Painting -Seventeen Sides (Gauss)

Those making mathematical instruments for surveying, navigation, or the classroom have long been interested in creating equal divisions of the circle. Ancient geometers knew how to divide a circle into 2, 3, or 5 parts, and as well as into multiples of these numbers. For them to draw polygons with other numbers of sides required more than a straightedge and compass.
In 1796, as an undergraduate at the University of Göttingen, Friedrich Gauss proposed a theorem severely limiting the number of regular polygons that could be constructed using ruler and compass alone. He also found a way of constructing the 17-gon.
Crockett Johnson, who himself would develop a great interest in constructing regular polygons, drew this painting to illustrate Gauss's discovery. His painting follows a somewhat later solution to the problem presented by Karl von Staudt in 1842, modified by Heinrich Schroeter in 1872, and then published by the eminent mathematician Felix Klein. Klein's detailed account was in Crockett Johnson's library, and a figure from it is heavily annotated.
This oil painting on masonite is #70 in the series. It is signed: CJ69. The back is marked: SEVENTEEN SIDES (GAUSS) (/) Crockett Johnson 1969. The painting has a black background and a wood and metal frame. There are two adjacent purple triangles in the center, with a white circle inscribed in them. The triangles have various dark gray regions, and the circle has various light gray regions and one dark gray segment. The length of the top edge of this segment is the chord of the circle corresponding to length of the side of an inscribed 17-sided regular polygon.
Reference: Felix Klein, Famous Problems of Elementary Geometry (1956), pp. 16–41, esp. 41.
Currently not on view
Object Name
date made
Gauss, Carl Friedrich
Johnson, Crockett
Physical Description
masonite (substrate material)
wood (frame material)
metal (frame material)
overall: 124 cm x 63.5 cm x 3.8 cm; 48 13/16 in x 25 in x 1 1/2 in
ID Number
accession number
catalog number
Science & Mathematics
Crockett Johnson
See more items in
Medicine and Science: Mathematics
Crockett Johnson
Data Source
National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center
Credit Line
Ruth Krauss in memory of Crockett Johnson
Additional Media

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