My Brief Modern Art Period ~ I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold

In 1928 the famous American painter Charles Demuth painted I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold.  In 1978 the unknown student artist William R. Beebe (me) was at the University of Maryland taking a painting class in which the teacher made everyone paint a modern art painting.  I chose to copy Charles Demuth’s number 5 painting, representing a fire engine racing down a busy city street on a rainy night. 

Fast-forward to the year 2012.  I just dusted off my Number 5 painting after pulling it down off the shelf in the garage.  For some reason I have held onto this painting over the years.  It has been in either the basement, the garage or the attic of every house we’ve lived in for the last 33 years of marriage!  “Why have I kept it” I ask myself.

When I look at it to me it represents what my parents must have felt roughly 56 years ago on the night that I was born.  I was born at home during an ice storm in the middle of the night and the only way the Dr. could make it to my parent’s house was aboard the Glen Echo fire truck, perhaps engine number 5!  This might explain why I chose to paint it but my explanation for why I chose to hold onto this early student oil painting is less sentimental and more representational.

I remember the challenge of the composition.  I remember the difficulty of painting many straight edges in oil paint.  I remember the difficulty of painting perfect curves.  I remember painting the various shades of blacks and grays and I remember my early attempts at glazing in order to create transparency. 

Most of all, I remember this painting as a kind of breakthrough for me.  Working through the above challenges made me feel like I had a better handle on working in oil paint.  It gave me some confidence.  I remember several fellow students asking me "how did you do this" and “how did you do that”?  It made me feel like I was improving as a painter. 

The cubist painting I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold painted by Charles Demuth was a tribute to a friend of his the poet William Carlos Williams. Demuth was known as a Precisionist, one who uses mechanistic objects for subject matter.  His painting now resides in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and mine resides in our garage up on a shelf. 

Every ten years or so I pull it out, look at it and appreciate how it helped me gain confidence in my painting skills and then I put it back in the garage.  The abstract painting of the city of Baltimore at night that I attempted in the same class wasn’t quite so lucky.  It never saw the light of day!  LOL!!!