The following essay is a chapter of the exhibition catalogue titled "Charles Sheeler in Doylestown: American Modernism and the Pennsylvania Tradition," ISBN 0-295-97643-8, Copyright 1997 by the Allentown Art Museum. The catalogue was published in connection with the exhibition "Charles Sheeler in Doylestown: American Modernism and the Pennsylvania Tradition," organized by the Allentown Art Museum and held at the Museum April 6 through June 22, 1997. The essays are reprinted, without illustrations, with permission of the Allentown Art Museum and the author. If you have questions or comments regarding the essays please contact the Allentown Art Museum directly through either this phone number or web address:



The Doylestown House

a chapter of the exhibition catalogue

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

by Karen Lucic



Born in Philadelphia in 1883, Charles Sheeler (cat. 1) received formal artistic training in his native city. [1] From 1900 to 1906, he studied at the School of Industrial Art and at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where he met Morton Livingston Schamberg (cat. 2). A brilliant and inventive young artist, Schamberg -- like Sheeler -- tended to be a loner. [2] As Rourke described their friendship, "They felt themselves to be two against the world."[3] Schamberg accompanied Sheeler on his seminal trip to Paris, where they discovered the work of Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso, and Braque. The experience inspired them to emulate these European innovators. As Sheeler explained, "I had an entirely new concept of what a picture is.... "[4]

In 1908, Sheeler and Schamberg jointly rented a studio at 1822 Chestnut Street and began their lives as professional artists in Philadelphia. Initially unable to support themselves through the sale of paintings, both began to supplement their incomes with commercial photography in about 1912.[5] Schamberg specialized in portraits, while Sheeler concentrated on photographs of buildings. Simultaneously, they continued their experiments with modernist painting.

William Merritt Chase had schooled Sheeler and Schamberg in a fluid, impressionistic style at the Pennsylvania Academy. This technique initially dazzled Sheeler, but he soon became a critic of his education after graduation. In retrospect, it meant little to have studied at the school so closely associated with the renowned artist Thomas Eakins.[6] Sheeler and Schamberg also chafed at their confinement in Philadelphia during their early careers and longed for what they felt would be a more cosmopolitan artistic environment.

But curiously, these urbane modernists discovered an inspiring alternative in rural southeastern Pennsylvania. There the two friends received an informal aesthetic education in the rich vernacular traditions of that region; Sheeler would treasure this formative experience for the rest of his life.

From their days at the Pennsylvania Academy, Sheeler and Schamberg had often sketched the Bucks County countryside north of Philadelphia.[7] According to his own (much later) recollection, Sheeler stumbled onto an uninhabited, eighteenth-century farmhouse in Doylestown during one of these sketching excursions in about 1910. The little fieldstone dwelling was built in 1768 by Jonathan Worthington, a Quaker of English ancestry. Charming but decrepit, the empty house captivated Sheeler, and his inquiries about it led him to Henry Chapman Mercer, the town's self-appointed guardian of historical artifacts.[8] As a student, the young artist had carefully studied the Barber Collection of Pennsylvania German ceramics at the Pennsylvania Museum (now the Philadelphia Museum of Art), and in their conversations, the older man learned of Sheeler's already well-developed interest in regional artifacts.[9] Favorably impressed, Mercer introduced Sheeler to the family who owned the house and quickly secured the lease for the artist.[10] Thereafter, Sheeler and Schamberg regularly used the house as a weekend and summer retreat (cat. 3). Even after Sheeler moved his professional base to New York City in 1919, he retained the house until 1926, using it during occasional visits to Doylestown.

Sheeler and Schamberg's decision to establish a studio in Doylestown had propitious ramifications. City dwellers from birth, both artists -- like many others of their time -- desired a rustic outpost in which to work. Beginning in the nineteenth century, American artists commonly rented or owned studios In the countryside. [11] Bucks County became an especially attractive haven for urban artists seeking a tranquil, picturesque environment. On the shores of the Delaware River about fifteen miles from Doylestown, the town of New Hope became the area's most prominent artists' colony. Edward Redfield, William Lathrop, Daniel Garber, and several other impressionist painters settled in the region at the turn of the century. Transforming abandoned farm buildings and old mills into studios and dwellings, they established a well-known "school" of regional landscape painting.[12]

In a typical work of 1919 titled The Sun in Summer (fig. 2), Garber presents two rural buildings nestled within the trees. The foliage dominates the composition and, in fact, largely obscures the dwellings. Garber's vision of human habitation nestled benignly within a protective natural environment embodies the New Hope artists' pervasive pastorialism. Even when depicting stone quarries or coal barges, they commingled industry and nature comfortably; only rarely does the industrialized landscape appear ugly or damaged.

Under Chase's tutelage, Sheeler painted similar subjects employing a spontaneous, plein air approach.[13] Yet he did not join the well-established New Hope colony after graduation. Even as a student at the Pennsylvania Academy, Sheeler disliked Redfield's work.[14] Following his trip to Paris, he continued to depict rural buildings in the Bucks County farmland, such as Landscape, Abstraction, c. 1915 (cat. 4), but now he presented these motifs in a fundamentally different style from the New Hope school. The same was true of the contemporaneous work by Schamberg, such as Landscape, Bridge, 1915 (cat. 5). Formally experimental, these two paintings indicate the artists' exposure to modernism in Europe, at the Armory Show, and at "291" gallery in New York operated by the photographer Alfred Stieglitz. Sheeler and Schamberg's choice of relative isolation in Doylestown over the gregarious and well-established New Hope colony gives evidence of a desire to separate themselves, both socially and stylistically, from a community of popular local artists and from their own earlier training at the Pennsylvania Academy.

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