Charles Sheeler, Modernism, and the National Identity

a chapter of the exhibition catalogue

"Charles Sheeler in Doylestown: American Modernism and the Pennsylvania Tradition"

by Karen Lucic



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.[14] The 1876 centennial celebrations around 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 Christlike saint. Buildings the first president visited became "shrines" and "meccas."[15] Similar reverence grew for less illustrious forebears, and this adoration also applied to the artifacts associated with them. Some commentators grew rhapsodic:

How precious are the old memories in our own homes and households! The ring worn by a beloved mother now in her grave, how we cherish the holy thing!. . . As with home, so with country. Patriotism is not merely a sentiment; it is a principle born in our nature and part of our humanity . . . Home and country! alike in the heart's best affections. [16]

Love of ancestors, country, and the artifacts associated with them stimulated such sentimental outpourings.[17]

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. And Sheeler actually knew and admired this handsome fieldstone building.[18] Yet probably because of its antiquarian and patriotic associations, he avoided it as an artistic subject. He once explained to an interviewer that he "sought neither the quaint nor the historical," adding, "I wouldn't paint Washington's Headquarters."[19] His questioner therefore concluded that "Sheeler is highly resistant to associative meanings.. . . "[20] Sheeler himself stated, "My paintings have nothing to do with history or the record -- t's purely my response to intrinsic realities of forms and environment."[21]

In numerous statements, Sheeler disassociated his regard for the past from nostalgic yearnings, while simultaneously voicing his profound aesthetic appreciation for handcrafted 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.. . . "[22] As his biographer Constance Rourke noted:

At Doylestown he had begun to acquire early furniture and pottery of that region, not with a collector's interest -- he has never been anything of an antiquarian -- but for the pleasure they could give and because they were useful. [23]

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, like Coady, Brooks, and Rourke, who demanded an art based on a uniquely American heritage.[24]

The pages that follow describe Sheeler's ingenious attempt to reconcile the conflicting demands of his cultural context while simultaneously creating hauntingly beautiful works on Bucks County themes. This story is told in three sections. "The Doylestown House" focuses on Sheeler's seminal photographic portrait of his eighteenth-century stone farmhouse and related works depicting the same subject. Also included are comparative images by some of the artist's contemporaries, such as Morton Livingston Schamberg (cat. 5), Aaron Siskind (cat. 6), and Paul Strand (cat. 19), as well as collateral material -- letters, publications, and other documents -- that reveal the cultural, historical, and personal significance of this building. "Bucks County Barns" examines the artist's series of photographs and drawings depicting vernacular architectural traditions of the region. In addition, examples of barn imagery from folk, commercial, and popular culture further illuminate Sheeler's work. Finally, "Doylestown Revisited" explores the series of drawings and paintings begun in the early 1930s that were inspired by the earlier photographs of the Doylestown house. It also encompasses other late works that revive the theme of the Bucks County barn.

Earlier scholars such as Rourke have recognized the importance of Sheeler's Doylestown period. But this comprehensive investigation of the artist's engagement with rural Pennsylvania demonstrates in unprecedented depth how the architecture and decorative arts of Doylestown helped Sheeler forge his carefully constructed identity as an American modernist -- an identity that was at once self-consciously public and intimately personal. This material -- viewed in its cultural context -- helps us understand how the artist established an important place for the preindustrial past in his work, despite living in a predominantly ahistorical Machine Age. Sheeler often effectively veiled his loves and fears, but by closely examining his Bucks County imagery, a complex picture emerges that overturns the common view of the artist as a single-minded advocate of industry and technology. By bringing the past near, yet keeping it at arm's length, Sheeler created imagery that possesses an almost ineffable richness and poignancy -- qualities that are never far from the surface in Sheeler's art.


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