American Painter and Photographer
Dobbs Ferry, NY
Summary of Charles Sheeler
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 20th 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.
- 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.
Progression of Art
Doylestown House - The Stove
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 Cézanne 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 19th-century stove replaced the older fireplace (just glimpsed to the left) as the center of this 18th-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).
Gelatin Silver Print - National Gallery of Art
Sheeler moved to New York in 1919, following the death of his close friend, Morton Schamberg. His interest in the city's urban landscape was heightened by his collaboration with the photographer Paul Strand on the 1920 short film, Manhatta, which emphasized the abstract qualities of the island's rapidly changing urban landscape. The film is intercut with text plates featuring the poetry of Walt Whitman.
Sheeler found one scene particularly memorable, the view from the Equitable Building, located at 120 Broadway. As he often did in preparation for his paintings, Sheeler took preliminary photos and made sketches of the scene, which allowed him to capture the view with high precision and detail.
Planes of solid color draw the eye to the diagonal intersection of light and shadow toward the center of the frame. Though no living inhabitants can be seen, the differing height of the shades in each window suggests their presence, in abundance. With its sharply defined, angular planes and evocation of intense, direct light, the composition epitomizes Sheeler's Precisionist aesthetics, bringing together the formal features of European Cubism with distinctly American subject matter. The painting is notable for awakening American artists to the beauty of urban locations and utilitarian buildings.
Oil on Canvas - The Phillips Collection, Washington DC
Crissed Crossed Conveyors: River Rouge Plant, Ford Motor Company
Sheeler's series of paintings and photographs of the Ford River Rouge plant, the largest in the world, seemed to capture Henry Ford's belief that "the man who builds a factory builds a temple", and successfully depicted an industrial sublime. The pure size and scope of these buildings, and their representations in Sheeler's work, depicted the industrial sublime, as Sheeler successfully represented the somewhat terrifying power and scope of the factory along with the beauty and majesty of the human design which rivaled any object in nature.
Speaking of this photograph, Sheeler echoed Ford's belief, saying "our factories are our substitute for religious expression." The lighting and shadows in the image, as well as the smokestacks in the background, are reminiscent of devotional artworks. Sheeler's sense of the religious power of this image can be seen in the choice for his next series of photographs, the flying buttresses at Chartes Cathederal (1929), which he often compared with this photo.
This photograph was widely reprinted and sold in the U.S. and in Europe, and became a representative image of a technological utopia. Leo Marx, one of the founders of the field of American Studies, included Sheeler's photographs of the plant in his book The Machine in the Garden, noting "By superimposing order, peace, and harmony upon our modern chaos, Sheeler represents the anomalous blend of illusion and reality in the American consciousness."
Gelatin Silver Print - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
In 1923, Sheeler reviewed an exhibition of Alfred Stieglitz's photographs, criticizing his former mentor's use of platinum paper. The article caused a rift between the two men, and since Stieglitz was a hugely influential person in the New York art world, his disfavor had an impact on the reputation of Sheeler's photography among artists and critics. From the 1920s onward, his pictures became more visible in commercial than in art circles. This particular image, however, was an exception.
Taken aboard the German steamship S.S. Majestic, the photograph does not display the ship in its entirety. At first glance, it is difficult to know if these metal structures are part of a factory, processing plant, or some other kind of facility. Sheeler focuses on ventilator stacks, tanks, and fans surrounding the ship's motors, objects that gesture towards the ship's colossal size and power. The vantage point calls attention to the geometry and repetition of the forms, reducing the large ship to a few crisply lit, carefully composed, precisely observed details. Though realistically conceived, the photo reveals the underlying abstract structures of this feat of engineering; the image is simultaneously abstract and highly realistic. A year later, Sheeler would use the photograph as the basis for a painting of the same name.
Gelatin Silver Print - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
This image, a painting based on one of Sheeler's photographs of the Ford River Rouge Plant, Canal with Salvage Ship (1927), best captures Sheeler's redefinition of the American Pastoral and the traditional subjects of landscape painting. Another example of Sheeler's industrial sublime, the work captures humanity's almost god like power to recreate the physical world in its own image, as the river reflects the design of the factory complex. The smoke rising out of the smokestacks seamlessly blends with the clouds, yet even today, it does not make the viewer think of industrial pollution, but rather how the things that humans create are as much a part of nature as the snow-capped mountains. The title plays with the viewer's expectations, as it alludes to the peaceful mountain scenes of Thomas Cole. Like traditional American landscape painting, Sheeler organized the painting around a body of water, yet even the water has been subject to human ingenuity and technological might, as it is contained in a canal. Likewise, a series of trains and train tracks lie alongside, representing how technology had developed a faster means of transportation than the old waterways of the 18th and early-19th century. However, the train itself is in the process of being replaced by another technological advancement, the cars which this massive structure has been built to mass produce.
This image also depicts how well Sheeler maneuvered between commercial and fine art, just as he created a dialogue between the various media he used to create his artwork.
Oil on Canvas - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Between 1926 and 1934, Sheeler produced a series of seven paintings inspired by the furnishings and decor of his home in South Salem, New York. While living there, he became an avid collector of early American furniture and decorative arts. He prized these items for their simplicity, noting, "No embellishment meets the eye. Beauty of line and proportion through excellence of craftsmanship make the absence of ornament in no way an omission."
The sofa covering, pillows, rugs, and backgammon set depicted in this painting each possess a bold and distinct pattern, creating a sense of visual chaos in the composition. There are four different rugs alone in the space, and the overall effect is a jumbled riot of color and pattern that manages to retain a feeling of homely comfort. The unusually high angle framing the image underscores a sense of carefully ordered disorder, as does the juxtaposition of the colonial-inspired chair and sofa alongside tables with distinctly modern styling. Yet this jumble of objects is rendered in an extremely precise manner, allowing it to function as a statement about national pride as well as the virtues of craftsmanship. In an era that placed increasing emphasis on technology and mass production, the kinds of objects Sheeler focuses on here were powerfully nostalgic reminders of an ostensibly simpler time. Sheeler's collection was another expression of his national pride, and a tribute on a much smaller scale to the same American craftsmanship which could create majestic skyscrapers and factory complexes.
Oil on Canvas - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
River Rouge Plant
As the workplace of 75,000 people and covering over 2,000 acres, Ford Motor Company's River Rouge plant was the world's largest factory at the time it was built, and the first to manufacture cars from start to finish on a single site. After finishing a commercial photography assignment at the plant, Sheeler produced a series of paintings of the factory complex. This image depicts the plant's coal processing and storage building, adjacent to the still waters of a boat slip. The prow of a large freighter can be glimpsed on the right-hand side of the canvas.
Although the plant had experienced severe labor disputes during the late 1920s and early 1930s, the image does not focus on the human dimension of manufacturing work. Instead, Sheeler's fascination with the factory space overshadowed any concerns he might have had about the workers. His painting represents the factory as a paradigm of modern rationality and order, reaffirming America's position as an innovative leader in industry despite the grim realities of the Depression. For Sheeler and many of his contemporaries, American factories were the 20th-century equivalent of wonderous cathedrals of Europe. Using the distinct lines and bold geometric shapes of Precisionism, the painting suggests that industrial innovation and modern progress are the chief virtues of a rapidly evolving nation. It was during the 1930s that Sheeler began to devote more of his attention to painting, further developing a style based on strong geometric order in compositions that depicted the nation's changing landscape.
Oil and Pencil on Canvas - Whitney Museum of American Art
The Artist Looks at Nature
In this painting, Sheeler decided to depict his affinity for mixed media, and his process of using his photographs as the subject matter for his drawings, which became the models for his painting. The painting is also important for revealing Sheeler's sense of himself as an artist with a mastery of multiple formats and media. The image Sheeler included of himself in the lower right of the painting is a rendition of his 1932 photograph Self-Portrait at Easel. In the painting, as in the photograph, Sheeler is depicted turning his 1917 photograph The Stove into the 1932 crayon drawing Interior with Stove. Sheeler's selection of images to use to depict his method is also a commentary on an artist's reception and the world of critics and gallery owners, as The Stove is the photograph that established his reputation, based partly on the recommendation of Alfred Stieglitz, which resulted in his work being displayed and offered at artistic galleries. However, by the date of the photograph depicted in the painting, Sheeler's work was mostly only available at commercial galleries, as a result of falling out with Stieglitz.
The painting's location is also a biographical montage; he depicts the yards of his home in Connecticut, his studio in the lower right, the Hoover Dam along the left hand side, and in the upper left hand corner, older red-roofed buildings, reminiscent of small towns in Pennsylvania. The figure of Sheeler in the chair is also eerily reminiscent of poet William Carlos Williams, whom Sheeler shot in a series of photographic portraits of in 1938, and who, unlike Stieglitz, remained Sheeler's friend his entire life.
Oil on Canvas - The Art Institute of Chicago
Sheeler visited California for the first time in 1954, to attend a retrospective exhibition of his work at the University of California, Los Angeles. He then traveled to San Francisco, where met with the photographer Ansel Adams, and also took photographs of the city's landmarks, buildings, and streets. The artist composed this painting after his visit to the West Coast, working from photographs, at his home in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York. His evocation of the bridge is partially abstract, due to its simplified forms, heightened color palette, and extreme viewpoint. At the same time, the image accurately captures the vivid orange paint of the bridge and the deep blue of a summer sky on the California coast. Meanwhile, the interplay of color and shadow evokes the experience of driving across the bridge, with bold lines imparting a sense of dynamic movement and industrial progress that echoes and revises the form and content of Sheeler's earlier Precisionist works. This late work simultaneously experiments with form (in that it is not a photorealistic rendering of the bridge), pays fitting tribute to a much-loved Bay Area landmark, and operates as a broader symbol of travel and opportunity.
The painting was the result of one of Sheeler's last innovations in technique before his stroke. He created the complexity of multiple viewpoints in the painting by overlapping multiple photographic negatives of the bridge, synthesizing them into one image and then painting the result upon the canvas.
Oil on Canvas - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Biography of Charles Sheeler
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.
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 Cézanne 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."
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 complementary 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.
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.
The Legacy of Charles Sheeler
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.