Born: July 16, 1883 | Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Died: May 7, 1965 | Dobbs Ferry, New York
Charles Sheeler was an American artist and major figure in the Precisionist Movement. He was a significant artist of the early 20th Century and represents a wide talent range having created major works as both a painter and a photographer.
Charles Sheeler was born in Philadelphia in 1883. He studied at the School of Industrial Art in 1900 majoring in industrial drawing and applied arts. He rounded out his training by studying traditional drawing and painting under the tutelage of the American Impressionist painter, William Merritt Chase.
A significant impact on his development was a series of trips that he made to Europe first as a student and a second after finishing college. He was greatly inspired by the late Middle Age Italian painters such as Giotto and Piero della Francesca. He was also largely inspired by the Cubist style that was new to the art world. After meeting Michael and Sarah Stein (early patrons of Picasso and Braque), he was inspired to start working in the Cubist style himself.
In 1910 Sheeler became interested in photography. He was living with fellow artist and friend Morton Schaumberg in a rented 18th century stone house in Doylestown, PA. As his interest in photography increased, he began a notable series of photographs of the house interiors.
Work during this period also included vernacular objects such as barns and other local rural architecture. Sheeler had an affinity and admiration for the straight-forward design stating he found beauty in the existing simple functionality.
As Sheeler’s portfolio grew, he began meeting several important figures in New York namely Alfred Stieglitz and gallery owner Marius de Zayas who helped make it possible for Sheeler to start selling his work. He began participating in group shows and eventually moved to New York in 1919. Around this time, he began using his own photographs as source material for his paintings and with the move to New York City, his subject matter turned from the rural subjects of Pennsylvania to the modern skyscraper and industrial landscapes.
The following year he collaborated on a film project with Paul Strand titled Manhatta. This collaboration aligned with Sheeler’s changing style as Manhatta explored New York City as an urban landscape. The tone was set with the influence of 1920’s architecture with its clean lines, monolithic presence, layered geometry, gothic detail and early Deco styling.
Sheeler became associated with what we know today as the Precisionist style, an American art movement borrowing freely from various European movements including the order of Purism, the technology of Futurism, the geometry of Cubism and in some cases the non-traditional relationships of Dadaism.
Precisionist artists most frequently used the urban landscape as their main subject. Cityscapes, modern architecture, suspension bridges and industrial factories and complexes were at the heart of the style. These elements were essentially shaping a national identity to the post World War I and Great Depression United States. This was also seen in the revival of American Folk Art.
After a major exhibition in 1922, Sheeler was commissioned by the Ford Motor Company to photograph a series of images as part of the promotional campaign for the release of the Model A. Sheeler spent six weeks documenting the pant’s massive machinery largely leaving out the presence of human labor. These images were representational of the aesthetic at the time of the mechanical age of power and productivity.
In 1926, Sheeler began working as a freelance photographer for Vogue and Vanity Fair. He led a diverse career photographing commissions from both private and commercial institutions for clients such as Fortune magazine and even a commission by Abby Rockefeller to photograph Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia.
From 1942 to 1945 he worked for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Department of Publications photographing works from their collection.
Sheeler continued to work until 1959 when he suffered a stroke. He died in 1965, leaving behind an enormous legacy and bodies of work both as a painter and as a photographer. His work is associated with a particular period of American history as he was one of the key artists who shaped the American aesthetic of the early 20th Century.
Charles Sheeler: The Photographs http://amzn.to/1A09H6X
The Photography of Charles Sheeler: American Modernist http://amzn.to/1QJ6Ovd