Charles Sheeler was a painter before he was a photographer, but photography offered a means to earn a living at a time when his paintings were not selling. Around 1908, he purchased an 8-by-10-inch view camera and began to take pictures of recently completed houses for Main Line architects. Although only a handful of these photographs survive, he likely made many photographs similar to House Exterior, and his active engagement with framing architectural structures transformed how he viewed his day job. In his typically understated manner, Sheeler recounted in his unpublished autobiography: “Later, as familiarity with the medium [of photography] increased, it ceased to be looked upon as a necessary evil and something of its interesting possibilities began to be apparent.”
In 1910, Sheeler and his friend, artist Morton Schamberg (1881–1918), rented the Worthington House, a small farmhouse on the outskirts of Doylestown, as a weekend retreat. Sheeler first turned his camera lens upon the many beautiful barns in area, but by 1916 he was photographing his own home, exploring its features with aesthetic precision and transforming them into elements of a modernist composition through sharp tonal contrasts, deep spatial recession, and a focus on geometric shapes. These, in turn, informed severe and unembellished paintings in which a cubist interest in abstract form intersects with the American vernacular. Sheeler’s Bucks County photographs and paintings were fundamental to the formation of his mature modernist idiom, creating the architectural aesthetic that is the foundation of all his work.