Charles Sheeler (1883-1965)

The American painter and photographer Charles Sheeler is best known for his precisionist paintings of American rural and industrial subjects. He began his training at Philadelphia’s School of Industrial Art from 1900 to 1903 and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts from 1903 to 1906, where he studied under William Merritt Chase. [1] Sheeler took two trips to Europe with Chase, to London in 1904 and to Spain in 1905. Chase immersed his students in Old Master painting and brought them to the studios of Frederic Leighton, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, and John Singer Sargent, successful contemporary artists working in traditional styles. [2] From 1907 to 1910 Sheeler exhibited in Philadelphia at the Pennsylvania Academy and at McClees Gallery, and in New York at the National Academy of Design and Macbeth Gallery. [3]

Sheeler became interested in modernist painting on a 1908 trip to Paris, where he encountered the work of Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and Georges Braque. [4] He later recalled: “They were strange pictures . . . . but this much was evident in spite of the bewilderment, that something profound was in the making.” [5] He began experimenting with avant-garde styles soon after, rejecting Chase’s emphasis on bravura brushwork and picturesque themes in favor of a new interest in classical structure and compositional problems. In September 1910 Sheeler sent some of his latest paintings to Macbeth, who responded negatively to his new style: “It is such a departure from old time sound methods that I would not care to exhibit it. I hope it is only an experiment.” [6] Undeterred, Sheeler spent the 1910s working in series, particularly still lifes and landscapes, which allowed him to explore compositional problems. There is no record of him exhibiting his work again until the 1913 Armory Show, which reaffirmed his dedication to modernism and inspired him to create some of the most avant-garde works of his career. [7]

[1] Carol Troyen and Erica E. Hirshler, Charles Sheeler: Paintings and Drawings (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1987), 2-3.

[2] Ibid., 3.

[3] Ibid, 4.  He exhibited at the PAFA annual exhibitions in 1907, 1908, 1909 and 1910.  In 1908 Sheeler had his first solo exhibition at the McClees Gallery in Philadelphia and exhibited at the National Academy of Design.  New York dealer William Macbeth also showed Sheeler’s work in 1908 and 1909.

[4] Ibid., 4. Sheeler frequented Parisian galleries that promoted avant-garde painting, including Bernheim-Jeune, Druet and Notre-Dame-des-Champs and had the opportunity to see Michael Stein’s collection.

[5] Sheeler Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., microfilm reel NShl, frames 62-64.

[6] Macbeth to Sheeler, quoted in Garnett McCoy, “Charles Sheeler: Some Early Documents and a Reminiscence,” Journal of the Archives of American Art 5 (April 1965): 2.

[7] Troyen and Hirshler, 4.

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