Charles Sheeler in Doylestown

by Karen Lucic



In America, the task of defining oneself as a modernist became even more complex after World War 1. It now meant not only studying developments from abroad but establishing distance from them as well. Severely disillusioned with the war-ravaged nations on the Continent, American critics warned artists in this country against slavish emulation of the European avant-garde. They urged native painters to distinguish their work significantly from foreign contemporaries. Suddenly, the need arose to establish roots in native ground.

This nationalistic project posed serious challenges. In the first place, European modernism possessed enormous authority and served as a profoundly stimulating (and simultaneously intimidating) model. Furthermore, the predilection for abstraction in modernist art tended to limit assertions of specific national or local identity. Nevertheless, American artists like Sheeler heeded the calls for cultural self-sufficiency, and one of their most effective responses involved developing an iconography that embraced the dominant features of America's rapidly modernizing environment -- urbanization, industrialization, mass marketing, and other technological innovations. These widely admired aspects of American society were unparalleled in the world during the early twentieth century and therefore effectively served artists looking for powerful national symbols.

Sheeler's novel adaptation of the machine aesthetic dramatically evoked both the power and sensorial qualities of the technological environment. This allowed him to retain his modernist credentials, even while incorporating a rigorously realistic and uncannily "objective" approach to painting in the late 1920s and 1930s. [7]

In the first three decades of the twentieth century, "uniquely American" art depicted the country's characteristic modernity in styles that were considered experimental and inventive. Sheeler excelled at this kind of artistic self-presentation, and through it, established himself as a premier iconographer of the Machine Age. Given his modernist program, one might think that the past had no relevance to Sheeler.

However, he did portray barns in Bucks County as well as factories of Detroit and New York, always maintaining an active dialogue between preindustrial traditions and technologically sophisticated modernity. The poet William Carlos Williams, who wanted to be a painter in his early career, perceived this in Sheeler's art when he wrote that the artist "is the watcher and surveyor of that world where the past is always occurring contemporaneously and the present always dead needing a miracle of resuscitation to revive it." [8]

Aesthetic reimaginings of the past did not come automatically, however; they demanded considerable ingenuity from artists. In Sheeler's case, he had to distinguish his regard for Bucks County traditions from the turn-of-the-century nostalgia for colonial Americana. Since the mid-nineteenth century, antiquarians had been decrying the deleterious effects of industrialization and urban development on traditional culture in the United States. [9] The 1876 centennial celebrations throughout the country fueled preservationist concerns; along with it came a fervent nationalism that peaked during Sheeler's youth. Love of nation resembled a secular religion -- George Washington, a Christ-like saint. Buildings the first president visited became "shrines" and "meccas." [10] Similar reverence grew for less illustrious forebears, and this adoration also applied to the artifacts associated with them.

Had Sheeler been searching for conventional patriotic subjects, he could have easily found them in Bucks County. Numerous buildings associated with the Revolutionary War remain there. In fact, George Washington crossed the Delaware River to fight the Battle of Trenton not far from Doylestown. Near this spot stands the well-preserved, eighteenth-century Thompson-Neeley House where Washington made crucial military decisions just prior to crossing the river. Sheeler actually knew and admired this handsome fieldstone building, yet probably avoided it as an artistic subject because of its antiquarian and patriotic associations. [11] He once explained that he "sought neither the quaint nor the historical." [12] He then added, "My paintings have nothing to do with history of the record -- t's purely my response to intrinsic realities of forms and environment." [13]

In numerous statements, Sheeler disassociated his regard for the past from nostalgic yearnings, while simultaneously voicing his profound aesthetic appreciation for hand-crafted objects of preindustrial America. "I don't like these things because they are old, but in spite of it," he declared. "I'd like them still better if they were made yesterday...." [14]

Such denials of antiquarianism protected Sheeler's reputation as a modernist primarily interested in aesthetic issues, despite his depictions of preindustrial, locally specific subject matter. His view of the American craft tradition is therefore intriguingly complex and seemingly paradoxical. It represents a formalist, ahistorical reevaluation of vernacular material -- a position congruent with the concerns of the European avant-garde -- that also satisfied nativist critics, who demanded an art based on a uniquely American heritage. [15]


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