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Charles Sheeler, San Francisco
Charles Sheeler, San Francisco, 1956 (negative); 1976-1979 (print)
Ansel Adams, American
Gelatin silver print
Image and sheet: 12 1/8 × 9 5/16 inches (30.8 × 23.7 cm) Mount: 20 × 16 inches (50.8 × 40.6 cm)
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert A. Hauslohner, 1976
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Charles Sheeler

American, 1883 - 1965

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Perpetually fascinated by unconventional sources such as tools, Shaker furniture, rural architecture, advertisements, modern machines, and industrial structures, all of which permeated his artistic imagery, Charles Sheeler (1883 - 1965) worked simultaneously in several mediums that interacted in his art in different ways at different moments in his career. He was trained in applied design at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art before entering the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1903, where he learned to paint in the rapid, bravura style of his teacher, William Merritt Chase. Travel to France in 1908-9 with his Academy classmate Morton Schamberg brought him in contact with the modern painting styles of Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso, and Henri Matisse, leading eventually to a break with his earlier style. About 1910 he and Schamberg took up photography, which wrought an important transformation of his vision as well as his working methods. While commercial photography commissions supplemented his income, Sheeler also exhibited his photographs independently as well as along with his paintings.

Initially, his photographs were influenced by painted imagery,1 but photography gradually took the lead in becoming the source for many of his paintings. Sheeler provided few specifics about the way his paintings and photographs interacted in his working process, although it is known that in 1929 photographs took the place of preparatory drawings for his paintings.2 The most important example of this practice was the series of photographs made on commission for the Ford Motor Company's River Rouge plant in 1927, which was followed by painted versions of the subjects three years later. Using the photographic techniques of cropping, sharply angled views, and focus on details, Sheeler gradually began to make paintings that resembled photographs in their sharp-edged precision, obliterating as much as possible any trace of brushwork or impasto.

Still, the role of the photograph in the preparatory process was evidently not sufficient for Sheeler to achieve the kind of perfection he sought in his paintings, and in the late 1920s he began occasionally to make small tempera studies on paper, sometimes similar in scale to a photograph, in which, presumably, he was able to fix his ideas of color before progressing to a finished work in oil on canvas. Two examples of these small studies are in the present collection, one of which is paired with its corresponding painting.

Sheeler's small tempera Water was preparatory for a larger oil painting completed the following year. The grand scale of the massive system of pipes and blocklike towers, devoid of any human presence, continues the approach he had taken to the industrial structures in a series of paintings made in 1940 for Fortune Magazine on the subject of Power. While Water differs from the Power series by depicting an entire mechanical structure rather than concentrating on gigantic details of machinery, Sheeler maintains the sense of an aggressive, almost threatening mechanized world in which human beings are apparently no longer in control.3 In both versions of Water (the location of the site still has not been identified), the bland, colorless structures achieve a certain dynamism owing to their sheer monumentality and their repetitive, seemingly endless, diagonal recession into the distance. Here, as frequently occurs in Sheeler's photographs, the structure appears to extend far beyond the limits of the canvas.

From what is known of Sheeler's working procedure for his industrial scenes of the 1930s and 1940s, it seems probable that Water was made on commission and that its composition originated from a now-lost photograph he took of the site. The tempera differs from the oil painting chiefly in its color: the cloudless blue sky in the study is replaced in the final painting by dense, low clouds hanging below a swath of threatening dark gray; yet despite the different weather conditions, Sheeler repeats almost exactly the patterns of light and shadow falling over the structures. While the tempera seems bold and almost surreal in its clarity, the final painting is gloomy and brooding. Water has been called a transitional work,4 as indeed it is, for it was painted at a time when Sheeler was beginning to experiment with a new abstract manner characterized by strongly patterned forms and bright, contrasting colors;5 yet in 1945 he was still making works like Water in the straightforward, realistic style that he had developed in the late 1930s. This vacillation between realism and semiabstraction seems to have been brought about by the critical reception of his 1939 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the paintings in the Power series, which were faulted for their illustrative, photographic character.6

By 1951, when Sheeler created the oil painting Neighbors and the smaller tempera Neighbors No. 2, he had evolved a new method of compositional design that involved superimposing two or more photographic negatives to print a composite photograph, which he transferred to paper or canvas. Although he had been using composite photographs in making paintings for years, in the compositions of the late 1940s his purpose had changed, for, as Carol Troyen explains, "his use of photographic composites was less an end in itself than an inventive means of generating a composition in another medium."7 Like the tempera study for Water and its corresponding oil painting, the two versions of Neighbors differ in coloration; disparities also occur in minor details, such as the patterns of shadow in the center of the somewhat more freely handled tempera. The source for Neighbors may be found in a series of photographs Sheeler took in Manhattan in 1950 of Rockefeller Center and nearby St. Patrick's Cathedral,8 and indeed some details of the office buildings in the center and to the right in Neighbors derive specifically from the photograph Figures on Fifth Avenue, New York, while the Gothic windows of St. Patrick's come from some other unidentified photograph in the series.9 As in several of these composite pictures, Sheeler's palette in Neighbors is an odd mixture of grays, taupes, and violets, evoking the hazy juxtapositions that occur in a dream or a distant memory.

Innis Howe Shoemaker, from Adventures in Modern Art: The C. K. Williams II Collection (2009), pp. 268-273.

1. Susan Fillin Yeh, "Charles Sheeler and the Machine Age" (Ph.D. diss., City University of New York, 1981), p. 108: "He began as a painter whose photographs were influenced by painting. He ended up as a painter and photographer whose paintings had been influenced by photographs."
2. Ibid., p. 110, says that this change began with the painting Upper Deck (1929; Harvard Art Museum/Fogg Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts). 3. This interpretation of Sheeler's industrial pictures has been most comprehensively advanced by Karen Lucic, Charles Sheeler and the Cult of the Machine (London: Reaktion Books, 1991), pp. 108-15.
4. Ibid., p. 113.
5. See Incantations (1946), reproduced in Carol Troyen and Erica E. Hirshler, Charles Sheeler: Paintings and Drawings, exh. cat. (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1987), p. 186, no. 67.
6. For reactions to the exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, see ibid., p. 32. For the reception of the Fortune Magazine series and Sheeler's reaction to it, see Lucic, Charles Sheeler and the Cult of the Machine, pp. 112-13.
7. Troyen, in Troyen and Hirshler, Charles Sheeler, p. 36.
8. Christie's, New York, "Important American Paintings, Drawings, and Sculpture of the 18th, 19th, and 20th Centuries," December 1, 1989, lot 278, acknowledges Troyen's identification of Neighbors with Sheeler's photographs of Rockefeller Center and St. Patrick's Cathedral. However, it is stated that "Neighbors has no photographic counterpart." As is suggested here, Neighbors appears to be composed from a composite photograph based upon two (or more?) negatives.
9. In fact, it is possible that the detail of St. Patrick's might derive from the reversal of the negative for Shadows on St. Patrick's, New York; this image contains an identical white vertical shape ending in a jagged point, which is silhouetted against the long area of black at the far right margin of the two paintings. In the photograph, this shape is created by sunlight shining between the church and the rectory. The photograph is reproduced in Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr., and Norman Keyes, Jr., Charles Sheeler: The Photographs, exh. cat. (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1987), no. 86.

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