The Doylestown House

a chapter of the exhibition catalogue

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

by Karen Lucic




Sheeler's first commercial assignments involved photographing recently completed buildings designed by Philadelphia architects. [37] In New York, he also photographed works of art owned by galleries and private collectors. In about 1917, he began his first extended effort at uncommissioned, "fine art" photography in Doylestown.

A mood of elevated appreciation for the Worthington house -- so evident in his letters -- inspired Sheeler to produce a series of photographs depicting the dwelling. Four exterior views and twelve interior shots comprise the group, which Sheeler labeled collectively "Doylestown House.".[38] The images, especially those of the interior (cats. 9-18), represent a milestone in the artist's career -- both as a photographer and as a painter. Using dramatic lighting, spatial distortions, and unconventional framing, Sheeler focused on seemingly mundane features of the house, such as doors, windows, staircases, a cast-iron stove, and an empty mirror. By varying his presentation of these motifs, he invested them with uncommon aesthetic and thematic power. In creating such images, he established firm mastery of a modernist idiom.

Since the series marks a watershed in Sheeler's artistic development, its precise dating is important, and scholars have often assumed that it began in 1914 or 1915..[39] But recently, two experts on Sheeler's photographs, Theodore Stebbins and Norman Keyes, have argued for a later date. Sheeler first exhibited his photographs of the house at the Modern Gallery in New York, owned by Marius de Zayas, in a one-person show held from 3 to 15 December in 1917. An earlier exhibition at the Modern Gallery in March 1917 also included Sheeler's photographs but no images of the Doylestown house. This has led Stebbins and Keyes to conclude that the series was probably executed between the two exhibitions, in the spring, summer, or early fall of 1917. [40] A letter from Sheeler to Stieglitz dated 22 November of that year discusses the series' significance,[41] which supports the idea that it was only recently completed. Therefore, we may reasonably assume that all the photographs were taken in 1917.

Sheeler's letter to Stieglitz is significant for reasons other than dating, because it is one of the artist's few surviving discussions of the series. The letter outlines Sheeler's plan to market the photographs:

About the Photographs of my house, which I am glad to hear you liked -- de Zayas was quite keen about them and proposes to make a show of the set (12) -- following according to schedule, the present (Derain) show.

I decided that because of something personal which I was trying to work out in them that they were probably more akin to drawings than to my photographs of paintings and sculptures and that it would be better to put them on a different basis -- to make only three sets -- one to be offered as a complete set (12) at $150 -- and the remaining two sets, singly at $15.00. I'll talk to you further about it when I see you. [42]

Sheeler mentions only in passing the "something personal" he was trying to work out in the photographs. But the letter makes clear that they had the status of "fine art" for Sheeler. More like drawings -- unique, one-of-a-kind artifacts -- than mechanically reproduced images, they were worth more to Sheeler than the commercial photographs he had previously produced.[43]

Here Sheeler describes the number of images in the original series as twelve, yet sixteen negatives and fifteen prints of the subject were found in the artist's estate. Contemporary reviews of the 1917 Modern Gallery exhibition do not specify which twelve out of the sixteen images Sheeler considered the definitive "set," although they do make clear that both exterior and interior views were included.[44]

Titles for the individual photographs in the series also pose difficulties because many of them have been exhibited and published with various names over the years. Some of the mats supporting vintage prints are inscribed in Sheeler's hand, "Pennsylvania House/photograph by/ Charles Sheeler."[45] But one exhibited at the Thirteenth Annual John Wanamaker Photography Exhibition in 1918 (see cat. 18) carried the title "Bucks County House, Interior Detail."[46] Although these early titles vary somewhat, they do confirm the artist's original plan to treat the photographs as a cohesive unit, with each individual image contributing to a larger category -- "Doylestown House," "Pennsylvania House," or "Bucks County House." And significantly, all these variant titles highlight the specific local identity of the subject, unlike Sheeler's landscape paintings of 1913-16, to which he assigned generic titles.

Sheeler employed various approaches to modernist photographic composition as the series progressed. This clearly emerges in the contrast between the interior and exterior views of the house. Taken in natural light, the exterior shots exhibit a subtly graduated tonal range, unlike the interior views, which display bold contrasts created by artificial light. The exterior shots are more inclusive and traditional; the interior, more fragmentary and innovative.

The most comprehensive image is Doylestown House: Exterior View (cat. 8). This photograph situates us at a distance, looking up at the southeast facade of the little fieldstone building standing on the crest of a hill. Judging from the abundant foliage and maturing corn stalks to the right of the house, Sheeler took the picture in late summer or early autumn. Morning light comes from the east, emphasizing the house's outline against the bright sky. The branches of a large, dark tree anchor the composition to the right and cast a long shadow on the variegated stones of the building's facade. Signs of aging abound: the repaired shingled roof still sags in the middle, and on the southwest facade, the ancient ruined hearth slopes down irregularly from the wall to the ground.

This is no casual snapshot. A novel sensibility informs Sheeler's composition, in the balancing of tree and house and in the dappled shadow pattern falling across the facade. (Compare cat.,3.) But these formal elements do not interfere with the comprehensive visual survey of the house's structure. The photograph also reveals the dwelling's relationship to the natural environment: the hill on which it stands, the growing plants around it, the transient natural light. This exterior view is pleasing and accomplished but does not take us by surprise. When Sheeler transports us into the interior, however, he fundamentally challenges our aesthetic preconceptions.

Surveying the interior views, we sense the profundity of Sheeler's project. Here thematic implications resonate in both the subject's associations and in formal elements, such as lighting, composition, and framing. In these images, Sheeler makes an ancient building relevant to his modernist aesthetic concerns. Furthermore, he reexamines basic assumptions about a photograph's status as a representation of the physical world. This challenge is paradoxical and ambiguous, yet deeply intriguing visually.

Sheeler selectively surveyed his subject for potential images, favoring certain portions of the house and excluding others. Doylestown House: Stairs from Below (cat. 10), Doylestown House: Open Door (cat. 11), Doylestown House: Stairway, Open Door (cat. 12), Doylestown House: Stairway with Chair (cat. 13), Doylestown House: Door with Scythe (cat. 14), and Doylestown House: Downstairs Window (cat. 17) all depict the southeast portion of the first floor. Two images, Doylestown House: Interior with Stove (cat. 15) and Doylestown House: Stove (cat. 16), portray -- as their titles indicate -- the stove in an adjacent area. The remaining images represent areas on the second floor. Doylestown House: Stairwell (cat. 9) again focuses on the southeast corner, while Doylestown House: Open Window (cat. 18) depicts the northwest wall.


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