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Wednesday, 4 June 2014

CHARLES SHEELER (1883–1965) - American painter and photographer of industrial subjects

Charles SheelerRiver Rouge Plant, 1932. Oil on canvas, 20 × 24 1/8 in. (50.8 × 61.3 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
American painter and photographer of industrial subjects

By Alexandra A. Jopp

Charles Sheeler, one of America’s leading Modernists, found formal beauty in machinery, the principal emblem of modernity

Charles Sheeler, a central figure in American Realism and one of the most interesting and ambitious American artists, was known for producing compelling images of the Machine Age. During his prolific career, Sheeler employed machines, factory complexes near Detroit, New York skyscrapers, locomotive engines, power plants and barns as subjects for his pictures and used painting, drawing, and photography in his works, often in combination. Trained in Impressionist approaches to landscape themes, he experimented with painterly compositions before finding and mastering his outwardly depopulated landscape style, now often called precisionism. In this manner, Sheeler illustrated the beauty objects, even in the absence of people.

[Doylestown House—The Stove], 1917
Charles Sheeler (American, 1883–1965)
Gelatin silver print; 9 1/16 x 6 7/16 in. (23.1 x 16.3 cm)
Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1933 
© The Lane Collection

Water, 1945
Charles Sheeler (American, 1883–1965)
Oil on canvas; 24 x 29 1/8 in. (61 x 74 cm)
Arthur Hoppock Hearn Fund, 1949 

Golden Gate, 1955
Charles Sheeler (American, 1883–1965)
Oil on canvas
H. 25 1/8 in. (63.8 cm), W. 34 7/8 in. (88.5 cm)
George A. Hearn Fund, 1955 

Delmonico Building, 1926
Charles Sheeler (American, 1883–1965)
Lithograph
Image: 9 3/4 x 6 3/4 in. (24.7 x 17.1 cm); sheet: 15 9/16 x 11 7/16 in. (39.5 x 29 cm)
John B. Turner, 1968.

Criss–Crossed Conveyors, River Rouge Plant, Ford Motor Company, 1927
Charles Sheeler (American, 1883–1965)
Gelatin silver print; 9 1/4 x 7 3/8 in. (23.5 x 18.8 cm)
Ford Motor Company Collection, Gift of Ford Motor Company and John C. Waddell, 1987 
© The Lane Collection

The Open Door, 1932
Charles Sheeler (American, 1883–1965)
Conté crayon on paper, mounted on cardboard; H. 23 3/4 in. (60.3 cm), W. 18 in. (45.7 cm)
Edith and Milton Lowenthal Collection, Bequest of Edith Abrahamson Lowenthal, 1991 

Americana, 1931
Charles Sheeler (American, 1883–1965)
Oil on canvas; 48 x 35 in. (121.9 x 91.4 cm)
Edith and Milton Lowenthal Collection, Bequest of Edith Abrahamson Lowenthal, 1991 

Upper Deck, ca. 1928
Charles Sheeler (American, 1883–1965)
Gelatin silver print
Image: 25.3 x 20.2 cm (9 15/16 x 7 15/16 in.)
Gilman Collection, Purchase, Anonymous Gift and The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation Gift, through Joyce and Robert Menschel, 2005.
A native of Philadelphia, Charles Sheeler was born on July 16, 1883, the only child of Charles Rettew and Mary Cunningham Sheeler. He began his artistic training from 1900 to 1903 at the Philadelphia School of Industrial Art (now the University of the Arts), where he was introduced “to the various orders of ornament, Greek, Egyptian, Romanesque and others, and the application of them as designs for carpets, wall-papers and other two-dimensional surfaces.”1 Sheeler spent the next three years at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where he studied with William Merritt Chase, who taught Sheeler a fluid, Impressionistic style. He spent two summers in England while studying with Chase, then visited Holland in 1904 and Spain in 1905. During his visits to Europe, Sheeler acquired an admiration for Spanish motifs, in particular those of Velazquez, Goya and the Dutch painters whom the artist saw exhibited at the National Gallery of London. In 1908, accompanied by artist and friend Morton Schamberg, Sheeler traveled through northern Italy, where he saw works by the Italian masters. On a trip to Paris, he was drawn to the works of Matisse and the Cubists, particularly Picasso and Cézanne, finding in them a new direction for his art. He had a Cubist period in 1913, but his involvement with abstract forms was brief. From 1913 to 1916, he focused on painting landscapes.

Following his return from Paris, Sheeler shared a studio with Schamberg while also renting a house in Doylestown, Penn., where he turned to commercial photography as a way to support his attempts at Modern painting. For the next several years, he concentrated on photographs of buildings, taking pictures of farmhouses around Doylestown while continuing his experiments with Modernism.

After the untimely death of Schamberg in 1918, Sheeler moved to New York. The next year, he joined with Paul Strand, a photographer and filmmaker, on a novel short film, Manhatta, which interpreted the urban environment as a demonstration of human power and vision. The film focused on functionalism and industrial forms and is considered the first avant-garde film made in America. During the next decade, Sheeler continued working in his Manhattan studio as a freelance illustrator and advertising photographer. In 1927, he was commissioned to photograph the Ford Motor Company’s new River Rouge plant outside Detroit. He produced 20 photographs, two drawings and four oil paintings of the plant, helping to build his reputation as a machinery artist.

In 1929, Sheeler produced one of his best known works, Upper Deck, a portrayal of shipboard architecture, which, with its pristine, geometrical surfaces, launched the artist’s architectural phase. This phase continued for the rest of his career, with the artist focusing on conceptual contrasts such as “figure/ground, dark/light, object/void, inside/outside, personal/impersonal, and realism/abstraction … animated by a rich interplay of media.”2 Sheeler liked black, especially when it appeared next to white, as in Winter Window (1941) and The Open Door (1932).
In the mid-1940s, Sheeler’s style changed dramatically. He moved from detailed realism toward more abstract compositions, and his later oil paintings became considerably larger in scale. He worked mostly from images of architecture that were seen as overlapping and transparent forms, as from photographic double exposures. He moved away from soft, iridescent tones toward dazzling paint, and his favorite hues in these years were blues, maroon, rose and lavender, often used in subtle shades so that a barn or a factory wall would appear almost translucent.
The highlights of Sheeler’s oeuvre, both early and late in his career, combine silhouette and matter, the reminiscent and the newly seen. His paintings, with their photographic foundations, reflect “nature seen from the eyes outward [and] comprise nothing less than a fifty-year exploration of his understanding of reality.” 3

Sheeler died on May 7, 1965.


The following text comes from "The Black Book," a bound notebook in which artist, late in life, set down with characteristic economy his distilled ideas. 

The Miracle of Spring - the first leaf buds and with them the reassurance of the life making a new beginning. The trees in mid-summer with their opulence of celebration. This unbelievable swan-song of Autumn - the fragrance of burning leaves in the air. The man-made architecture inlaid in these environments to serve its several purposes. The look on the faces of human beings in accord with circumstance. 
These are among the experiences of artists from which their work derives.
Somewhere near the beginning of my career it was a practice to make excursions into the countryside, with a sketch-box, to record in the paint the thing seen. On one of these excursions, seated by the roadside before my subject, I was accosted by a man who, with permission asked, seated himself beside me. Some would designate his as a tramp, a convenient word for the dismissal of further consideration of him.
His occupation was that of an umbrella mender, a drop of solder on the pot of farmer's wife, in exchange for a bit of food and lodging for the night in the hayloft. As our conversation developed he quoted passages from Pope's "Essay on Man." Within my knowledge only the author understood it well. 
He also informed me in case I did not know. and I did not, that it was an especial experience to sleep among the cattle in an open field and to witness the arrival of a new day. Food must enter into the life of everyone. He had a basket on his arm, bread, tomatoes, scallions, and salt. All with the cares of the sun upon them. He invited me to share with him. It was a privilege. I do not have a name for him but I like to think of him as Adam. I also like to think of him, as well as the oak, as having come out of the earth, and that is reassuring. 
My work has continuously been based on a clue seen in Nature from which the subject of a picture may be projected. Nature, with its profound order, is an inexhaustible source of supply. Its many facets lend themselves freely to all who would help themselves for the particular needs. Each one may filter out for himself that which is essential to him. Our chief objective is to increase our capacity for perception. The degree of accomplishment determines the calibre of the Artist.
It is known that the amoeba is indispensable to the welfare of man. It is a hope that man is indispensable to the welfare of the amoeba. 
Old Zen Saying: To a man who knows nothing, Mountains are Mountains, Waters are Waters, and Trees are Trees. But when he has studied and knows a little, Mountains are no longer Mountains, Water are no longer Waters, and Trees are no longer Trees. But when he has thoroughly understood, Mountains are again Mountains, Waters are Waters, and Trees and Trees. 

Sources:

Sheeler, Charles, The Black Book, reprinted in Charles Sheeler, published for the National Collection of Fine Arts by the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. , 1968.