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Charles Sheeler: Across Media



Photography is nature seen from the eyes outward, painting from the eyes inward.1

Charles Sheeler, 1938


The American modernist Charles Sheeler (1883–1965) explored the relationships between photography, film, and more traditional media such as painting and drawing with more rigor and intellectual discipline than perhaps any other artist of his generation. As in a well-conceived scientific experiment, Sheeler used his own photographs and film stills as the basis for paintings and drawings, thus crystallizing the differences and similarities between them. Works in one medium manage to function as independent objects while also being inextricably linked to works in other media.


During Sheeler's lifetime the essential role that photography played in his creative process was often criticized or obscured because the medium's legitimacy as an art form remained controversial. In 1931 Sheeler himself — wary of being accused of simply copying his photographs, and at the behest of his dealer, Edith Halpert — began downplaying their connections. Yet the complex dialogue Sheeler forged among various techniques early in the century is one of his most innovative and important contributions to the history of American modernism.


Organized chronologically and covering the major themes of Sheeler's career, Charles Sheeler: Across Media allows viewers to compare works of the same subject rendered in a variety of media. At first glance some of these works may seem identical, but closer inspection reveals their subtle and meaningful differences. In presenting these relationships, the broader pattern of Sheeler's artistic enterprise — what he once called "the whole cloth from which my work has been cut"2 — emerges.


1. Quoted in Constance Rourke, Charles Sheeler, Artist in the American Tradition (New York, 1938), 119.

2. Charles Sheeler to Edith Halpert, June 9, 1956, Downtown Gallery Papers.

Doylestown House--The Stove, 1917, gelatin silver print, Pepita Milmore Memorial Fund, 1998.19.3

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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.

(left) Doylestown House--The Stove, 1917, gelatin silver print, Pepita Milmore Memorial Fund, 1998.19.3

(middle) Interior with Stove, 1932, conté crayon on paper on wove paper, Gift (Partial and Promised) of Aaron I. Fleischman, 2000.181.1

(right) The Upstairs, 1938, oil on canvas, Cincinnati Art Museum, Fanny Bryce Lehmer Endowment

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Film: Manhatta and the Cityscape, 1920


In late 1919 or early 1920, shortly after buying an expensive 35mm movie camera, Sheeler approached the photographer Paul Strand about developing a project together. From early 1920 into the fall of that year, they made a short film depicting a day in the life of New York City. Consisting of approximately sixty-five shots sequenced in a loose, narrative format, it begins with the Staten Island ferry approaching lower Manhattan to release hordes of morning commuters, and it ends with a sunset view taken from a downtown skyscraper. Shown in London in 1927 under the title Manhatta, the movie was lost for nearly a quarter century. It is now widely acknowledged as a landmark in the history of avant-garde cinema.


In Manhatta Sheeler and Strand sought specifically to apply, as Strand wrote, "their special knowledge gained from experiments in still photography, to the motion picture."1 Various scenes pay homage to the cityscape photography of their contemporaries, including Stieglitz. Camera movement is kept to a minimum and incidental motion is isolated within carefully arranged abstract compositions.


Although Sheeler soon abandoned filmmaking, Manhatta had a lasting impact on his work in other media. When he filmed a section of the city around the Park Row Building in lower Manhattan, he also made a series of still photographs, surveying the same area in ways that mimicked the panning motion of his movie camera. He then used one of the photographs in the series, New York, Park Row Building, 1920, as the basis for a pencil drawing, New York, 1920. The drawing is in turn closely related to Skyscrapers, the painting of almost identical size that followed in 1922. Stills from the film also inspired other paintings and drawings. As a sequence of images viewed over time, film provided Sheeler with a flexible conceptual framework that he extended into other media; what begins as a movie becomes a photograph and ends as a drawing or painting. Revisiting favorite subjects over the course of his career, his series often span decades, with many years routinely separating works in one medium from those in another.


1. Press release, Museum of Modern Art, film department archives.

(left) New York, Park Row Building, 1920, gelatin silver print, The Lane Collection

(middle) New York , 1920, graphite on cream Japanese vellum, The Art Institute of Chicago, Friends of American Art Collection, 1922.5552, Copyright © The Art Institute of Chicago

(right) Skyscrapers, 1922, oil on canvas, The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

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Commercial Photography: The River Rouge Factory, 1927


During the 1920s Sheeler found success and recognition as a commercial photographer. In 1927 he was hired by a prominent Philadelphia advertising firm, N. W. Ayer & Son, to shoot the Ford Motor Company's River Rouge auto plant located outside of Detroit as part of a promotional campaign for the new Model A. The immense facility covered eleven hundred acres and was heralded as the largest industrial complex in the world. Sheeler photographed the factory for about six weeks, from late October until the end of November; the result was a series of thirty-two prints. While the Rouge photographs were initially used to publicize the Ford Motor Company, they eventually came to serve as the basis for an assortment of experiments in various other media as well. Sheeler later recalled: "I was out there on a mission of photography....And when I got there, I took a chance on opening the other eye and so then I thought maybe some pictures could be pulled out."1


The view in American Landscape, 1930, of the Rouge's boat slip and the silos of the cement plant, was "pulled out" from the background of the gelatin silver print, Ford Plant, River Rouge, Canal with Salvage Ship, 1927, and its vertical format turned into a horizontal, panoramic view. In this and other paintings, Sheeler pictured the factory almost devoid of the tens of thousands of workers employed there. Described in general terms such as "American" and "classic" in their titles, the paintings are abstracted and distanced from the harsh, workaday realities of the factory in order to highlight the subject's aesthetic qualities. In the early 1930s Sheeler also produced a group of Conté crayon drawings based directly on his Rouge photographs, including Ballet Mechanique. Requiring as much time to complete as his paintings, these were created by Sheeler to "most closely approach photography" and "to see how much exactitude I could attain."2 Keeping the point of the crayon to "needle sharpness" and moving methodically from the top left to the bottom right of the sheet, Sheeler strove "to make my drawings as completely realized as paintings, in accounting for form, color and design."3


In the Rouge commission and the related works in various media, Sheeler successfully navigated the boundaries between applied, commercial, and fine art. For the rest of his career he continued to depict American industry, until his name became virtually synonymous with the subject and with the crisp, geometric style associated with it: precisionism. While many other artists associated with precisionism — such as Georgia O'Keeffe, Charles Demuth, and Joseph Stella — explored industrial subjects, few could match the variety of approaches and techniques Sheeler brought to the task.


1. Interview by Bartlett Cowdrey, December 19, 1958, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

2. "Sheeler 1946," Art News 45 (March 1946): 30 – 31.

3. Charles Sheeler Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

(top) American Landscape, 1930, oil on canvas, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Gift of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, 1934

(bottom left) Ford Plant, River Rouge, Canal with Salvage Ship, 1927, gelatin silver print, The Lane Collection

(bottom right) Ballet Mechanique, 1931, Conté crayon on paper, Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, Gift of Peter Iselin and his sister, Emilie Iselin Wiggin

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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.

(left) The Artist Looks at Nature, 1943, oil on canvas, The Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of Society for Contemporary American Art, 1944.32, Copyright © The Art Institute of Chicago

(right) Self-Portrait at Easel, 1931, gelatin silver print, The Art Institute of Chicago, Ada Turnbull Hertle Endowment 1988.431, Copyright © The Art Institute of Chicago

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Photomontage: New England Irrelevancies, 1946


During the course of two artist-in-residence programs in the 1940s — one at the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, Massachusetts, in 1946 and the other at the Currier Gallery in Manchester, New Hampshire, in 1948 — Sheeler began depicting abandoned nineteenth-century textile mills in New England using photomontage. While Dada artists earlier in the century had developed photomontage as a variation of collage, pasting together actual photographs or photographic reproductions culled from the press, Sheeler created his montages in the darkroom by sandwiching two or three negatives in his enlarger. He then exposed the composite image and printed the results, for example Study for Improvisation on a Mill Town, 1948. Sheeler noted: "The idea is based on having realized that when we look at any object in nature there is the memory of the object we have previously seen that carrys [sic] over as overtones on the present. I combine the immediate image with things previously seen. The overtones may be related to the immediate or totally dissimilar."1


By the 1940s photomontage was a fairly common technique in both commercial and fine-art photography. What distinguished Sheeler's use of the medium was that he employed it not as an end in itself but as a basis for works in other media. While these again included oil paintings and Conté crayon drawings, Sheeler also experimented with new materials and methods, such as smaller works on glass and tempera studies.


The layering of various media that characterized Sheeler's earlier efforts culminated in the montage aesthetic found in his kaleidoscopic, carefully orchestrated series on the theme of the New England mill. In paintings such as New England Irrelevancies, which features an overlay of scenes from both the Andover and Manchester sites, Sheeler was able to merge abstract form and realistic detail in new, complex ways.


1. Charles Sheeler Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

(left) Study for Improvisation on a Mill Town, 1948, gelatin silver print, The Lane Collection

(right) New England Irrelevancies, 1953, oil on canvas, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Gift of William H. and Saundra B. Lane and Henry H. and Zoe Oliver Sherman Fund

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While Sheeler admired artists who directly incorporated political, social, and historical subjects into their work, he himself chose not to pursue such themes. Over the course of his career he instead explored the relevance of photography, film, commercial photography, and photomontage for more traditional artistic practices and identities. Whether depicting the American house, city, or factory, he made the objective machine aesthetic of the camera the basis for works that, although largely devoid of people, still sustain a palpable connection with the viewer. It is the sense of a fleeting, yet meaningful, human presence in the midst of the forces of industry, technology, and art itself that haunts Sheeler's works and makes them so poignant. As Sheeler's friend, the poet William Carlos Williams, wrote: "Charles Sheeler has lived in a mechanical age... [with] a realization on the part of the artist, of man's pitiful weakness and at the same time his fate in the world. These themes are for the major artist. These are the themes which under the cover of his art Sheeler has celebrated."1


1. William Carlos Williams, "Postscript by a Poet," Art in America 42 (October 1954): 215.

Interior with Stove, 1932, conté crayon on paper on wove paper, Gift (Partial and Promised) of Aaron I. Fleischman, 2000.181.1

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