Mixing Media: The Artist Looks at Nature, 1943
Sheeler's ongoing practice of revisiting subjects in different media over the span of decades is encapsulated in the painting The Artist Looks at Nature, 1943. The scene at the lower right is based on a 1932 photograph, Self-Portrait at Easel, that depicts Sheeler in the process of making the large 1932 Conté crayon drawing Interior with Stove, which was in turn based on his 1917 photograph The Stove. Visual puzzles abound here. For instance, Sheeler's title states that the artist is looking at nature, but he is instead sketching a nighttime scene of a simple interior — not the immense landscape flooded with daylight that surrounds him.
When the painting was exhibited in 1944, it was reported that the scene incorporated views of Sheeler's home in Ridgefield, Connecticut, and of Boulder Dam (now Hoover Dam). Such a fanciful blending of bucolic, domestic views with the monumental forms and spaces of a public dam would account for the odd, unstable relationships and discrepancies of scale between the figure of the seated artist at the bottom right, the red-roofed house in the upper left corner, and the moat between them framed by the steep walls and stairs.
The Artist Looks at Nature conflates painting, drawing, and photography; genres such as landscape, self-portraiture, and still life; themes such as the artist in his studio and the artist in nature; and references to various places Sheeler lived and worked from 1917 to 1943. The painting can be understood as autobiographical and records how his explorations across various media defined and complicated his artistic identity. As Sheeler wrote: "Painting is a kind of road map, a diary of a journey — where you have been and perhaps a clue as to where you are going. In the course of a long journey over territory you have not covered before sometime you are bound to find yourself on unimproved roads."1
1. Charles Sheeler Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.