Charles Sheeler: The Artist-Shutterbug Who Found Power In Modern Lines

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'Kitchen, Williamsburg', 1937 by Sheeler | de Young Art Museum. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockerfeller 3rd | Wikipedia

July 16, On This Day

Charles Sheeler standing next to a window. c. 1910. | Wikipedia

Recognized as one of the early adopters of modernism in American art, Charles Sheeler was known for his Precisionist paintings and commercial photography.

Born on July 16, 1883, a young Sheeler returned from a trip to Paris in 1909, inspired by the works of Cubist artists like Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. There is a modern linearity, geometry and trust in the implicit power of form cradled in the vision of Sheeler — apparent in his works — that ties in to the framework of Cubism in a way. Around the same time, he reportedly believed his future did not lie in being a modernist painter, so he took up commercial photography, focusing on architectural subjects.

A self-taught photographer, Sheeler learnt his trade on a humble $5 Kodak Brownie camera, but it took his keen aesthetic to celebrated realms.

Wikipedia writes that early in his career, Sheeler was greatly impacted by the death of his close friend Morton Livingston Schamberg during the influenza epidemic of 1918. Sheeler owned a farmhouse in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, which he shared with Schamberg until the latter’s death. Just as Schamberg’s painting had focused heavily on machinery and technology, the theme began to be prominently featured in Sheeler’s own work. The farmhouse they both lived in serves a prominent role in many of his photographs, which include shots of the bedroom, kitchen, and stairway. Sheeler was so fond of the home’s 19th century stove that he called it his “companion” and made it a subject of his photographs.

‘Interior with Stove’, 1932 by Sheeler | Gift (Partial and Promised) of Aaron I. Fleischman 2000 | Copyright ©2012 National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Sheeler is widely known for Mannahatta, the first avant-garde film created in America. In 1920, he invited famous photographer Paul Strand to collaborate on a “portrait” of Manhattan in film, resulting in a 35mm nine-minute series of vignettes (called Manhatta after Walt Whitman’s poem).

In 1940, Fortune Magazine published a series of six paintings commissioned of Sheeler to “reflect life through forms … [that] trace the firm pattern of the human mind” — to prepare for which he spent a year traveling and taking photographs. Sheeler chose six interesting subjects — a water wheel (Primitive Power), a steam turbine (Steam Turbine), the railroad (Rolling Power), a hydroelectric turbine (Suspended Power), an airplane (Yankee Clipper) and a dam (Conversation: Sky and Earth).

‘Still Life’ (1925), one of Sheeler’s earlier works, and one of several of his still life paintings. | Wikipedia

A critic once wrote: “Sheeler’s achievement was that he was both a distinguished painter and photographer and found a rationale for “machine art” between the world wars.” He passed away on May 7, 1965.

‘Steam Turbine’, 1939 by Sheeler | Via Butler Institute of American Art