Early Portraiture

Sheeler’s earliest attempts at portraiture are dark and dramatic, and demonstrate his interest in experimenting with light and shadow in relation to the human figure and the spaces surrounding them.  By the time he photographed his future wife Katharine Baird Shaffer and the artist-patron Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney in the mid-1920s, Sheeler’s approach to portraiture had undergone a stylistic evolution, blending the geometric abstractions of the Doylestown House series and his exploration of volume and contours seen in his sculptural photography. One might say that Sheeler was beginning to approach his human subjects as if they were sculptural objects, and that the figure easily transitioned into an element of a modernist still life as seen through the camera lens.

It was also at this time that Sheeler began to explore photographically the work of sculptor Constantin Brancusi. He first photographed Brancusi’s Sleeping Nude for Vanity Fair in 1917, and later captured four of John Quinn’s Brancusi sculptures for an article in the May 1922 issue of the magazine. Sheeler admired Brancusi’s sculpture for its streamlined simplicity and abstract qualities that linked it ancient Greek sculpture, and he sought to highlight those elements in his photographs. He finally met the sculptor in January 1926 when Brancusi was in the States to oversee an exhibition of his work, and they spent extensive time together in Sheeler’s studio. In contrast to the better-known photographs Brancusi made of his sculptures in his studio, Sheeler composed his prints using an austere vocabulary that emphasizes the sculpture’s formal qualities—a vocabulary he also applied to his portraits.

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