Charles Sheeler
Biography of American Precisionist Painter, Photographer.

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Charles Sheeler (1883-1965)


Arts Training
Photography and Painting: 1910s
Ford Motor Company's River Rouge Plant
1940s and 1950s
Exhibitions and Retrospectives

Important Art Works

Ford Plant, River Rouge (1927),
Canal with Salvage Ship.
National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.

American Landscape (1930)
Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Criss–Crossed Conveyors (1927)
River Rouge Plant,
Ford Motor Company.
Photographed by Charles Sheeler.
Widely copied in Europe and
America in the 20s, this iconic
image of a machine-age utopia
celebrated the power of industrial
production in the modern age.

For top creative practitioners, see:
Best Artists of All Time.
For the greatest view painters, see:
Best Landcape Artists.

For more Precisionist works, see:
Greatest 20th-Century Paintings.


An important figure in early 20th century American art, the painter and photographer Charles Sheeler was - along with Charles Demuth (1883-1935) - the leading exponent of Precisionism, a style of architectural painting that combined the hi-tech aesthetics of Futurism with the sharp geometrics of Analytical Cubism in the depiction of factories, power stations, warehouses and other industrial plant, of the new technological age. Sheeler's other major contribution to modern art lies in his mastery of fine art photography. Along with Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), Edward Steichen (1879-1973), Man Ray (1890-1976), Paul Strand (1890-1976), Ansel Adams (1902-84), Sheeler ranks as one of the greatest photographers in early 20th century America. A participant in the celebrated Armory Show (1913) of avant-garde art, Sheeler came to the fore as a major contributor to avant-garde art during the 1920s and 1930s, with his documentary photography of the Ford Motor Company's plant at River Rouge, Michigan - and his Precisionist oil paintings of industrial buildings, such as Machinery (1920, Metropolitan Museum of Art); Criss-Crossed Conveyors: Ford River Rouge Plant (1927, The Met, NYC); Upper Deck (1929, Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University); American Landscape (1930, MOMA, New York); Steam Turbine (1939, Butler Institute of American Art, Ohio); and Amoskeag Canal (1948, Currier Museum of Art). Sheeler worked for Henry Ford and shared his view that factories were temples of worship. He gave up art after suffering a stroke in 1959. In addition to being a great camera artist, Sheeler is also regarded as one of America's most important 20th century painters of the interwar years.



Early Life and Arts Training

Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Charles Rettrew Sheeler Jr studied design and industrial drawing at the Pennsylvania Museum School of Industrial Art, from 1900 to 1903, before attending the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (1903-6), where he studied traditional figure drawing and figure painting under the eminent Impressionist William Merritt Chase (1849-1916). These studies were augmented by several trips to Europe between 1904 and 1909, during which he absorbed both European modernism, notably Cubism, and also the formal elements used during the era of Renaissance art (1400-1530). In between his trips he had his first one-man show at the Macbeth Gallery in 1908. On his return to Philadelphia from France, in 1909, Sheeler abandoned the Academy's recommended style of brushwork seen in Post-Impressionism, and began using the sort of underlying geometric structure employed by Giotto and Piero della Francesca, as well as modern artists like Paul Cezanne (1839-1906), Georges Braque (1882-1963), and Picasso (1881-1973).



Photography and Painting: 1910s

During the early 1910s, as well as teaching himself photography on a five dollar Brownie camera, and undertaking photographic commissions for local architects, he also showed his paintings at important group shows, including the International Exhibition of Modern Art (Armory Show) (1913), the Forum Exhibition (1916), and the Society of Independent Artist's Exhibition (1917). Through these and other events, Sheeler came in contact with innovators such as Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), the inventor of 'ready-mades' and other Junk Art, who was an important influence on his understanding of the basic structure of forms. He also formed important professional relationships with several influential figures in the New York art world, including the photographer and art dealer Alfred Stieglitz. To supplement his income he photographed paintings, sculptures and other works of art for art collectors such as Albert C. Barnes (1872-1951), John Quinn (1870-1924), Walter Arensberg (1878-1954) and his wife Louise (1879-1953).


Towards the latter part of the 1910s, Sheeler started using photography as an aid and inspiration for his architectural paintings. Over time, his innovative sharp-focus effects helped him to paint detailed and smooth-surfaced compositions that best suited his self-proclaimed style of Precisionism - a style of realism that focused on linear precision so as to capture the exact geometric shapes of skyscrapers and other similar structures, like industrial factories, machinery and associated plant. (See: Skyscraper Architecture: 1850-present.) These simplified Cubist-Realist compositions gradually became more detailed, with sharp edges, pronounced light and shadow, and striking aspects - just like photographs. His central role in the development of Precisionist aesthetics was reinforced in 1922 by a one-man-show in New York. Other important Precisionists in addition to Sheeling and Demuth, included Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986), Stuart Davis (1894-1964), Joseph Stella (1877-1946), Sheeling's close friend Morton Schamberg (1881-1918), George Ault (1891-1948), Niles Spencer (1893-1952), and Ralston Crawford (1906-78).

Ford Motor Company's River Rouge Plant

From 1926 to 1931, Sheeler worked as a freelance photographer. In 1927, he was hired for 6 weeks by Henry Ford to document the Ford Motor Company's River Rouge car factory in Michigan. His 32 photos of huge numbers of brand-new machines, devoid of any human presence, presented an extremely powerful image of Ford and, by implication, American technology. Widely reproduced, they brought him international fame and made his reputation as a commercial photographer. Other more regular projects included celebrity portraits, as well as fashion photography for women's glossy magazines like Vogue and Vanity Fair. See also: Is Photography Art?


During the 1930s, Sheeler concentrated mostly on his Precisionist painting. A retrospective at New York's Museum of Modern Art, in 1939, was evidence of his growing success as a painter. In the same year, commissioned by Fortune magazine, he spent several months preparing for a set of paintings on the subject of "Power." The completed works were: (1) Primitive Power (Water Wheel) (1939, The Regis Collection, Minneapolis, MN); (2) Steam Turbine, (Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, OH); (3) Rolling Power (Train) (1939, Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, MA); (4) Suspended Power (Hydroelectric Turbine) (1939, Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, TX); (5) Yankee Clipper Airplane (1939, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, RI); and (6) Conversation: Sky and Earth (Dam) (1939, Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, TX).

1940s and 1950s

From 1942 to 1945, in addition to his painting, Sheeler worked for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, photographing numerous works of art belonging to the permanent collection, including sculptures, paintings, and various other precious items. Then, from the mid-1940s onward, his style of painting began to change dramatically. While he continued to depict urban architecture and industrial buildings, he reduced objects to flat planes rather than volumes, began using multiple viewpoints and introduced non-naturalistic colours. See, for instance, his composition Architectural Cadences (1954, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York). Sheeler continued to live in New York until his death from a stroke in 1965.

Exhibitions and Retrospectives

Sheeler enjoyed several important one-man shows and retrospectives, especially during his later years. These include:

Charles Sheeler: Paintings, Drawings, Photographs
Museum of Modern Art, New York, October/November 1939.
Paintings by Charles Sheeler
Dayton Art Institute, Dayton, Ohio, November/December 1944.
Charles Sheeler: A Retrospective Exhibition
Art Galleries, University of California at Los Angeles, October/November 1954.
Toured to M. H. de Young Memorial Museum, San Francisco; Fine Arts Gallery of San Diego; and Fort Worth Art Center, Fort Worth, Texas; Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia; and Munson-Williams Proctor Institute, Utica, New York.
Charles Sheeler Retrospective Exhibition
Allentown Art Museum, Allentown, Pennsylvania, November/December 1961.
Charles Sheeler
National Collection of Fine Arts, Washington DC, October/November 1968.
Toured to Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.
Charles Sheeler: Across Media
National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, May/August 2006.
Toured to Art Institute of Chicago and the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum.
The Photography of Charles Sheeler
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Jan/Feb 2003.
Toured to Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Detroit Institute of Arts; and the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum.


Paintings by Charles Demuth can be seen in many of America's best art museums, including: Boston Museum of Fine Arts; Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; National Gallery, Washington DC; Yale University Gallery; Art Institute of Chicago; Detroit Institute of Arts; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown; Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth; and Dallas Museum of Art.

• For biographies of other modern American artists, see: Famous Painters.
• For more details of Cubist-style painting in America, see: Homepage.

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