The Doylestown House

a chapter of the exhibition catalogue

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

by Karen Lucic

 



 

Sheeler produced few paintings during this decade because commercial photography, as well as managerial duties at the De Zayas Gallery and the Whitney Studio Club, occupied most of his time.[76] But in 1925, he again drew inspiration from the earlier photographic series for a major work in oil, Staircase, Doylestown (cat. 23). The painting's composition closely corresponds to the photograph Stairs from Below (cat. 10), particularly on the left side. According to art historian Susan Fillin-Yeh, Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase (fig. 3)-- the most notorious work in the Armory Show -- may have introduced Sheeler to the aesthetic potential of staircase imagery.[77] In 1924, Sheeler included Nude Descending a Staircase in an exhibition he organized for the Whitney Studio Club -- perhaps rekindling his deep admiration for the French artist's painting,[78] Sheeler may have been intrigued by the fact that Duchamp's sequential views of a male nude traversing space refer to nineteenth-century stop-action photography.[79] For both artists, creative ideas permeated the boundaries between photography and painting.

Staircase, Doylestown exemplifies important developments in Sheeler's art since the earlier photographic series, as well as highlighting differences due to the subject's translation into another medium. Exhibiting painting's ability to synthesize, in Sheeler's words, "a plurality of images,"[80] it expands horizontally to encompass more of the interior than can be seen in Stairs from Below. To the right, we glimpse the ground-floor room with a small gateleg table and a bed -- further examples of Sheeler's taste in vernacular furnishings. But the arresting staircase continues to dominate the viewer's attention, compressed and distorted even more radically than in the photograph. The artist also added accordionlike beams to the right and inserted the bottom risers in the stairwell. The observer still seems to hover in midair, however, and the same mysterious light at the top of the stairs beckons us upward. Now the illuminated walls glow with rose and golden hues. As in a patchwork quilt, each compositional element interlocks with every other. On the one hand, the work's size and scale endow the subject with greater monumentality than the corresponding photograph;[81] on the other, the painting's warm, appealing colors make the Worthington house a welcoming and homey -- if still puzzling -- dwelling. Compared to the earlier photographic series, Staircase, Doylestown suggests a more secure rootedness in a beloved place.

In real life, this sense of belonging did not last. The year after this work was painted, Sheeler terminated his tenancy of the Doylestown house. The property had been sold for a tract housing development, and for Sheeler, the imminent encroachment of suburbia radically diminished the house's value as a retreat. The artist explained his motives to Mercer: "Of course the place would be killed so far as I am concerned -- with the flock of inevitable bungalows around there. I don't want to buy it for this reason.. . . " [82] Sheeler severed his lease, and perhaps also his relationship with Mercer. (See cat. 24.) No evidence exists of a continuing communication between the two men. Sheeler and his wife vacated the Doylestown house and moved to rural South Salem, New York, by the end of 1926.[83]

 

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