Charles Sheeler
Mandarin, 1912
Oil on panel, 10 x 13 3/4 in. (25.4 x 34 cm)
Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, Utica New York

Subject and style
Mandarin demonstrates the new focus of Sheeler’s work after his third trip to Europe in 1908, when he began to embrace the tenets of modernist painting. His primary influence during the period that followed was Paul Cézanne: a 1913 photograph of his studio shows that the only picture hanging, aside from his own, was a reproduction of Cézanne’s Smoker (1895-1900, The Hermitage). [1] Mandarin combines Cézanne’s emphasis on plastic form with Cubist shapes and bright, Fauvist color. [2]

To the Armory Show
Sheeler exhibited six paintings in the Armory Show, including four still lifes and two landscapes. [3] Though he had been invited to participate in the exhibition by Association of American Painters and Sculptors president Arthur B. Davies, through some misunderstanding Sheeler submitted his work to the Domestic Exhibition Committee, which was responsible for selecting works by uninvited artists. As an invited artist Sheeler was not required to submit his work to the jury and a note in the committee’s record book states that the glitch was “taken care of by Kuhn.” [4]

The public’s response
The critic Charles H. Caffin recognized the “influences of foreign movement(s)” upon Sheeler’s work. [5] But he received no additional notice, and none of his pictures sold. 

The artist’s response
Nonetheless, the Armory Show was a formative experience for Sheeler.  He called it “the great eye opener” that reaffirmed his commitment to modernism, giving “the green light that it was all right to exhibit pictures like that.” [6] The exhibition inspired him to produce some of the most abstract paintings of his career.

[1] Carol Troyen and Erica E. Hirshler, Charles Sheeler: Paintings and Drawings (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1987), 5.

[2] Martin Friedman, Charles Sheeler (New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 1975), 20.

[3] There has been speculation that he also exhibited Still Life- Spanish Shawl (1912) because an inscription in Sheeler’s hand, on the stretcher of the painting, reads, “this picture was in the Armory Show/1913/Charles Sheeler.” Troyen and Hirshler, 44, n. 24.

[4] Milton Brown, The Story of the Armory Show (New York: Abbeville Press, 1988), 90. See also Kuhn Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Series 1: Armory Show Records, 1912-1963, 1.2 Domestic Art Committee Records, 1913, Box 1, Folder 75, Record Book 1913, p. 28.

[5] Charles H. Caffin, “International Still Stirs the Public,” New York American, March 10, 1913, 8.

[6] Oral history interview with Charles Sheeler, December 9, 1958. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

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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