Charles Sheeler was born in Philadelphia and educated at the Pennsylvania School of Industrial Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Despite being discouraged in his initial attempts to study at the Academy, he earned certificates of commendation there in industrial drawing, decorative painting, and applied art.
While Sheeler was at the Academy, the charismatic personality of the artist and teacher William Merritt Chase influenced him greatly. Later, however, Sheeler rejected Chase's impressionistic style for one of austere realism. In 1908 Sheeler traveled to Europe, where he saw modernist works by Braque, Picasso, and Cézanne that transformed his ideas about space and structure.
Back in the United States, Sheeler shared a Philadelphia studio and a country house in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, with his close friend and fellow artist, Morton Schamberg. When it became clear that neither artist could support himself adequately by painting alone, both Sheeler and Schamberg turned to commercial photography. Sheeler's subjects at this time were usually related to art and architecture, although in the 1920s and 1930s he accepted fashion and journalistic assignments from such prestigious magazines as Vogue, Vanity Fair, Life, and Fortune.
In 1919 Sheeler moved to New York City, where he associated with avant-garde artists at the salons held by the art collectors Louise and Walter Arensberg and at the Whitney Studio Club. One of Sheeler's most important commissions came in 1927, when he was asked to photograph the Ford Motor Company's River Rouge Plant in Detroit. The success of the River Rouge project advanced Sheeler's career and indicated that photography was gaining acceptance as an art form. The project also provided subject matter for some of Sheeler's most significant paintings.
Throughout his career Sheeler excelled as both a photographer and a painter. His stark interpretations of architectural, industrial, and technological subjects reflect his love of precise, geometric forms and his strong sense of abstract design.
[This is an excerpt from the interactive companion to the videodisc American Art from the National Gallery of Art.]