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"[Charles Sheeler] gives you a factual painting- whether it be a waterwheel, an airplane, a locomotive or a maze of machinery- but he gives you a bright and shining conception at its moment of utter and immaculate perfection; at that precise moment when the slanting shafts of a benevolent sun put things in their very best light."
A leading modernist, Charles Sheeler was one of the few artists to earn recognition as both a painter and photographer. Trained as a painter, Sheeler turned to photography in 1910 in order to earn a living. He worked as a free-lance photographer in Philadelphia and, subsequently, in New York, hired by the prestigious publishing firm of Conde Nast. Sheeler's work as an art photographer influenced his painting, cultivating his interest in architectural subjects and abstract geometric form. Intrigued by strong lines and abstract form, Sheeler drew inspiration from traditions as diverse as European cubism and African sculpture. As a painter, Sheeler led the development of Precisionism, a movement that began in the 1920s that distilled industrial subjects into simplified geometric forms. Sheeler's work from the 1920s to the 1950s established his reputation as a Precisionist painter of urban and industrial scenes, as well as rural barns and floral still lifes.
Charles Sheeler. Image from the Lane Collection. Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Education and Training
Pennsylvania School of Industrial Art (now University of the Arts), Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1900-1903
Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1903-1906
London, England and Holland, 1904
Teachers and Influences
William Merritt Chase, Lord Leighton, John Singer Sargent, Alfred Stieglitz
Studied the work of Franz Hals and Velasques
"The dominant trend in America of today, beneath all the apparent chaos and confusion, is towards order and organization which find their outward sign and symbol in the rigid geometry of the American city....By using an underlying mathematical pattern, the artist could create a new expression of optimism."
Stimulated by European abstraction, especially cubism, American painters during the 1920s adapted it to an American idiom. Perceiving industrialization and urbanization to be uniquely American trends, these artists abstracted industrial landscapes by reducing them to their essential geometric forms. With clean, precise lines, these artists painted factories, bridges, skyscrapers, and airplanes, all emblems of modernity. Typically, these paintings excluded people, as well as any suggestion of motion or change, yielding a sometimes haunting effect of solidity and stasis. The leaders of this movement, known as Precisionism, were Louis Lozowick, Elsie Driggs, Charles Demuth, and, most importantly, Charles Sheeler.
In his Precisionist paintings, done from the 1920s through the 1950s, Sheeler captured the underlying abstract structure of various familiar objects, ranging from smokestacks to flowers. One of his most acclaimed paintings, Upper Deck, conveys the pure form of a ship's instrumentation through its almost photographic realism of detail, the interplay of geometric shapes, and the skewed, eccentric perspective. Sheeler also painted Bucks County barns in Precisionist terms, for example in Family Group, reducing the buildings to stark red rectangular forms against a white ground. The diversity of Sheeler's subjects reveals the depth, as well as the breadth, of his Precisionist vision.
"Throughout his career, Charles Sheeler was both haunted and sustained by the architecture of Bucks County."
The clean lines and pure geometric forms of eighteenth-century architecture and Shaker furniture, so prevalent in Bucks County, appealed to Charles Sheeler. Driven to capture the abstract form of Doylestown interiors and architecture, Sheeler developed into an art photographer. He often photographed the interior of the fieldstone farmhouse he rented, Worthington House, shooting black and white images of doors and corners, stairwells and windows. The absence of people in these photographs, combined with the unusual angles of Sheeler's shots, accentuates the subjects' geometric shape. Sheeler's increasing interest in abstraction is apparent in his contemporary photographs of Bucks County barns.
Sheeler's creative process, as he shot original photographs of Doylestown interiors and barns, prepared him to paint these same subjects, often years later. Before Sheeler photographed a site, he pondered it deeply, figuring its essential structure. Over time, Sheeler would refine his conception, ultimately capturing the abstracted form in painting. His masterpiece, The Artist Looks at Nature, comments upon this process, depicting Sheeler, seated outdoors, painting his earlier Interior with Stove from memory. Through this painting, Sheeler celebrates Doylestown's powerful hold upon his imagination.
Teaching and Professional Appointments
Appointed Senior Research Fellow in Photography, Department of Publications, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York, 1942
Artist-In-Residence, Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts, October, 1946
Artist-In-Residence, Manchester, New Hampshire, May, 1948
Award of Merit Medal, American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1962
First Prize, 13th Annual Spring Exhibition for Photographers, 1918
Selected Major Solo Exhibitions
McClees Gallery, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1908
Armory Show, New York, 1913
Modern Gallery, New York, photographs, 1917
Art Center, New York, 1926
Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1939
Charles Sheeler Retrospective, Allentown Art Museum, Allentown, Pennsylvania, 1961
Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., Retrospective, 1968
Charles Sheeler in Doylestown, Allentown Art Museum, Allentown, Pennsylvania, 1997; Cincinatti Art Museum, Cincinatti, Ohio, 1998
The Photography of Charles Sheeler, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York, 2003
Major Group Exhibitions
Forum Exhibition of Modern American Painters, New York, 1916
Modern Gallery, New York, (photographs included in an exhibit), 1916
13th Annual Spring Exhibition, John Wanamaker's Department Store, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1918
Pageant of Photography, Golden Gate International Exhibition, San Francisco, California, 1940
University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa, 1963
Precisionism in America 1915-1941: Reordering Reality, Montclair Museum of Art , New Jersey, 1994
Artists of the Commonwealth: Realism and Its Response in Pennsylvania Painting, 1900-1950
Michener Art Museum, Doylestown, PA, 2007
Museum of Fine Art, Boston, Massachusetts
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, Massachusetts
Sheeler made three films early in his career. One that remains today is Manhatta, which he made with photographer Paul Strand in 1920.