Photography: Doylestown Interiors, 1917
Sheeler was trained at the School of Industrial Art in Philadelphia from 1900 to 1902. He then enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts from 1903 to 1906, where he learned an impressionistic style under the tutelage of the painter William Merritt Chase. In early 1909, on a trip to Paris, he encountered the revolutionary works of Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and other European modernists. Recognizing the break with the past that these artists represented, he returned to the United States determined to cast aside his previous conceptions of art and pursue a new direction in his work. Around 1910 Sheeler took up photography as a way to support his painting — first documenting buildings for local Philadelphia architects, and later photographing works of art for New York dealers. In 1913 he participated in the first comprehensive display of European and American modernism in the United States, the Armory Show in New York, where he admired the works of the iconoclastic French artist Marcel Duchamp. By 1917 Sheeler was being recognized not only for his cubist-inspired paintings and drawings but also for his innovative photographs. Alfred Stieglitz, the influential champion of modern art in America, proclaimed Sheeler, along with Morton Schamberg and Paul Strand, the "Trinity of Photography."
The photographs that brought Sheeler to Stieglitz's attention were taken in the rural countryside of Bucks County, Pennsylvania. These included images of an eighteenth-century Quaker fieldstone house located on the outskirts of Doylestown, which Sheeler and Schamberg had begun renting around 1910 as a weekend retreat and painting studio. Doylestown House — The Stove of 1917 exemplifies the sharply focused, more objective style that was then being promoted by Stieglitz as an alternative to the painterly aesthetic and blurred effects favored by photographers earlier in the century.
The Stove documents the encounter between a machine and an object — the camera and the stove — that seemingly occurs without human intervention. Yet this very lack of a distinct human presence invites viewers to project themselves into the photograph's empty spaces. The architectural construction of the work facilitates movement in and out of the picture, and the tactile qualities of the image's surfaces can be read as vestigial signs of human touch and craftsmanship. Sheeler conceived of The Stove as part of a series of twelve prints that allowed the viewer to experience the interior spaces of the house in myriad ways. Moreover, he wrote to Stieglitz that he saw the Doylestown photographs as "more akin to drawings,"1 and they later served as the basis for large Conté crayon drawings such as Interior with Stove, 1932, and for paintings such as The Upstairs, 1938. Sheeler exercised ever greater aesthetic control over his subject in these related works, eliminating certain details and making subtle compositional changes to his already highly refined photographs. Art begat art as the interior of the Doylestown house was captured successively in photographs, drawings, and paintings.
1. Charles Sheeler to Alfred Stieglitz, November 22, 1917, Alfred Stieglitz/Georgia O’Keeffe Archive, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Collection.