Charles Demuth’s Poster Portraits

One of the most unique paintings featured on the Modern Art in America stamp sheet is I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold, by Charles Demuth. The work is actually a “poster portrait” of Demuth’s friend William Carlos Williams, who is honored on the 2012 Twentieth-Century Poets stamp sheet.

Williams had written a poem, “The Great Figure,” about a fire truck speeding noisily through the streets in the rain with siren blaring, wheels rumbling, and gong clanging. Some lines from that poem (“I saw the figure 5 / in gold / on a red / firetruck”) gave Demuth the title for his painting. Produced in 1928, in oil, graphite, ink, and gold leaf on paperboard, the painting transmits the speed and—some feel—even the noise of the poem by Williams.

Demuth Williams pairWhether or not it makes viewers hear the siren, the painting is a witty homage to Demuth’s friend. The words “Bill” and “Carlos” appear—the latter on a theater marquee in the background—and the poet’s initials are painted at the bottom. In a sly, self-referential joke, the fire engine in Demuth’s painting is speeding past a store window bearing the legend “ART Co.” The work prefigures Pop art and speaks to the way the arts (in this case, painting and poetry) can influence each other.

Between 1923 and 1929, Demuth painted a series of “poster portraits” for which he used symbols, objects, and typography to portray his friends, rather than their physical likeness. In addition to Williams, by then a publishing poet as well as a doctor, Demuth made portraits of Georgia O’Keeffe, John Marin, Arthur Dove, and others.

The were issued March 7, 2013, and are currently available online and in Post Offices around the country. The Twentieth-Century Poets Forever® stamps were issued April 21, 2012, and can be purchased online.

The Emancipation Proclamation, Modern Art, and A New Pixar Movie? Our Favorite Links of the Week

What a fantastic first week of 2013 this has been! Hundreds of you braved the cold early on New Year’s Day to stand in line at the U.S. National Archives in Washington, D.C., to see the dedication of the Emancipation Proclamation stamp exactly 150 years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the original document. Keeping up with all the news about the stamp since then has been difficult, but fun! Here are some of our favorite links from the week:

  • The National Archives has posted wonderful photographs from all three days that the Emancipation Proclamation was on display, including images from the stamp dedication ceremony and historic reading of the original document. Not to be missed!
  • PosterTo evoke the look of Civil War-era broadsides, Emancipation Proclamation stamp art director Antonio Alcalá and graphic designer Gail Anderson employed Hatch Show Print of Nashville, Tennessee, one of the oldest working letterpress print shops in the U.S. Read about how the stamp design was “Hatcherized” over at The Tennessean. Then visit Nashville’s WSMV-TV for a brief video about Hatch and the new stamp.
  • Want to know more about the processes used by Hatch Show Print? The Smithsonian has a fantastic 8-minute video, and if you’re as impressed as we are, you’ll want to consider the . The poster was created using antique wood type and ornamentation set by hand at Hatch Show Print.
  • In case you missed it, yesterday we posted a video of Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon reading the Emancipation Proclamation, and on Monday we’ll have another video with highlights from the stamp dedication ceremony, so be sure to check back.

What did we miss? Share your favorite Emancipation Proclamation stamp links in the comments.

Some other odds and end making us happy this week:

  • This Cultural Diary page includes a pane of 16 Romare Bearden stamps, featuring four different designs.

    Studio 360 has a wonderful new story about artist Romare Bearden, whose extraordinarily beautiful collages are featured on a stamp sheet from 2011 that is . (Psst, we will be giving away some Romare Bearden stamp-related products in the coming weeks.)

  • Studio 360 also has a new story about the year 1913, the year of the Armory Show in New York City. Several of the artists honored on the upcoming , including Marcel Duchamp, exhibited their work at this groundbreaking exhibit of modernist art.
  • And speaking of modern art, did you know that you can see many of the artists featured on the Modern Art in America stamp sheet at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City? The museum’s “American Legends: From Calder to O’Keeffe” exhibit showcases work by Stuart Davis, Arthur Dove, Charles Demuth, Marsden Hartley, John Marin, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Joseph Stella, among others. Wow!
  • There’s a new biography soon to be out about poet Sylvia Plath that we’re itching to read. Although it was released last year, you can still buy and use the Sylvia Plath stamp, one of ten Twentieth-Century Poets stamps.
  • We were reminded on Twitter this week that February is A Month of Letters (#lettermo). Will you be taking part?
  • And, finally, we were excited by the news that Mike and Sully of Monsters, Inc. will reunite this June in the new Pixar movie Monsters University. Any excuse to send a is a good excuse, right?

Oh, we’d like to extend a special shout out to Kevin in Jacksonville, Florida, for the awesome 2-cent postcard he recently mailed to us.  Thanks, Kevin! You can find Kevin online here.


See you next week! Until then, please follow us on , Twitter, , Instagram, and Tumblr.

Giveaway: A Poetic Alternative to Traditional Holiday Cards

Let literary masters help you send your holiday greetings this year. The feature beautiful lines from ten great American poets and evocative illustrations created by artist Vivienne Flesher.

The Twentieth-Century Poets notecard set is available from The Postal Store. Click image for more info.

The set includes ten cards (blank inside, so you can customize), ten envelopes, and ten corresponding Twentieth-Century Poets (Forever®) stamps. The cards are perfect for any occasion and offer something a little unexpected this time of year. Get a set for yourself or for the poetry lover in your life!

The number of books published each year in America has been steadily increasing, and poetry is more popular than ever. The ten great writers honored on the Twentieth-Century Poets (Forever®) stamp sheet, including several who served as United States Poet Laureate, surely deserve part of the credit. They are Elizabeth Bishop, Joseph Brodsky, Gwendolyn Brooks, E. E. Cummings, Robert Hayden, Denise Levertov, Sylvia Plath, Theodore Roethke, Wallace Stevens, and William Carlos Williams. All of them are featured as part of the .

We have two sets of notecards to give away. To enter all you have to do is send your name and address to uspsstamps [at] gmail [dot] com. Winners will be chosen at random. The deadline for entries is midnight EST, Wednesday, December 12. Good luck!

Anatomy of a Stamp: Sylvia Plath

Today we celebrate writer Sylvia Plath’s 80th birthday. Plath (1932–1963) was honored along with nine other poets on the Twentieth-Century Poets stamp sheet, which was issued earlier this year.

In depicting Plath on the stamp, art director Derry Noyes considered a couple of different options. Early in the stamp development process, Noyes worked with an artist Maira Kalman to create a colorful and lively portrait based on a picture of the artist that the U.S. Postal Service borrowed from the Special Collections library at Smith College, Plath’s alma mater. The art featured the artist’s own handwritten lines from one of Plath’s best-known poems, “Daddy”:

You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe

Design direction sometimes changes, however, and USPS ultimately opted to use a black-and-white photograph of Plath, as well as each of her contemporaries featured on the stamps, instead of having the poet’s portrait illustrated. USPS again chose the resources of a rich archival collection, this time working with archivists at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona in Tucson. There they found a picture of Plath by the talented photographer Rollie McKenna.

Twentieth-Century Poets Digital Color Postmark Keepsake

Plath’s life events and her poems are famously intertwined. Readers admire her unvarnished examination of life’s complexities, contradictions, and daily challenges, and the ways in which she expressed her own highs and lows in a raw and direct style. In the photograph, Plath sits on a sofa or chair and regards the camera’s presence obliquely, perhaps lost in thought and contemplating new verse.

McKenna’s picture of Plath was taken in 1959. Four years later, less than six months after her thirty-first birthday, Plath ended her life. McKenna’s photograph, among the many others that captured Plath’s intelligence and youthful beauty, is—like Plath’s small but potent body of writing—a touchstone for her legions of devotees.

Quoth the Raven: Feeling the Spirit of Halloween

The Halloween season brings with it a noticeable chill in the air, moody days, longer nights, and the thrilling promise of some fun fright or another. At this time of year, we can’t help but think of Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849), one of America’s most masterful storytellers. Out of his vivid imagination leapt such terrifying tales as “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Pit and the Pendulum,” and “The Tell-Tale Heart.” His “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” featuring the brilliant investigator C. Auguste Dupin, may have been the first detective story ever written.

And then, of course, there is “The Raven” (1845):

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door—
“’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—
Only this and nothing more.”

So begins this remarkable poetic masterpiece. The narrator, mourning the death of the beautiful woman he loved, is seized with “fantastic terrors” at each knock. Finally, several stanzas later, he opens the door:

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;
But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, “Lenore?”
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the work, “Lenore!”—
Merely this and nothing more.

Another sound leads him to open the window and in steps a raven:

Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
“Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,” I said, “art sure no craven,
Ghastly grim and ancient Raven wandering from the Nightly shore—
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

Is the raven “bird or fiend”? Will the narrator ever reunite with his “lost Lenore”? You’ll have to read the rest of the poem to find out . . .

Edgar Allan Poe was honored with a stamp in 2009. Panes of the stamp have sold out, but a block of four Poe stamps is included with Happy Halloween!