Charles Sheeler Biography

Charles Rettew Sheeler, Jr.

Born in 1883 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Died in 1965 in Dobbs Ferry, New York

Charles Sheeler is recognized as one of the founding figures of American modernism for his pioneering work as both a painter and a photographer.

Morton Schamberg (1881-1918), Charles Sheeler, c. 1913-18, gelatin silver print. ©The Lane Collection. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Sheeler began his career at the School of Industrial Arts and enrolled the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art in 1903 with impressionist painter William Merritt Chase as his mentor. While exhibiting paintings throughout Philadelphia after his graduation in 1906, Sheeler traveled throughout Europe with Morton Schamberg, a fellow artist and close friend, where they familiarized themselves with the historic craftsmanship of Italian and French art. This time abroad would prove to have great influence over Sheeler’s future work. The frescoes and mosaics intrigued the young artists; the realistic depictions of both natural and manmade form within Italian Renaissance art and the clean, structured lines of French modernism were different than that of Sheeler’s formal impressionist training. This inspiration followed him home.

In 1910, Sheeler and Schamberg rented a home, Worthington House, on Mercer Avenue in Doylestown, using the location as a weekend retreat and studio for experimentation. It was here that Sheeler first explored photography. To supplement their income as painters, he and Schamberg accepted photography assignments from Philadelphia architects, documenting their projects.

Throughout the mid- to late-1910s, Sheeler’s work expanded beyond the Philadelphia region to New York. And as his involvement in the New York art scene deepened, his work and notoriety in photography expanded. By the 20s, photography had become a form of expression as well as a source of income for Sheeler. “My interest in photography, paralleling that in painting, has been based on admiration for its possibility of accounting for the visual world with an exactitude not equaled by any other medium.” His  photography caught the eye of many New York art luminaries such as Alfred Stieglitz and Walter Conrad Arensberg, and his portfolio expanded far beyond the exterior of homes. By the mid-1920s, Sheeler was photographing private art collections for notable modern art enthusiasts and working as a gallery photographer throughout New York City.

In 1926, Sheeler permanently moved to New York and was hired that same year by his friend Edward Steichen to work for Condé Nast photographing fashion and celebrities for Vogue and Vanity Fair. The following year, while continuing his work at Condé Nast, Sheeler received a prominent commission by the Ford Motor Company, which sparked his interest in American industry. His career in photography flourished as he captured photographs of art collections, machinery, fashion, and people. In 1931, Sheeler resigned from Condé Nast to return to his passion—applying to painting the same technical aspects he used in photography.

Over the next three decades, Sheeler established a style that would lead him to become one of the most recognized modern American painters of all time. Each painting, he said, held the intention to “present the subject as far as possible without imposing anything—to give it on its own terms.” Precision and technical skill influenced both the “what” and “how” of his work, and his aesthetic would go on to inspire generations of modern photographers and painters.

In 1959, Sheeler suffered a stroke that essentially ended his career in painting and photography. In 1965, he suffered a second stroke and passed away in Dobbs Ferry, New York at the age of 81.


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