Overview

Charles Sheeler was a master of both painting and photography, and his work in one medium influenced and shaped his work in the other. In 1927 he was commissioned to photograph the Ford Motor Company's new River Rouge Plant near Detroit. Then the world's largest industrial complex employing more than seventy-five thousand workers, the plant produced Ford's Model A, successor to the famed Model T. Sheeler's photographs were used for the company's advertising, but he found himself greatly inspired by the subject, which he declared "incomparably the most thrilling I have had to work with."1 In 1930 he began painting oils of the plant, creating over the next six years American Landscape (1930, The Museum of Modern Art, New York), Classic Landscape (1931), River Rouge Plant (1932, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York), and City Interior (1936, Worcester Art Museum).

Classic Landscape depicts an area of the plant where cement was made from by-products of the manufacturing process. The silos in the middle distance stored the cement until it could be shipped for sale. Sheeler's choice of this rather anonymous scene, rather than one connected with the production of automobiles, suggests that his interest lay in making a generalized portrait of the landscape of industry. That, in part, may explain his use in the painting's title of the word "classic," with its connotations of typical or standard. But "classic" also evokes the culture of ancient Greece and Rome, and Sheeler certainly implies that this modern American scene can be compared to the high achievements of the classical past. One might well be reminded of classical architecture by the templelike form of the silos and the pedimentlike roofs of the nearby buildings, but the matter clearly went beyond superficial resemblance. Like others of his day, Sheeler admired architecture that was functional and straightforward, with shape and plan determined by specifics of use rather than by conventions of style and decoration. For the great French architect Le Corbusier, whose influential Towards a New Architecture Sheeler probably read about this time, the timeless principles of good design embodied by ancient architecture were indeed still at work in "the American grain elevators and factories, the magnificent first-fruits of the new age."2

The iconic power and special importance of Classic Landscape were recognized from the time of its first public exhibition in New York in 1931. Through the years, it has become one of the most widely exhibited and best-known works of its era, and today it stands as a key masterwork of twentieth-century American art.

(Text by Franklin Kelly, published in the National Gallery of Art exhibition catalogue, Art for the Nation, 2000)

Notes

1. Letter to Walter Arensberg, 25 October 1927; quoted in Theodore E. Stebbins Jr. and Norman Keyes Jr., Charles Sheeler: The Photographs [exh. cat., Museum of Fine Arts] (Boston, 1987), 25.

2. Le Corbusier, Towards a New Architecture, trans. Frederick Etchells (London, 1927), 21.

Inscription

lower right: Sheeler-1931.

Marks and Labels

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Provenance

Acquired 1931 from the artist by (The Downtown Gallery, New York); purchased 1932 by Edsel B. Ford [d. 1943], Dearborn, Michigan; by inheritance to his wife, Mrs. Edsel B. Ford [d. 1976], Grosse Point Shores, Michigan; her estate; by transfer 1982 to the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House, Detroit; (sale, Sotheby's, New York, 2 June 1983, no. 210); (Hirshl & Adler Galleries, New York; Kennedy Gallery, New York; Long & Company Gallery, Houston); purchased 4 June 1984 by Mr. and Mrs. Barney A. Ebsworth, St. Louis; gift 2000 to NGA.

Exhibition History

1931
Charles Sheeler, Exhibition of Recent Works, The Downtown Gallery, New York, 1931, checklist no. 4.
1932
American Contemporary Paintings and Sculpture, The Society of Arts and Crafts, Detroit, March-April 1932, no. 26.
1932
American Painting & Sculpture, 1862-1932, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1932-1933, no. 95, repro.
1932
Paintings and Drawings by Charles Sheeler, The Arts Club of Chicago, January-February 1932, no. 3.
1933
A Loan Exhibition of Retrospective American Painting, The Society of Arts and Crafts, Detroit, 1933, typewritten checklist, no. 13.
1934
Water Colours and Drawings by Sheeler, Hopper and Burchfield, Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1934, no cat.
1935
An Exhibition of Paintings by Charles Burchfield and Charles Sheeler, The Society of Arts and Crafts, Detroit, 1935, no. 17.
1938
Americans at Home: 32 Painters and Sculptors, The Downtown Gallery, New York, October 1938, no. 25.
1938
Trois Siècles d'Art au Etats-Unis, Musée de Jeu de Paume, Paris, May-July 1938, no. 154, fig. 35.
1939
Art in Our Time: An Exhibition to Celebrate the Tenth Anniversary of the Museum of Modern Art and the Opening of its New Building, Museum of Modern Art, New York, April 1939, no. 140, repro.
1939
Charles Sheeler: Paintings, Drawings, and Photographs, Museum of Modern Art, New York, October-November 1939, no. 22, repro.
1946
American Painting from the Eighteenth Century to the Present Day, Tate Gallery, London, 1946, no. 192.
1953
An Exhibition of Contemporary Art Collected by American Business, Meta Mold Aluminium Company, Cedarburg, Wisconsin, 1953, no. 40, repro. (incorrectly listed as owned by Henry Ford II).
1954
Ben Shahn, Charles Sheeler, Joe Jones, Detroit Institute of Arts, March-April 1954, no. 7, as Classical Landscape, incorrectly dated 1932.
1954
Charles Sheeler: A Retrospective Exhibition, Univ. of CA Art Gal., Los Angeles; M.H. DeYoung Mem. Mus., San Fran.; Ft. Worth Art Center; Munson-Williams-Proctor Inst., Utica; Penn. Acad. of the Fine Arts, Phil.; San Diego Fine Arts Gal., 1954, no. 15.
1957
Painting in America: The Story of 450 Years, Detroit Institute of Arts, 1957, no. 164, fig. 161, as Modern Classic.
1958
The Iron Horse in Art: The Railroad as it has been Interpreted by Artists of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, Fort Worth Art Center, 1958, no. 96, fig. 24.
1960
The Precisionist View in American Art, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Detroit Institute of Arts; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1960-1961, unnumbered catalogue.
1963
The Quest of Charles Sheeler, 83 Works Honoring His 80th Year, University of Iowa, Iowa City, 1963, no. 37, fig. 10.
1966
Art of the United States: 1670-1966, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1966, no. 255, repro.
1967
Charles Sheeler, A Retrospective Exhibition, Cedar Rapids Art Center, 1967, no. 9, repro.
1968
Charles Sheeler, National Collection of Fine Arts (now National Museum of American Art), Washington, D.C.; Philadelphia Museum of Art; Whitney Museum of American Art, 1968-1969, no. 63, repro.
1969
Detroit Collects, Selections from the Collections of the Friends of Modern Art, Detroit Institute of Arts, 1969, no. 168, as Classic Landscape--River Rouge.
1976
Arts and Crafts in Detroit 1906-1976: The Movement, The Society, The School, Detroit Institute of Arts, 1976-1977, no. 239, repro. (incorrectly dated 1932).
1977
Lines of Power, Hirschl & Adler Galleries, New York, 1977, unnumbered catalogue, repro.
1977
The Modern Spirit: American Painting 1908-1935, Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh; Hayward Gallery, London, 1977, no. 101, repro.
1978
The Rouge: The Image of Industry in the Art of Charles Sheeler and Diego Rivera, Detroit Institute of Arts, 1978, no. 27, repro.
1978
William Carlos Williams and the American Scene, 1920-1940, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1978-1979, unnumbered catalogue, repro.
1979
2 Jahrzehnte Amerikanische Malerei, 1920-1940, Städtische Kunsthalle, Düsseldorf; Kunsthaus, Zurich; Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, 1979, no. 78, repro.
1980
Paris and the American Avant-Garde, 1900-1925, Kalamazoo Inst. of Arts; Jesse Besser Mus., Alpena, MI; Univ. of MI Mus. of Art, Ann Arbor; Krasl Art Cntr., St. Joseph, MI; Kresge Art Cntr. Gal., East Lansing; Ella Sharp Mus., Jackson, MI, 1980, no. 30.
1984
The Art of Collecting, Hirschl & Adler Galleries, New York, 1984, no. 44, repro.
1986
The Machine Age in America, 1918-1941, Brooklyn Museum; Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; High Museum of Art, Atlanta, 1986-1988, not in cat. (shown only in Brooklyn and Pittsburgh).
1987
Charles Sheeler: Paintings, Drawings, Photographs, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Museum of Fine Arts, Dallas, 1987-1988, no. 37, repro. (shown only in Boston and Dallas).
1987
The Ebsworth Collection: American Modernism, 1911-1947, Saint Louis Art Museum; Honolulu Academy of Arts; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1987-1988, no. 61, repro.
1991
The 1920s: Age of the Metropolis, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 1991, no. 590, fig. 608.
1993
American Art in the 20th Century: Painting and Sculpture 1913-1993, Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin; Royal Academy of Arts, London, September-December 1993, no. 54, repro. (shown only in London).
1993
American Impressions: Masterworks from American Art Forum Collections, 1875-1935, National Museum of American Art, Washington, D.C., March-July 1993, no cat.
1994
Precisionism in America 1915-1941: Reordering Reality, Montclair Art Museum, New Jersey; Norton Gallery of Art, West Palm Beach; Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio; Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, Lincoln, Nebraska, 1994-1995, no. 65.
1999
The American Century: Art and Culture, 1900-1950, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1999, fig. 292.
2000
Art for the Nation: Collecting for a New Century, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2000-2001, unnumbered catalogue, repro.
2000
Twentieth-Century American Art: The Ebsworth Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Seattle Art Museum, 2000, no. 58, repro.
2006
Charles Sheeler: Across Media, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Art Institute of Chicago; Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, M.H. de Young Memorial Museum, 2006-2007, no. 27, repro.
2009
After Many Springs: Regionalism, Modernism, and the Midwest, Des Moines Art Center, 2009, pl. 3.

Bibliography

1931
Devree, Howard V. "Charles Sheeler's Exhibition." New York Times (19 November 1931): 32, col. 6.
1931
"Exhibition in New York: Charles Sheeler, Downtown Gallery." Art News 30, no. 8 (1931): 8.
1931
Kootz, Samuel M. "Ford Plant Photos of Charles Sheeler." Creative Art 8, no. 4 (April 1931): 99, repro.
1931
McCormick, W.B. "Machine Age Debunked." New York American (26 November 1931): 19, col. 2 (also printed in Los Angeles Examiner, 9 December 1931).
1931
Pemberton, Murdock. "The Art Galleries: The Strange Case of Charles Sheeler." The New Yorker VII (28 November 1931): 48.
1932
Brace, Ernest. "Charles Sheeler." Creative Art XI (October 1932): 98, 104, repro.
1932
Ringel, Frederick J., ed. America as Americans See It. New York, 1932: repro. facing 303.
1933
"New Phases of American Art." London Studio V (February 1933): 90, repro.
1934
"Les Etats Unis." L'Amour d'Art XV (November 1934): 467, fig. 606.
1934
_New York Times Book Review 82 (7 July 1934): 4, sec. 5, repro.
1935
"Loan Listings." Fogg Art Museum Annual Report. Cambridge, 1934-1935.
1936
"Charles Sheeler--Painter and Photographer." The Index of Twentieth Century Artists III, no. 4 (January 1936): 231.
1938
Jewell, Edward Alden. "Art of Americans Put on Exhibition." New York Times (5 October 1938): col. 1, "Art."
1938
"New Exhibition of the Week: Works that were Shown Abroad." Art News 37, no. 5 (15 October 1938): 13.
1938
Rourke, Constance. Charles Sheeler, Artist in the American Tradition. New York, 1938: 83, 147-148, 153, 166, 194, repro.
1938
Sweeney, James J. "L'art Contemporain aux Etats-Unis." Cahiers d'art XIII (1938): 61, repro.
1938
Whelan, Anne. "Barn Is Thing of Beauty to Charles Sheeler, Artist." The Bridgeport Sunday Post (21 August 1938): B4.
1939
B., C. "Art of Charles Sheeler." The Christian Science Monitor XXXI (14 October 1939): 12, col. 3.
1939
_Bulletin of the Museum of Modern Art VI (May-June 1939): 13, repro.
1939
Coates, Robert M. "The Art Galleries/A Sheeler Retrospective." The New Yorker XV (14 October 1939): 55.
1939
Cortissoz, Royal. "Types of American, British, and French Art." New York Herald Tribune XCIX, no. 33 (8 October 1939): 8, sec. VI, col. 1-5.
1939
Crowninshield, Frank. "Charles Sheeler's 'Americana'." Vogue XCIV (15 October 1939): 106.
1939
"Exhibits Work of Three Decades." The Villager (Greenwich Village) VII, no. 28 (12 October 1939): 7, col. 3.
1939
Genauer, Emily. "Charles Sheeler in One-man Show." New York World Telegram LXXXII (7 October 1939): 34, col. 1.
1939
Jewell, Edward Alden. "Sheeler in Retrospect." New York Times (8 October 1939): 9, col. 3.
1939
"Museum of Modern Art to Open Its Fifth Show of a Living Artist's Works." New York Herald Tribune XCIX (4 October 1939): 21, col. 2-3.
1939
T., B. "The Home Forum." The Christian Science Monitor XXXI (28 June 1939): 8, col. 2-5, repro.
1940
Beam, Laura. "Development of the Artist/.../IV/Charles Sheeler." Manuscript, American Association of University Women, 1940: 23.
1940
_New York Times Book Review 89 (15 September 1940): 3, sec. 6, col. 3-5, repro.
1948
Born, Wolfgang. American Landscape Painting, An Interpretation. New Haven, 1948: xiii, 211, 213, fig. 142.
1953
"Cedarburg Shows Off Top Art." The Milwaukee Journal, Picture Journal (7 June 1953): 3, repro. (incorrectly listed as lent by Henry Ford II).
1954
Frankenstein, Alfred. "This World/The Charles Sheeler Exhibition." San Francisco Chronicle XVIII (28 November 1954): 21, col. 1, magazine section.
1954
Wight, Frederick S. "Charles Sheeler." Art in America XLII, no. 3 (October 1954): 192, 197, repro.
1954
Williams, William Carlos. "Postscript by a Poet." Art in America XLII, no. 3 (October 1954): 215.
1955
Chanin, A.L. "Charles Sheeler: Purist Brush and Camera Eye." Art News LIV, no. 4 (Summer 1955): 72.
1955
Kepes, Gyorgy. "The New Landscape in Art and Science." Art in America XLIII, no. 3 (October 1955): 35, repro.
1955
Sorenson, George N. "Portraits of Machine Age: Sheeler Exhibition Called Year's Most Important." The San Diego Union (9 January 1955): repro.
1956
Richardson, Edgar P. "Three American Painters: Sheeler--Hopper--Burchfield." Perspectives USA (Summer 1956): following 112, repro.
1957
Freedman, Leonard, ed. Looking at Modern Painting. New York, 1957: 100-101, repro.
1957
Wight, Frederick S. "Charles Sheeler." In New Art in America, Fifty Painters of the 20th Century. Greenwich, Connecticut, 1957: 97, 102, repro.
1959
Craven, George M. "Sheeler at Seventy-Five." College Art Journal 18, no. 2 (Winter 1959): 138.
1963
Dochterman, Lillian N. "The Stylistic Development of the Work of Charles Sheeler." Ph.D. dissertation, University of Iowa, Iowa City, 1963: 49-50, 56, 58-60, 65, 320, no. 31.153, repro.
1965
Richardson, Edgar P. Painting in America from 1502 to the Present. New York, 1965: 341, repro. 377.
1967
Art in America, The Artist in America, New York, 1967: 169.
1972
Hunter, Sam. American Art of the 20th Century. New York, 1972: 91, pl. 192.
1973
Bennet, Ian. A History of American Painting. London, 1973: 185.
1974
Davidson, Abraham A. The Story of American Painting. New York, 1974: 131-133, no. 118, repro.
1975
Friedman, Martin. Charles Sheeler: Paintings, Drawings, and Photographs. New York, 1975: 8, 95, 112-113, pl. 17.
1976
Silk, Gerald D. "The Image of the Automobile in Modern Art." Ph.D. dissertation, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, 1976: x, 114, 292, fig. 93.
1976
Wilmerding, John. American Art. Hammondsworth, England, and New York, 1976: 181.
1978
Yeh, Susan Fillin. "Charles Sheeler's 1923 'Self-Portrait'." Arts 52, no. 5 (January 1978): 107.
1978
Yeh, Susan Fillin. "The Rouge." Arts Magazine LIII (November 1978): 8, repro.
1979
Brown, Milton, et al. American Art: Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, Decorative Arts, and Photography. New York, 1979: 427, pl. 66.
1979
Towle, Tony. "Art and Literature: William Carlos Williams and the American Scene." Art in America LXVII, no. 3 (May-June 1979): 52, repro.
1979
Yeh, Susan Fillin. "Charles Sheeler's 'Upper Deck'." Arts 53, no. 5 (January 1979): 94.
1980
Dintenfass, Terry. Charles Sheeler (1883-1965), Classic Themes: Paintings, Drawings, and Photographs. Exh. cat. Dintenfass Gallery, New York, 1980: 9.
1980
Dozema, Marianne. American Realism in the Industrial Age. Exh. cat. Cleveland Museum of Art, 1980: fig. 16.
1980
_Les Realismes, 1919-1939. Exh. cat. Georges Pompidou Centre, Paris; Staatliche Kunsthalle, Berlin. Paris, 1980: 30, 36, repro.
1980
Sims, Patterson. Charles Sheeler, A Concentration of Works from the Permanent Collection of The Whitney Museum of American Art, a 50th Anniversary Exhibition. Exh. cat. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1980: 24-25, repro.
1980
Yeh, Susan Fillin. "Charles Sheeler, Industry, Fashion, and the Vanguard." Arts Magazine LIV, no. 6 (February 1980): 158.
1981
Yeh, Susan Fillin. "Charles Sheeler and the Machine Age." Ph.D. dissertation, City University of New York, 1981: 42, 64-65, n. 126-132, 72-73, 95, 113, 145, 150, n. 31, 152, n. 57-58, 154, n. 84-85, 185-186, 189, 217, 222-224, 231, n. 39&47, 296, pl. 44.
1982
Tsujimoto, Karen. Images of America: Precisionist Painting and Modern Photography. Exh. cat. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1982: 83.
1983
_Art at Auction: The Year at Sotheby's, 1982-1983, London, 1983: 10, 134, color repro.
1983
"Choice Auctions." The Magazine Antiques 213 (June 1983): 23, repro.
1983
Hogrefe, Jeffrey. "Sheeler Auctioned for $1.87 Million." Washington Post (3 June 1983).
1983
Reif, Rita. "Sheeler Work Sets a Record." New York Times (3 June 1983).
1983
Stewart, Patrick L. "Charles Sheeler, William Carlos Williams, and Precisionism: A Redefinition." Arts Magazine 58, no. 3 (November 1983): 100-114.
1984
_International Auction Records, Editions Mayer XVII (1984): 1271, repro.
1986
Tepfer, Diane. "Twentieth Century Realism: The American Scene." In American Art Analog. Michael David Zellman, compiler. New York, 1986: 743, 745, repro.
1986
Troyon, Carol. "The Open Window and the Empty Chair: Charles Sheeler's 'View of New York'." The American Art Journal 18, no. 2 (1986): 25.
1987
Colihan, J. "Industrial Landscape Paintings of Charles Sheeler." American Heritage 38, no. 7 (1987): 86-87, repro.
1987
McQuade, Donald, ed. The Harper American Literature. New York, 1987: vol. 2, color repro.
1987
Stebbins, Theodore E., and Norman Keyes, Jr. Charles Sheeler: The Photographs. Exh. cat. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1987: 34, 40.
1989
Lucic, Karen. "Charles Sheeler and Henry Ford: A Craft Heritage for the Machine Age." Bulletin of the Detroit Institute of Arts 65, no. 1 (1989): 38-39, 44-46, repro.
1990
_Raymond Loewy: Pionier des Amerikanischen Industriedesigns. Exh. cat. Internationalen Design Zentrum, Berlin, 1990: 260, repro.
1990
Rubin, Joan Shelley. "A Convergence of Vision: Constance Rourke, Charles Sheeler, and American Art." American Quarterly 42, no. 2 (June 1990): 209, 211, repro.
1991
Lucic, Karen. Charles Sheeler and the Cult of the Machine. Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1991: 13-14, 76, 98, 102-103, 107, 114, 117, 141, pl. 37.
1991
Vetrocq, Marcia E. "Modernity and the City." Art in America (November 1991): 56.
1992
Harnsberger, R. Scott. Ten Precisionist Artists: Annotated Bibliographies. Westport, Connecticut, 1992: 230, 263, 264.
1993
"American Art: Odd Ommissions." The Economist (25 September 1993): 102, repro.
1993
Livingston, M. "American Art in the Twentieth Century: Painting and Sculpture, 1913-1993." The Burlington Magazine 135 (September 1993): 646, repro.
1995
_Grant Wood, An American Artist Revealed. Exh. cat. Davenport Museum of Art, Iowa, 1995: 23, repro.
1995
Stavitsky, Gail. "Precisionism in America, 1915-1941: Reordering Reality." American Art Review 7, no. 1 (February-March 1995): 125, repro.
1995
Zimmer, Michael. "The Many Layers of Precisionism." New York Times (11 December 1995): repro.
1996
Fontenas, Hugues. "Un Trouble de L'Esthetique Architectural." Cahiers du Musée National d'Art Moderne 58 (Winter 1996): 97, repro.
1998
Dennis, James M. Renegade Regionalists: The Modern Independence of Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, and John Steuart Curry. Madison, 1998: 221-224, 231, repro.
1999
Maroney, Jr., James H. "Charles Sheeler Reveals the Machinery of His Soul." American Art 13, no. 2 (Summer 1999): 49.
2004
Hand, John Oliver. National Gallery of Art: Master Paintings from the Collection. Washington and New York, 2004: 420-421, no. 353, color repro.
2012
Brock, Charles. “George Bellows: An Unfinished Life.” In George Bellows ed. Charles Brock (Exh. cat. Washington 2012). Munich, 2012: 25-24, color fig. 16.

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