The Exhibition

Charles Sheeler: Fashion, Photography, and Sculptural Form

March 18 – July 9, 2017
Curated by Kirsten M. Jensen, Ph.D., Gerry & Marguerite Lenfest Chief Curator 

“[An] elegantly produced show”
Philadelphia Inquirer

“Dismissed for a long time as work that a painter did as a day job, Sheeler’s Condé Nast photography…has been cast in a dramatically elegant new light.”
Ticket to Entertainment


A Philadelphia native and Doylestown resident of the Worthington House between 1910 and 1926, Charles Sheeler (1883–1965) is recognized as one of the founding figures of American modernism for his pioneering work as both a painter and a photographer, with a particular penchant for industrial subjects. Trained in an impressionist approach to landscape painting, Sheeler experimented early in his career with compositions inspired by European modernism before developing a linear, hard-edged style now known as Precisionism. He purchased his first camera in 1910, around the time he moved to Doylestown. A few years later, using his house as his primary subject, he began experimenting with compositional arrangements: mass, texture, line, dramatic lighting, spatial distortions, and framing strategies to create powerful images. At the same time, he produced compelling images of Machine Age New York for which he is best known: Art Deco skyscrapers, sleek locomotive engines, and majestic power plants.

However, around the time he moved to New York permanently, Sheeler was hired as a staff photographer by his friend Edward Steichen, then director of photography for Condé Nast magazines, with the assignment to take photographs for Vogue and Vanity Fair, which he did until 1931. Sheeler’s Condé Nast work has been almost universally dismissed as purely commercial, a painter’s “day job,” and nothing more. Very few of these photographs have ever been published, and none of the nearly 352 photographs he produced for the magazines have been exhibited before. That is, until now. Charles Sheeler: Fashion, Photography, and Sculptural Form, on view at the Michener Art Museum from March 18 to July 9, 2017, is the first monographic exhibition of Sheeler’s work at the Museum, and the first anywhere to explore his Condé Nast period, its roots in his early experimentations with photography, and its lasting impact on his mature body of work.

The exhibition begins with an exploration of Sheeler’s early period of experimentation: photographs of the Worthington House and modern sculpture, early portraits, and his 1920 film collaboration with Paul Strand, Manhatta (1921). The core of Charles Sheeler: Fashion, Photography, and Sculptural Form, however, is the 85 portraits and fashion photographs on loan from the Condé Nast archives in New York. These photographs embody all the glamour of the Jazz Age—beautiful starlets in fantastic gowns and fabulous jewels, models wearing the latest in couture designs, Ziegfeld Follies dancers, and stage actors featured in the latest Broadway sensation. A number of these photographs will be included in staged, multi-media vignettes incorporating period costumes, additional photographs, and paintings on loan from The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Yale University Art Gallery, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the Columbus Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Gaston Lachaise Foundation, and the Whitney Museum of American Art. Additionally, visitors can see for the first time Sheeler’s own textile designs, which he produced in the early 1930s. These are accompanied by a photograph Sheeler took of his dealer, Edith Halpert, wearing a dress made from his textiles, standing between two of his recent industrial paintings. Pieces of the original dress, as well as a recreation of it, are also included in one of the multi-media vignettes.

These dramatic settings reflect a Machine-Age industrial aesthetic, enabling visitors to experience how 1920s fashion—with its streamlined shapes and geometric patterning—influenced Sheeler’s approach to photographing it, as well as how his Condé Nast work guided and informed the rest of his career. The Condé Nast photographs paid Sheeler’s rent, but they also helped refine his painting and photographic techniques. Moving through the gallery, the visitor will be able to discern connections across media, and discover how his photographs increasingly incorporate the structural design of abstraction. Visitors to the Museum may have thought they knew Charles Sheeler, but upon seeing Charles Sheeler: Fashion, Photography, and Sculptural Form, their understanding of his work will be transformed.

Major support for Charles Sheeler: Fashion, Photography, and Sculptural Form has been provided by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, with further support from The Coby Foundation, Ltd., Visit Bucks County, an anonymous donor, and the Bucks County Foundation.

Additional funding has been provided by Frank and Jeanette Gallagher, Bonnie J. O’Boyle and Virginia W. Sigety, Independent cabi Stylist.

In-kind support is generously provided by Condé Nast Editions.

Share your experience with #CharlesSheeler #michenerart!

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Take the exhibition home!

Our stunning 234-page catalogue includes photographs by Sheeler and others, plus essays written by scholars, historians, and archivists.

Buy Today!

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Google Art Project

Experience the Michener Art Museum’s permanent collection in a whole new way with the Google Art Project. You can now wander the museum galleries using the same technology as Google Street View.

Our Sponsors

Major support for Charles Sheeler: Fashion, Photography, and Sculptural Form has been provided by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, with further support from The Coby Foundation, Ltd., Visit Bucks County, an anonymous donor, and the Bucks County Foundation.

Additional funding has been provided by Frank and Jeanette Gallagher, Bonnie J. O’Boyle and Virginia W. Sigety, Independent cabi Stylist.

In-kind support is generously provided by Condé Nast Editions.

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