Charles Rettrew Sheeler Jr. was born in Philadelphia in 1883. His education included instruction in industrial drawing and the applied arts at the School of Industrial Art in Philadelphia (1900–1903), followed by a traditional training in drawing and painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (1903–6). At the Academy, he studied with William Merritt Chase, a prominent American Impressionist (67.187.123). He visited Europe with his fellow students in 1904–5, and traveled abroad again in 1908–9 with his parents and his friend Morton Schamberg, another young artist. During this second trip, he developed a particular interest in the Italian painters of the late Middle Ages, particularly Giotto (11.126.1), Masaccio, and Piero della Francesca, and their simple, strong massing of forms. In 1909, he visited the Paris home of Michael and Sarah Stein, early patrons of Picasso and Braque; this experience inspired him to work in a Cubist style for several years.
In 1910, Sheeler and Schamberg rented an eighteenth-century stone house in Doylestown, Pennsylvania; around this time, Sheeler taught himself photography. He worked as a freelance photographer, documenting local buildings for architects; a few years later, he began to photograph the interior of his own house. He shaped its rough-hewn spaces with light and shadow, drawing out their underlying compositions of solids and spaces (33.43.259). He also photographed and drew the local vernacular architecture, particularly barns, whose straightforward design he admired: “The[ir builders] weren’t building a work of art. . If it’s beautiful to some of us afterward, it’s beautiful because it functioned.”
Throughout the 1910s, Sheeler formed lasting professional relationships with several important figures in the New York art world, including Alfred Stieglitz and the artist and gallerist Marius de Zayas (49.70.183). He supplemented his income by photographing works of art for collectors (including Albert Barnes, John Quinn, and Walter and Louise Arensberg) and galleries (such as Knoedler and Co.). He participated in important group shows, including the International Exhibition of Modern Art (commonly known as the Armory Show, 1913). During this decade, he also began using his own photographs as sources for paintings.
In 1920, Sheeler collaborated with the photographer Paul Strand on the short film Manhatta, in which they emphasized the dramatic viewpoints and abstract compositions of a rapidly changing cityscape. Sheeler would investigate similar motifs in his photography, painting, and graphic art of the 1920s (68.728), turning his eye to the monoliths of New York’s modern architecture and the canyons of its avenues. The sharpness and clarity of his vision associated him with the group of artists working in a style termed Precisionist.
In late 1927 and early 1928, Sheeler spent six weeks documenting the Ford Motor Company’s factory in River Rouge, Michigan, as part of a promotional campaign for the release of the Model A. Sheeler’s thirty-two photographs of the Ford plant depict its acres of gleaming, massive machinery, rather than the human process of labor. They celebrate the company’s—and, by association, America’s—ideals of power and productivity, although there is also a strangely forbidding atmosphere to the unpopulated scenes. Some of the photographs would serve as sources for later works in other media (66.593); thus, in addition to providing a quintessential subject of the American industrial age, the River Rouge project allowed Sheeler to consider further the relationship between the exactitude of photography and the layered, re-created perceptions of painting or drawing. At the close of the 1920s, Sheeler felt that his artistic goals had coalesced in a painting titled Upper Deck (1929; Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University). Of this work, which he based on his earlier photograph of the German steamship S.S. Majestic (2005.100.155), he wrote, “I had come to feel that a picture could have incorporated in it the structural design implied in abstraction and be presented in a wholly realistic manner.”
In 1927, Sheeler and his wife Katharine had moved to South Salem, New York, a small town located approximately fifty miles north of Manhattan. While living there, Sheeler expanded his collection of early American furniture and decorative arts. He prized these items for their simplicity, noting, “No embellishment meets the eye. Beauty of line and proportion through excellence of craftsmanship make the absence of ornament in no way an omission.” Many of these possessions appeared in Sheeler’s photographs and paintings of the 1930s, in complex arrangements of pattern and form (1992.24.8); these domestic interiors recall a vanished preindustrial past, while emphasizing the artistic status of local handicrafts. Meanwhile, Sheeler also returned to the photographs of his former home in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, reworking the images in other media (1992.24.7).
From 1926 through 1931, Sheeler worked as a freelance photographer, shooting celebrity portraits and fashion photography for Vogue and Vanity Fair. He ceased commercial photography in 1931, when the dealer Edith Halpert offered him exclusive representation at her Downtown Gallery in New York. As Sheeler attained broader recognition for his precise yet evocative interpretations of utilitarian forms, he continued to attract prestigious commissions. In 1935–36, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller invited him to photograph the architecture of Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. In 1939–40, he traveled across the country on assignment for Fortune magazine, photographing locations for a series of paintings on the theme of “Power.” The six finished paintings depicted icons of American industry such as airplanes, locomotives, power plants, and dams; he would later utilize his source materials for related works (49.128). Meanwhile, Sheeler was also the subject of a biography written by the historian and critic Constance Rourke (1938) and a retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (1939).
In 1939, Sheeler married his second wife, Musya Sokolova (he had been widowed by Katharine’s death in 1933); the couple resided in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York. Sheeler worked for the Metropolitan Museum’s Department of Publications from 1942 to 1945, photographing a wide range of works from the collection, including Assyrian reliefs (1982.1188.4), classical Greek and Roman sculpture, European painting, and Chinese objects. Ever since his student days, he had taken a keen interest in the past as it related to the art of the present; he was quoted as saying, “All the arts we revere come out of the main trunk. An underlying current goes through all the way to Renaissance, Egyptian, Chinese, back to cave painting.”
As he entered the 1950s, Sheeler developed a distinctive late style. He still depicted urban architecture and industrial facilities, but he reduced objects to flat planes, rather than volumes, and pared away more detail than ever before. In works such as Golden Gate (55.99), he also devised complex, multiple-viewpoint compositions by overlapping two or more photographic negatives of the same subject and then transferring the resulting, synthesized image to canvas. In these later years, Sheeler’s art was the subject of several retrospective exhibitions. After he suffered a debilitating stroke in 1959, Sheeler was no longer able to make art; his life was ended by another stroke in 1965. He left behind a body of work that explored the balance between abstraction and representation, photography and painting, an increasingly mechanized present and a more homespun past, uniting all these aspects in a skillful (and occasionally ambivalent) tension.