Charles Sheeler was the leading exponent of Precisionism, a style of representational painting, popular in American art circles during the 1920s and 1930s, which emphasized simplified shapes, a meticulous technique, and areas of unmodulated color, especially in relation to urban, architectural, and industrial subjects. Described as the artist who “defined the parameters of . . . [Precisionism] as it is known today,” Sheeler also applied his penchant for clear, objective images to his modernist photographs, in which he likewise captured the underlying beauty of machine-age subjects. Whether depicting an industrial plant, a water tank, a Bucks County barn, or a bouquet of flowers, Sheeler was a master at synthesizing the literal and the abstract.
Born in Philadelphia, Sheeler initiated his formal training at the Philadelphia School of Industrial Art, which he attended from 1900 until 1903. Following this, he spent three years studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, developing a broad, painterly style inspired by the example of his teacher, William Merritt Chase. On a trip to Europe during 1908–09, he familiarized himself with the work of early Renaissance masters, such as Giotto and Piero della Francesca, and was greatly inspired by their feeling for underlying form and structure. In France, he was exposed to the work of modern artists such as Paul Cézanne, as well as Cubism and Fauvism, avant-garde styles that would also inform his work.
In 1912, Sheeler took up commercial photography as a means of supporting himself, focusing on industrial and architectural themes in which he explored the precepts of abstract design. One year later, he participated in the groundbreaking Armory Show (International Exhibition of Modern Art) in New York, contributing six paintings that reflected his move away from Chase’s impressionist manner to an approach that reflected his affinity for the structural concerns of Cézanne.
From 1910 until 1919, Sheeler resided in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, where he divided his time between painting and photography. Influenced by the straightforward approach he was pursuing in his photographs and by the sharp contours and stylized shapes of the Shaker artifacts and buildings he encountered in and around Doylestown, Sheeler began exploring the fragmented geometric forms of analytical Cubism in his paintings. He subsequently acquired a reputation as an experimentalist, which in turn led to his inclusion in the Forum Exhibition of Modern American Painters, held at the Anderson Galleries in New York in 1916.
In 1919, Sheeler moved to New York, where he fraternized with a coterie of progressive-minded dealers, artists, and collectors that included Alfred Stieglitz and Walter and Louise Arensberg. He also became friendly with the photographer, Paul Strand, with whom he collaborated in the creation of Manhatta (1920), a legendary 6 1/2-minute film which paid tribute to the tall skyscrapers and spectacular panoramas of the bustling metropolis. While working as a freelance industrial and advertising photographer, Sheeler painted during his spare time, developing a heightened realist style characterized by stylized forms, hard-edged contours, and minimalist, near-abstract designs, as evident in works such as Church Street El (1920; Cleveland Museum of Art). He also painted domestic interiors and rural scenes inspired by his surroundings in Doylestown, where he maintained a cottage until 1926.
During the late 1920s and 1930s, Sheeler continued to divide his time between painting and photography, executing such well-known paintings as Upper Deck (1929; Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts), in addition to important photographic portfolios devoted to the Ford Motor Company plant at River Rouge, Michigan (1927), and Chartres Cathedral (1929). From 1942 until 1945, he worked for The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, photographing its collections. By the late 1940s, Sheeler was imbuing his paintings with a heightened sense of abstraction, interpreting his motifs by means of flat, overlapping color planes, as in Wings (1949; Yale University Art Gallery). He continued to paint until 1959, when a debilitating stroke curtailed his artistic activity. Sheeler died in Dobbs Ferry, New York, near his residence in Irvington-on-Hudson, on May 7, 1965.