Charles Sheeler - Biography and Legacy
American Painter and Photographer
Dobbs Ferry, NY
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.