Charles Sheeler

Artist Biography

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

I. Biography
II. Chronology
III. Collections
IV. Exhibitions
V. Memberships
VI. Notes
VII. Suggested Resources

I. Biography

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.

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.

II. Chronology

1883 Born on July 16 in Philadelphia to Charles Rettew and Mary Cunningham Sheeler
1900 Enrolled in School of Industrial Art, Philadelphia
1903 Enrolled in Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
1904 Traveled to London and Holland with William Merritt Chase
1905 Visited Spain with Chase
1906 Received degree from Pennsylvania Academy
1908 Traveled to Europe with parents and Morton Schamberg
1910 Started career as photographer
1919 Moved to New York
1920 Filmed Manhatta with Paul Strand
1921 Married Katharine Baird Shaffer on April 7
1925 Published essay on Greek art in Arts
1926 Began to work for Condé Nast Publications
1926 From October through December, photographed Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge Plant for N.W. Ayer and Son
1929 Traveled to Europe for last time; finished Upper Deck
1933 Wife Katharine died
1939 Married Musya Metas Sokolova on April 2
1942 Began to work at Metropolitan Museum of Art as senior research fellow in photography
1952 Traveled on commission to Pittsburgh and Cedarburg, Wisc.
1954 Visited Ansel Adams in San Francisco; photographed Pacific Gas and Electric power plant at Morro Bay
1961 Stroke ended career
1962 Received Award of Merit Medal for Painting, American Academy of Arts and Letters
1963 Elected to membership in National Institute of Arts and Letters
1965 Died on May 7

III. Collections

Art Institute of Chicago
Butler Institute of American Art, Ohio
Detroit Institute of Arts, Michigan
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C.
J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Museum of Modern Art, New York City
National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Missouri
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
The Phillips Collection, Washington D.C.
Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut
Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, Massachusetts
Amon Carter Museum, Texas
Brooklyn Museum, New York City
Brooklyn Museum/Luce Center for American Art, New York City
Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Cincinnati Art Museum, Ohio
Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio
Currier Gallery of Art, New Hampshire
Dallas Museum of Art, Texas
Davison Art Center at Wesleyan University, Connecticut
Dayton Art Institute, Ohio
Harvard University Art Museums, Massachusetts
Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indiana
James A. Michener Art Museum, Doylestown, Pennsylvania
Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, New York
New Britain Museum of American Art, Connecticut
Oklahoma City Museum of Art, Oklahoma
Orlando Museum of Art, Florida
Palmer Museum of Art at Pennsylvania State University
Philadelphia Museum of Art
Princeton University Art Museum, New Jersey
Reynolda House Museum of American Art, Winston-Salem, North Carolina
San Diego Museum of Art, California
Santa Barbara Museum of Art, California
Sheldon Art Gallery, Lincoln, Nebraska
Smith College Museum of Art, Massachusetts
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.
Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago
Walker Art Center, Minnesota
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City
Wichita Art Museum, Kansas
Worcester Art Museum, Massachusetts
Worcester Art Museum, Massachusetts

IV. Exhibitions

1907-10, 1930-31, 1939-58 Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
1907-49 AIC (prize 1945)
1913 Armory Show
1917 Marius De Zaya's Gallery (photographs)
1917 Forum Exh, NYC
1917 Society Independent Artists
1923 Salons of America
1932-57 Corcoran Gallery biennials
1934 FMA (solo)
1939 Museum of Modern Art, New York (solo)
1946 The Downtown Gallery
1947 Addison Gallery of American Art
1948 Currier Gallery of Art, Manchester, New Hampshire
1952 Walker Art Center
1954-55 Traveling exhibitions to University of California, Los Angeles, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, De Young Museum
1958 San Diego MA
1958 Munson-Williams-Proctor Inst

V. Memberships

American Academy of Arts & Letters

VI. Notes

1: Charles Brock. Charles Sheeler across Media. (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: National Gallery of Art in association with University of California Press, 2006), p. 9.
2: Charles Brock. Charles Sheeler across Media. (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: National Gallery of Art in association with University of California Press, 2006), p. 12.
3: Karen Lucin. Charles Sheeler in Doylestown. American Modernism and the Pennsylvania Tradition. (Allentown: Allentown Art Museum, 1997), p. 43.

VII. Suggested Resources

Lucic, Karen. Charles Sheeler in Doylestown. American Modernism and the Pennsylvania Tradition. Allentown: Allentown Art Museum, 1997.
Morgan, Ann Lee. The Oxford Dictionary of American Art and Artists. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
Brock, Charles. Charles Sheeler across Media. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: National Gallery of Art in association with University of California Press, 2006.
E. Hirshler, Carol Troyen. Charles Sheeler: Painting and Drawing. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, Boston, 1987.

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