Jennifer Bartlett was born in Long Beach, California in 1941. In 1960, she entered Mills College (Oakland, CA), where her formal study of art began, and later attended Yale University, earning a B.F.A. there in 1964 and an M.F.A. in 1965. At both institutions, Abstract Expressionism was studied, as well as the work of younger New York artists like Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Soon after graduating from Yale, she taught at the University of Connecticut and more recently at the School of Visual Arts in New York. In 1978, Bartlett was included in "The New Image" exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art with other artists of her generation (Elizabeth Murray, Jonathan Borofsky, David True, and Louisa Chase) who also merged formal structure with expressive painting. Dubbed a "minimalist expressionist," she once noted that although she believed in minimalism she was incapable of being a minimalist.
During the 1980s, Bartlett received several commissions for domestic and corporate settings, including the dining room of collectors Doris and Charles Saatchi and the staff dining room at AT&T's New York headquarters. These works were large-scale murals incorporating scenes and elements of nature and exhibiting a range of artistic styles, an approach that is characteristic of Bartlett's body of work.
The painting "Five P.M." is part of a cycle of twenty-four paintings titled "Air: 24 Hours" that was executed in 1991–92. As the artist envisioned, it would be one of four extended series dealing with the elements: earth, air, fire, water. Each "Air" painting represents a different scene of daily events in the artist's life at a different hour of the day. All of the canvases are seven feet square and include two grid elements: one of the underlying structure and the ground color; the other relating to plaid patterns. A clock in each composition indicates the time, thus giving each painting its title. "Five P.M." is a view into a fishpond in the artist's Manhattan garden. The subject matter invites comparison with works by Matisse and Monet that explore similar themes: domesticated fish life on the one hand and pond flora on the other. Bartlett has distributed the lily pads and flowers, rocks, and goldfish across the canvas to achieve an overall composition of seemingly repeated elements. Here, the underlying grid is particularly in evidence. In tandem with the artist's looser and more translucent handling of the fish and lily pads, the viewer is aware of Bartlett's mediation between a modular organization and a sumptuous painting technique.