Born in Philadelphia, Charles Sheeler studied art at the Philadelphia School of Industrial Design (1900–03) and at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (1903–06) before traveling to Europe. In 1912 he took up commercial photography in order to earn a living while he continued to paint. Sheeler was a versatile artist who moved easily between painting, drawing, printmaking, photography, and film, and there are many correlations between his works in different mediums. In the 1920s and 1930s Sheeler and Charles Demuth, among others, worked in a style of painting called Precisionism. Sheeler's sharply focused depictions of buildings, machinery, and interiors were often based on his own photographs.
Between 1926 and 1934 Sheeler produced a series of seven paintings — among them "Americana" — that depict the interior of his home in South Salem, New York, and his prized collection of early American furnishings. "Americana," as well as the others, may have been based on one of the interior photographs that Sheeler took of his house about 1929. Filled with a profusion of precisely rendered objects — but no people — the painting seems oddly frozen in time and emotionally distant. The floor and furniture seem to tip upward toward the viewer, making them look off-balance and rather two-dimensional. The long trestle table and the two side benches hover like flat boards over the other furniture and the floor. The conflicting geometric and linear patterns of the four rugs, two pillows, woven sofa covering, backgammon set, and cast shadows add to our visual discomfort, as does the unusual cropping of objects. The verity of Sheeler's realism, however, makes us willing to accept these inconsistencies. The painting is as much a portrait of the artist's living space as it is a statement about national pride and the values of home and craftsmanship.
Inscription: Signed, dated, and inscribed (verso, stretcher): Americana - Charles Sheeler - 1931
the artist, Ridgefield, Conn. and Irvington, N. Y. (1931–46; sold on May 25, 1946, through the Downtown Gallery, New York, to Lowenthal); Edith and Milton Lowenthal, New York (1946–his d. 1987); Edith Lowenthal, New York (1987–d. 1991; her bequest to MMA)
New York. Downtown Gallery. "Charles Sheeler: Exhibition of Recent Works," November 18–December 7, 1931, no. 1.
New York. Whitney Museum of American Art. "First Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting," November 22, 1932–January 5, 1933, no. 12.
Museum of Modern Art, New York. "Charles Sheeler: Paintings, Drawings, Photographs," October 2–November 1, 1939, no. 26 (lent by the Downtown Gallery, New York).
Pittsburgh. Department of Fine Arts, Carnegie Institute. "Survey of American Painting," October 24–December 15, 1940, no. 366 (lent by the artist).
New York. Downtown Gallery. "What Is Wrong With This Picture?," May 6–30, 1941, unnum. brochure.
New York. Museum of Modern Art. "New York Private Collections," July 20–September 12, 1948, unnumbered cat. (lent by Mr. and Mrs. Milton Lowenthal).
Washington, D. C. Corcoran Gallery of Art. "The New Tradition: Modern Americans Before 1940," April 27–June 2, 1963, no. 91 (lent by Mr. and Mrs. Milton Lowenthal).
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "American Art: The Edith and Milton Lowenthal Collection. Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art from the Edith and Milton Lowenthal Collection," October 10, 1996–January 12, 1997, unnumbered cat. (p. 12; published in MMA Bulletin 54, summer 1996).
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Photography of Charles Sheeler," June 3–August 17, 2003, not in catalogue (unnumbered checklist for MMA venue).
Frederick S. Wight inNew Art in America: Fifty Painters of the 20th Century. Ed. John I. H. Baur. Greenwich, Conn., 1957, pp. 97-99, ill.
Carol Troyen inThe Lane Collection: 20th-Century Paintings in the American Tradition. Exh. cat., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Boston, 1983, p. 52.
Lowery Stokes Sims in "Recent Acquisitions: A Selection, 1991–1992." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 50 (Fall 1992), pp. 67–68, ill. (color).
Barbara Burn, ed. Masterpieces of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1993, p. 301, ill. (color).
Kathleen Howard, ed. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Guide. 2nd ed. (1st ed., 1983). New York, 1994, p. 440, no. 17, ill. (color).
Lisa Mintz Messinger. "American Art: The Edith and Milton Lowenthal Collection." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 54 (Summer 1996), pp. 3, 7, 12, 52, ill. pp. 7 (installation photo), 12 (color), 52.
Kristina Wilson. "Ambivalence, Irony, and Americana: Charles Sheeler's 'American Interiors'." Winterthur Portfolio 5 (Winter 2011), pp. 249–76, fig. 2 (color).