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Artists Charles Sheeler
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Charles Sheeler

American Painter and Photographer

Movements and Styles: Straight Photography, Early American Modernism, Precisionism

Born: July 16, 1883 - Philadelphia, PA

Died: May 7, 1965 - Dobbs Ferry, NY

Charles Sheeler Timeline

Quotes

"Photography is nature seen from the eyes outward, painting from the eyes inward."
Charles Sheeler
"I favor a picture which arrives at its destination without the evidence of a trying journey rather than one which shows the marks of battle."
Charles Sheeler
"My interest in photography, paralleling that in painting, has been based on admiration for its possibility of accounting for the visual world with an exactitude not equaled by any other medium. The difference in the manner of arrival at their destination - the painting being a result of composite image and the photograph being a result of a single image - prevents these media from being competitive."
Charles Sheeler
"For many years now, I've never worked on location. I always gather the nuts and bring them home and chew them over there and arrive at a picture."
Charles Sheeler
"Every age manifests itself by some external evidence. In a period such as ours when only a comparatively few individuals seem to be given to religion, some form other than the Gothic cathedral must be found. Industry concerns the greatest numbers - it may be true, as has been said, that our factories are our substitute for religious expression."
Charles Sheeler
"The curse upon us is that we may only discern the thing when it is on the horizon -either in advance or retreat - in the moment that we pass the edges are blurred and the form unrecognized".
Charles Sheeler

"Every age manifests itself by some external evidence. In a period such as ours when only a comparatively few individuals seem to be given to religion, some form other than the Gothic cathedral must be found."

Charles Sheeler Signature

Synopsis

Famous for both his photographs and the paintings he often made from them, Sheeler was an influential American artist for most of the first half of the twentieth century. Sheeler used both photography and painting, which he referred to as his 'separate eyes,' to capture the function, abstraction, and the human element of the American industrial and urban age. Sheeler found and captured the beauty of the functional design of factories, barns, and skyscrapers, but also the allure of the inherent geometric abstraction of these structures. He was considered one of the artists most in tune with the modernization and industrialization of America, as his work revealed how the American pioneer spirit had transferred from exploring natural frontiers to the technological and industrial progress of the nation.

Key Ideas

Sheeler objectively captured the geometry, form and abstraction of the buildings, structures, machinery, and architecture which were transforming and modernizing America, inaugurating the Precisionist Movement.
Sheeler had a remarkable process of mixed media creation. He began by taking a photograph of an object or building, then crafted a drawing based on the original photograph, and then used the drawing as a model for a painting. He believed the process showed that the less mechanical the media became the more involved the artist was in creating the beauty of the work. The complex dialogue he created between media and object was one of his major contributions to American modernism.
Sheeler was truly inter-disciplinary in his work. He created a movie, finding influence in the interaction of the film and the object. He was also influenced by, and influenced poets, as he based the shots of his film Walt Whitman's Crossing Brooklyn Ferry (1856), and worked closely with William Carlos Williams to theorize the various fields and media of modernism.
One of Sheeler's major achievements was redefining the concept of the American landscape. Sheeler replaced pastoral images of a pristine nature with a terrain populated by factories and industrial yards, and revealed the beauty of urban spaces and cityscapes.
In his later years, Sheeler worked on incorporating multiple perspective in his images, by creating a technique of overlapping photographic negatives to create an image that served as a model for a painting.

Most Important Art

Charles Sheeler Famous Art

Doylestown House - The Stove (1917)

This early photograph depicts the squat, solid stove at the center of the living room in the home Sheeler shared with his best friend, Morton Schamberg, in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. The two worked in a shared studio space in Philadelphia during the week, and retreated to the quiet, ramshackle house in Doylestown at the weekend. Although in the 1920s Sheeler's art would primarily be associated with America's urban and industrial landscape, he clearly cherished the quiet and solitude he found in rural Pennsylvania. During his time there, he consolidated many of the lessons he had recently learned about modern European art, especially from his studies of the works of Cezanne and Picasso.

Working at night and using a bright artificial light to create strong shadows while obscuring finer details, he created a series of photographs with daringly modernist compositions that emphasized the flat, geometric design of the house. Radiating what Sheeler described as "a welcome warmth," the nineteenth-century stove replaced the older fireplace (just glimpsed to the left) as the center of this eighteenth-century room. Like the artist himself, the stove was a transplant from another time; it was a newer, more modern object that had managed to situate itself comfortably in an older environment. Sheeler believed the picture documented the encounter between a machine (the stove) and an object (the camera), and conception of photography he retained throughout his entire career.

The photo belongs to a series that attracted the attention of the hugely influential Alfred Stieglitz, whose sharp focus and objective style marked a dramatic departure from the painterly aesthetic of earlier American photographers. Stieglitz proclaimed Sheeler, along with Morton Schamberg and Paul Strand, the "Trinity of Photography." Sheeler used this photograph as the subject for several of his later creations, including the important drawing Interior with Stove (1932) and the painting The Upstairs (1938).
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Charles Sheeler Artworks in Focus:

Biography

Childhood

Charles Rettrew Sheeler Jr was born into a middle-class family in Philadelphia, and was named after his father who worked for a steamship company. He attended a local high school, and his parents encouraged his interest in art from an early age.

Early Training

After high school, Sheeler attended the Pennsylvania Museum School of Industrial Art, studying industrial drawing and applied arts from 1900 to 1903. Sheeler then moved to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts for a traditional education in drawing and painting from 1903 to 1906. His mentor at the Academy was the American Impressionist painter William Merritt Chase, best known for his portraits and landscapes. It was during his student days that he first met Morton Schamberg, who would be his best friend for the next fifteen years.

He visited Europe for the first time in 1904 with his classmates, but it was during his second trip to Europe, from 1908 to 1909, with his parents and friend Morton Schamberg that he truly began to grow as an artist. Sheeler traveled to Rome, Milan, Venice, Florence, and Paris, where he gained his first exposure to European modernism. During his time in Italy, he became captivated by the painters of the late Middle Ages including Giotto and Piero della Francesca. While in Paris, he visited the home of Michael and Sarah Stein, early patrons of Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso, where he grew to respect modernism, and found in the works of Paul Cezanne the possibility of painting beyond Impressionism. His time in Paris inspired him to experiment with the Cubist style for several years, helping him break free of his early training.

After he returned to the United States, Sheeler realized that he could not support himself through painting alone, and decided to supplement his income with commercial photography, teaching himself the technical aspects of the trade using a five-dollar Eastman-Kodak "Brownie." In 1910, Sheeler and Schamberg opened a photography studio in a brownstone building in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. They paid their bills by photographing the construction projects of local architects and builders, but Sheeler also used the commissions to teach himself the artistic side of photography, playing with compositions of color, light, and space. He also began to develop some of the platforms of his aesthetics during this period, for example coming to find beauty in the function of the plainest of buildings. He wrote about a barn he snapped an image of, "the builders weren't building a work of art...its beautiful because it functioned."

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Charles Sheeler Biography Continues

Sheeler visited New York frequently between 1910 and 1918. By participating in or attending high-profile shows and exhibitions, he came in contact with influential modernist artists such as Marcel Duchamp. Though the two had very different artistic styles, they shared an appreciation for the artistic philosophy and technique of Dada, and Duchamp was very complimentary about much of Sheeler's work, particularly his moody Self-Portrait (1923). Later in his life, Sheeler commented, "We became quite friendly. He was, I would say, not a very outgoing person - at least he wasn't as far as I was concerned - but pleasant."

Throughout the period from 1910 to 1920, he supplemented his income, and grew as an artist, by photographing both individual works of art, and entire collections, for galleries and independent collectors, like Walter and Louise Arensberg and the Knoedler Gallery. Most importantly, he participated in the Armory Show of 1913, perhaps the most important American exhibition of the modernist period. He also began to use his photographs as source material for his work, especially his captivating paintings of industrial buildings and mills. In 1920 he collaborated with fellow photographer Paul Strand on a short artistic film called Manhatta, Manhatta which captured the various skyscrapers and city-scapes of New Yok City as if they were natural landscape, and used the text of Walt Whitman's poem Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, which has lines celebrating the New York skyline, as the film's only dialogue. Working on the film seemed to influence Sheeler, as he began to focus on the buildings and cement canyons of New York City in his paintings and photographs, and dedicated himself to the clarity and order of the cityscape. It was at this point that he became associated with the Precisionist Movement.

Sheeler also became part of Alfred Stieglitz's circle as a result of his frequent visits to New York, which put him in contact with artists including Charles Demuth, Georgia O'Keeffe, and the New Jersey poet William Carlos Williams. Though Stieglitz and Sheeler fell out over their differing philosophies on photography in 1923, he remained close friends with Williams: the two frequented speakeasies with their wives throughout the Prohibition years, collaborated on a feature piece for the avant-garde art magazine Broom in 1923, and continued a correspondence well into the 1950s.

Mature Period

Tragedy struck in 1918, when Shamberg died as a result of the influenza pandemic. Sheeler moved to New York City the following year, where he continued to work as a commercial photographer. In 1921, he married Katherine Baird Schaffer, whom he had photographed in a series of nudes in 1918-1919. The couple did not have any children. They moved several times during the first few years of their marriage, finally settling in Greenwich Village, in an apartment above the Whitney Museum on West Eighth Street.

He joined the staff of publishing firm Conde Nast in 1926, working as a photographer for Vogue and Vanity Fair for the next five years. In 1927, he and his wife moved to South Salem, New York, approximately fifty miles north of Manhattan. The move coincided with the start of his relationship with the Ford Motor Company. Commissioned to document the company's plant at River Rouge, Sheeler eventually became their staff photographer. His images of River Rouge and the paintings based on them attracted international acclaim. His pristine views of American industry established him as one of the leading figures of the Precisionist movement in painting.

The 1930s brought both professional success and personal difficulties for Sheeler. His wife, Katherine, succumbed to cancer in 1933. In the August 8, 1938 issue of Life Magazine he was the subject of a four page feature article, the first American artist to be honored by the magazine. He married the Russian dancer Musya Metas Sokolova in 1939. A retrospective at New York's Museum of Modern Art the same year attested to the level of success he had achieved. The exhibit included over a hundred paintings or drawings, and 73 of his photographs. The poet William Carlos Williams, at this point at the height of his influence, wrote the exhibit catalogue, including a major essay of criticism on his friend's work, which was heavily circulated among intellectual and artistic circles in America and Europe. A few years later, Sheeler joined the Met museum as a senior research fellow in photography, worked on a project in Connecticut with the photographer Edward Weston, and moved with Musya to Irvington-on-Hudson, some twenty miles north of New York.

Late Period and Death

After the Second World War, Sheeler worked as an artist in residence at a school and a gallery in New England, and his time there inspired him to explore abstraction more deeply in his paintings. During the late 1940s and 1950s, Sheeler continued to work as a photographer for companies such as General Motors, U.S. Steel, and Kodak. He also devoted more time to cultivating friendships with fellow artists, visiting Ansel Adams in San Francisco, and Edward Weston in Carmel, California. In 1955, he spent the summer in the Maine home of the watercolorist John Marin.

Sheeler suffered a debilitating stroke in 1959, effectively putting an end to his career. He died as the result of a second stroke in 1965.


Legacy

The first examples of his legacy were the vast numbers of retrospectives and exhibitions put on display at museums and universities across the country, beginning in the early 1950s and continuing to this day. In addition, through the writing of William Carlos Williams, Sheeler was a great influence upon the city aesthetic of the Beat Generation; they found his landscapes and cityscapes paintings and photographs matched with their artistic vision. In addition, some beats, most notably Allen Ginsberg were inspired to teach themselves how to take photographs, just as Sheeler had taught himself.

Sheeler was one of the leading innovators of the Precisionist movement, the first truly indigenous modern American art movement. His embrace of industrial architecture as a subject for painting had a profound effect on his peers within that movement, among them Elsie Driggs, Charles Demuth, Ralston Crawford, and his close friend Morton Schamberg. It was Sheeler, more than any other, who truly made the American artists embrace the machine age and the city as aesthetic object. Recently, interest in Sheeler's work has been growing, as there has been an increase in scholarly writing, from dissertations to journal articles.

His photography had a tremendous impact on the American automobile industry, and blurred distinctions between advertising and art. At the same time, his work exerted a meaningful influence upon iconic American photographers such as Ansel Adams and Edward Weston.

Influences and Connections

Influences on artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Influenced by artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Charles Sheeler
Interactive chart with Charles Sheeler's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
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View Influences Chart

Artists

William Merritt ChaseWilliam Merritt Chase
Marcel DuchampMarcel Duchamp
Diego VelazquezDiego Velazquez
Alfred StieglitzAlfred Stieglitz

Friends

William Carlos WilliamsWilliam Carlos Williams
Walter ArensbergWalter Arensberg
Paul StrandPaul Strand

Movements

CubismCubism
RealismRealism
ImpressionismImpressionism
Charles Sheeler
Charles Sheeler
Years Worked: 1900 - 1959

Artists

Ansel AdamsAnsel Adams
Edward WestonEdward Weston

Friends

Francis PicabiaFrancis Picabia
Man RayMan Ray

Movements

Early American ModernismEarly American Modernism
PrecisionismPrecisionism

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Content compiled and written by Jen Glennon

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
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Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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Useful Resources on Charles Sheeler

Videos

Books

Websites

Articles

More

The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.

biography

Charles Sheeler: Modernism, Precisionism, and the Borders of Abstraction (2008)

By Mark Rawlinson

Charles Sheeler: Across Media (2006) Recomended resource

By Charles Brock and Mariah Shay

Charles Sheeler and the Cult of the Machine (1993)

By Karen Lucic

More Interesting Books about Charles Sheeler
National Gallery of Art, Charles Sheeler: Across Media Recomended resource

Detailed slideshow from the National Gallery of Art showing how Sheeler experimented with the boundaries between different art forms

The Art Institute of Chicago, Charles Sheeler: Across Media Exhibition Overview and Themes

Examination of mixed media work

Michener Museum, Charles Sheeler

Artist Page and Resources

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Artist Page and Resources

Permanent Collection: Charles Sheeler's Classic Landscape

By Heather Goss
DCist
April 20, 2010

Machine Dreams

Review of The Photography of Charles Sheeler exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum
New York Magazine

Charles Sheeler, Romantic Pragmatist, at the National Gallery Recomended resource

By Ken Johnson
The New York Times
June 2, 2006

Manhatta (1921) Recomended resource

Full-length copy of Sheeler's short film made with Paul Strand

Rolling Power by Charles Sheeler

Fan-made video of Sheeler's paintings and photographs, set to music

Suspended Power (1939)

Close-up look at Sheeler's painting in the Dallas Museum of Art

transcripts

Interview with Sheeler Recomended resource

By Martin Friedman
Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution
June 18, 1959

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