Cactus

Charles Sheeler, American, 1883 - 1965

Date:
1931

Medium:
Oil on canvas

Dimensions:
45 1/8 x 30 1/16 inches (114.6 x 76.4 cm) Framed: 50 1/4 x 35 1/4 x 3 1/4 inches (127.6 x 89.5 x 8.3 cm)

Copyright:
Research inconclusive. Copyright may apply.

Curatorial Department:
Modern and Contemporary Art

Object Location:

* Gallery 50, Modern and Contemporary Art, ground floor

Accession Number:
1950-134-186

Credit Line:
The Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection, 1950

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Label:
Beginning in the 1920s, Charles Sheeler played a central role in the development of Precisionism, a modernist movement characterized by a crisp, sharply defined style that united the desire for a distinctly American art with the lessons of the Parisian avant-garde. As was often the case, Sheeler based this painting on one of his own photographs, rendering the plant, pedestal, and lamps, as well as the variations in light and shadow, with photographic exactitude. His early sympathy with Cubism remains apparent: he transformed this seemingly straightforward document of his working life into a complex interplay of forms in a shallow, ambiguous space. Sheeler's severe and analytic approach produced a highly enigmatic image, however, as the denuded cactus, stripped of its spikes, sits forlornly beneath an unplugged light.

Additional information:
  • PublicationPhiladelphia Museum of Art: Handbook of the Collections

    Beginning in the 1920s, Charles Sheeler played a central role in the development of Precisionism, a modernist movement characterized by a crisp, sharply defined style that united the desire for a distinctly American art with the lessons of the Parisian avant-garde. In Cactus, he continues the rigorous pursuit of clarity and order that had marked his Precisionist studies of such vernacular emblems of the United States as barns, Shaker furniture, and factories. As was often the case, Sheeler based this painting on one of his own photographs (here a set used for one of his commercial shoots), rendering the plant, pedestal, and lamps as well as the variations in light and shadow with photographic exactitude. Sheeler's early sympathy with Cubism also remains apparent, for he has transformed this seemingly straightforward document of his working life into a complex interplay of forms in a shallow, ambiguous space. Oddly, however, Sheeler's severe and analytic approach has produced a highly enigmatic image, as the denuded cactus, stripped of its spikes, sits forlornly beneath an unplugged light. John B. Ravenal, from Philadelphia Museum of Art: Handbook of the Collections (1995), p. 324.
  • PublicationTwentieth-Century Painting and Sculpture in the Philadelphia Museum of Art

    One of many artists who sought to capture the spirit of modern technology in the first half of the twentieth century, Sheeler took up such themes as machinery, rural architecture, and industrial landscapes. Adopting a clear, linear painting style, Sheeler's work epitomizes the movement in American art that has come to be known as Precisionism.

    Sheeler was also a commercial photographer, and Cactus is one of a small group of paintings in which he depicted the interior of his photography studio in Manhattan. It is, in fact, based on a photographic still life Sheeler had recently produced. At first glance, the painting itself suggests a photograph in its dominant palette of grays, blacks, and whites, and it refers overtly to the apparatus of commercial photography with the presence of two large studio lamps hovering near the central plant. Neither of these lamps provides a light source for the image, and the one on the right is shown limply unplugged; instead, light floods in from an unknown source to the left of the composition.

    The large green cactus, sitting on the shiny tabletop, anchors this triangle of mechanical forms. Sheeler uses the cactus both to introduce a solid burst of color and to provide an organic counterpoint to the rounded form of the large, unlit bulb. At this time, the cactus was often viewed as a botanical embodiment of the modern, streamlined aesthetic, and Sheeler surely also had this in mind when he chose his subject. The photographic version of this still life reveals that the cactus had large spiny barbs, which Sheeler deleted in the painted version of this arrangement. Twentieth Century Painting and Sculpture in the Philadelphia Museum of Art (2000), p. 73.


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