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.
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.
Important Art by Charles Sheeler
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).
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.
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."
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Charles Sheeler
- Charles Sheeler: Modernism, Precisionism, and the Borders of Abstraction (2008)By Mark Rawlinson
- Charles Sheeler: Across Media (2006)Our PickBy Charles Brock and Mariah Shay
- Charles Sheeler and the Cult of the Machine (1993)By Karen Lucic
- The Photography of Charles Sheeler: American Modernist (2002)Our PickBy Theodore E. Stebbins, Giles Mora, and Karen Haas
- Charles Sheeler: American Interiors (1995)By Susan Fillin-Yeh
- Charles Sheeler: The Photographs (1987)By Theodore E. Stebbins and Norman Keyes
- Charles Sheeler: Paintings and Drawings (1987)By Carol Troyen and Erica E. Hirshler
- Charles Sheeler: Paintings, Drawings, Photographs (1975)By Martin Friedman
- National Gallery of Art, Charles Sheeler: Across MediaOur PickDetailed 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 ThemesExamination of mixed media work
- Michener Museum, Charles SheelerArtist Page and Resources
- Metropolitan Museum of ArtArtist Page and Resources
- Permanent Collection: Charles Sheeler's Classic LandscapeBy Heather Goss / DCist / April 20, 2010
- Machine DreamsReview of The Photography of Charles Sheeler exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum / New York Magazine
- Charles Sheeler, Romantic Pragmatist, at the National GalleryOur PickBy Ken Johnson / The New York Times / June 2, 2006