The Doylestown House

a chapter of the exhibition catalogue

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

by Karen Lucic

 



 

Sheeler's metaphysical inclinations account to a large extent, I believe, for the continuing power of these photographs. His images of rooms with blocked exits, black windowpanes, and blank mirrors question but in the end do not completely deny the connection between art and an extrapictorial realm. Indeed, metaphysical associations replace more conventional ones, complementing Sheeler's goal to eliminate the nonessentials in order "to more forcefully present the essentials."[59] Because Sheeler's subject was an old house, the elements he sought to eliminate were not only formal but also those popular, patriotic values associated with colonial architecture at the turn of the century. Seeking to ally himself with the avant-garde, Sheeler aimed to synthesize past and present in a new way.

An examination of work by one of Sheeler's contemporaries will put this issue into a helpful perspective. His erstwhile friend and fellow photographer, Paul Strand, once articulated how the two men similarly developed as modernists: "Sheeler and I were aware that we were beginning to experiment with abstraction. We all talked the same language., , . It had to do with understanding a painting like a Villon or a Braque -- things in which there is . . . no recognizable content as a whole." [60] But despite this statement, important differences separated the two photographers as well, strikingly evident in a radical photographic experiment that Strand undertook in 1916,just prior to Sheeler's Doylestown house series. Abstraction, Porch Shadows, Connecticut (cat. 19) exemplifies Strand's efforts to create "contentless" photographs. Without the title, the viewer would struggle to identify the subject -- the edge of a round table resting on the planks of a porch. Here strong, natural light controls the pictorial composition, and the diagonal shadows of the porch railing are more important than the objects themselves. Strand rotated the final print ninety degrees from the angle at which he took the photograph, further complicating the recognition of the subject and its context. [61] The image is fundamentally an abstract arrangement of fragmented and startlingly juxtaposed forms, an assertive denial of "recognizable content."

In contrast, we recognize content in all the Doylestown house photographs. [62] Empty windows and doorways, however transformed through a modernist lens, remain charged with symbolic associations. We also perceive aged wood, cracked plaster, and oblique evidence of longstanding human habitation. Although Sheeler carefully distances his subjects from antiquarian concerns, the photographs still evoke a specific past stemming from an identifiable local tradition. In fact, to someone familiar with Bucks County architecture, Sheeler's photographs clearly allow us to recognize the Worthington house as a typical example of regional architecture. A specialist like Mercer could actually date the building quite accurately from the hardware depicted in Interior with Stove (cat. 15). Even the most abstract and disorienting image, Stairwell (cat. 9), presents the subject in a recognizable way, although it confuses us about the staircase's correct orientation.

Sheeler maintained extrapictorial references in the Doylestown series, not -- I believe -- because he lacked the ability to make completely abstract pictures. In earlier drawings and paintings from 1914, [63] he effaced virtually all representational elements. And undoubtedly he knew of Strand's series and could have pursued similar experiments in photography. But by 1917, total avoidance of " recognizable content" did not suit Sheeler's purposes, neither with crayon (see cat. 20), brush, nor camera. By then, he wanted to include, however paradoxically, a native context for his modernist experiments.

Heeding calls for the creation of a usable past, Sheeler, along with such contemporaries as Charles Demuth (fig. 7), invented an American modernism that was identifiably national, even regional, in derivation. [64] But his modernist thinking reconstituted the image of colonial America, making it relevant to contemporary aesthetic concerns. This involved wresting the subject from antiquarians and placing it in the context of the New York vanguard. To maintain his reputation as a modernist, Sheeler had to conceal any nostalgia for the past and any intent to preserve its remains. Therefore, the concern for historical authenticity that emerged, for instance, when he prevented Mercer from removing a lock from the Worthington house, is not immediately evident when viewing his photographs. In fact, throughout his career, Sheeler often veiled his personal investment in his subjects. He once described his self-effacing approach, "I favor the picture which arrives at its destination without the evidence of a trying journey rather than one which shows the marks of battle. An efficient army buries its dead."[65] The meaning of this quote extends beyond mere stylistic considerations. The artist excelled at personal as well as technical self-effacement, so much so that the complex nature of the artist's intense attachment to the past is difficult to decipher. And in fact, only through a reconstruction of his artistic context do such hidden elements fully emerge.

Yet even with rigorous efforts at contextualization, aspects of the photographs' meanings remain intriguingly open-ended. Formalist self-reference vies with extrapictorial associations. The old and abandoned transform themselves into the new and relevant. That which at first seemed confining and fearful -- the black void at the outer reaches of the depicted reality -- alternatively suggests an expansive, generative context of universal significance. These ambiguities and inversions result from the complicated and ambitious motives Sheeler brought to bear on his subject. The "something personal" in the series spawned a polarity of tensions, bringing the past close while simultaneously keeping it distant. This peculiar fusion of opposites endows the images with tangible power.

 

SCHAMBERG'S ABSENCE

Although Sheeler associated the Doylestown house with inspiration, renewal, and escape from anxiety, his photographic series also reflects a searching, conflicted consciousness. As time went on, the house -- as a country retreat and as an artistic subject -- became inextricably linked to the most troubling events of his life.

The first trauma involved the loss of his most intimate friend during his early years in Doylestown. Schamberg's sudden and tragic death from the flu epidemic in October 1918 -- he fell ill and died within three days -- abruptly deprived Sheeler of a treasured companion. He never fully recovered from Schamberg's sudden demise. Four years after the event, Sheeler wrote to Stieglitz, "I have learned that your brother has passed away. This experience is still a vivid one with me." [66] Even late in life, Sheeler described it as "an overwhelming blow."[67]

Sheeler used the Worthington house much less frequently after Schamberg's death, in part because after he moved to New York City in 1919, the trip from there to Doylestown was longer than from Philadelphia. But also, as the artist told one interviewer, the house reminded him of time spent with Schamberg in Bucks County and his friend's untimely death.[68]

Perhaps for this reason, he avoided discussing his memories of Doylestown in an interview with Martin Friedman in 1959. Sheeler's second wife, Musya, urged him to tell Friedman about a recent trip they had made to Doylestown to relive that part of the artist's past. But Sheeler remained evasive about his true motives for the journey:

Musya Sheeler: "Where we went [back last spring] . .. we tried to find a place where you used to hunt for material. .. and things like that. Tell that story."

Charles Sheeler: "Well, I don't know what the story is except I just looked around, I mean I didn't have a diagram or any plot to uncover or to project. . . . "

MS: "It was so dear to your heart because you were with your very dear friend. Go on now."

CS: "I was always looking when I was out there." [69]

When the discussion moved to Schamberg, Sheeler abruptly ended consideration of the topic. He resisted his wife's efforts to make public his motives for trying to reconnect with his Doylestown past. To the end of Sheeler's life, Schamberg's death remained too sensitive for casual comment.

Although Sheeler visited the house less often after 1917, he still maintained a proprietary, even passionate attachment to it. In January 1922, Sheeler wrote an agitated letter to Mercer:

I have just learned indirectly, of the intrusion of Gilbert Schamberg [Morton's brother) into the privacy of your citadel, with, as the information comes to me, the suggestion that you purchase the little house. I fail to see in what way he could possibly consider himself concerned in the matter. Further I have heard that he is very anxious to purchase the place for his own use (may heaven forbid that he shall ever be permitted to polute [sic) the place by inhabiting it).

My side of the story is, that I have no intention of voluntarily relinquishing the place -- I still adore it -- and it is my hope when sufficiently established, to spend several months each year out there. At that time I should of course want to buy it and make such repairs as are necessary including the log part. . . . These are the facts regardless of what the above mentioned party may' have said to you to the contrary.[70]

This passage not only confirms Sheeler's continuing commitment to the house well into the 1920s, but also further illustrates the artist's deep attachment to Morton Schamberg. Sheeler's parents had always supported his career as an artist, but Schamberg encountered intense opposition to his creative activities. Much later, Sheeler told art historian Frederick Wight, "His family was ashamed of him and he went to Paris."[71] Perhaps Sheeler's intense hostility toward Gilbert Schamberg stemmed from the ill-treatment his friend had received from his relatives.[72] By protecting the house from Schamberg's brother, Sheeler may have felt that he was preserving Schamberg's memory as well. The intensity of Sheeler's response indicates that he conceived of the house as a kind of shrine to his lost friend.

 

KATHARINE SHAFFER AND THE RENEWED IMAGE OF THE HOUSE

Despite Sheeler's continuing interest in the Worthington house, he did not portray it for about five years after the photographic series in 1917. At that time, Sheeler shared the house with another beloved intimate, his first wife, Katharine Shaffer (cat. 21), who was a music student in Philadelphia, where she first met the artist. In the late 1910s she moved to New York to take care of her brother's household, about the same time Sheeler relocated there.[73] But the couple may have been intimate as early as 1916.[74] After Sheeler married Katharine in 1921,[75] the artist probably spent more time at the Doylestown house than in previous years. The couple used a small print of Doylestown House: Exterior View for their Christmas card of 1924 (cat. 22). This indicates that by the mid-1920s, the house was something that the two shared.

 

Go to page 1 / 2 / 3 / 4 / 5 / 6 / 7 / 8 / 9 / 10

This is page 6

Back to essay titles page


Visit the Table of Contents for Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art.

Copyright 2006 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.