demuth, the son of a successful merchant, had the financial freedom to pursue his artistic vision without debilitating regard for public opinion--concerning either aesthetics or sexuality--while his talent ensured that even the most provocative works were of unassailable quality.