Bucks County Barns

a chapter of the exhibition catalogue

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

by Karen Lucic

 



 

THE FOLK ART LINEAGE

Art historian Daniel Robbins describes how American folk art became a symbolic progenitor of modernism in this country:

The discovery of African and Oceanic art by Picasso and Matisse was followed a little later by the discovery of American folk painting and sculpture.. .. For a time these several modes of art (primitive,folk, modern) appeared to be related in a fundamental way... .[38]

In this era, the category of American folk art encompassed almost any aesthetic object that seemed to correspond formally and symbolically to the kinds of "primitive" material prized by the European vanguard.[39] Yet many claimed it was uniquely American at the same time.[40] This contradiction did not lessen its importance to American modernists like Sheeler in search of a national heritage.

Bucks County provided abundant opportunities for Sheeler to study folk art. Henry Mercer owned a huge collection of Pennsylvania German stove plates, illuminated manuscripts, and ceramics. Folk paintings in oil interested Mercer less, but one local artist, Edward Hicks, captured his attention. Hicks -- a Quaker preacher, sign painter, and artist of religious subjects -- was, like Mercer, a native of Bucks County. Hicks gave several paintings to Mercer's great-grandfather Abraham Chapman, and Mercer eventually inherited these works. He became the first collector of Hicks's work and also encouraged scholarly study of the artist. [41]

The possibility exists that Mercer introduced Sheeler to Hicks's paintings. The kind of folk art that Hicks produced in fact displays stylistic features that interestingly relate to Sheeler's Bucks County barn series.[42] The Cornell Farm, 1848 (cat. 40), for example, adopts a nonacademic, bird's-eye view of the farmstead, with livestock in the foreground, sloping pastures, and distant fields. In the background to the left is the farmhouse and its dependencies; to the right stands a typical Pennsylvania barn. The buildings' most significant facades appear frontally. An academically trained artist would depict the adjacent facades as receding in space through the consistent alignment of orthogonals oriented toward a single vanishing point. But in Hicks's work, all facets of the buildings tend to lie flat on the picture plane. To a modernist like Sheeler, this method of representing architecture must have seemed not only refreshingly free of academic conventions but also instinctively (if ahistorically) cubist in the multiple viewpoints and spatial ambiguities.

The folk art method of pictorial construction might well have served to inspire or reinforce the spatial incongruities in Sheeler's series of drawings. In Bucks County Barn (cat. 38), for example, his presentation makes the monumental architecture almost toylike, similar to a child's building blocks stacked up at oblique angles. Here, too, as in The Cornell Farm, the buildings' facades seem to be flat and receding at the same time. In Sheeler's drawings of Bucks County barns, the purposely nonacademic style harmonizes with the subject's vernacular associations.

Profound differences exist between Sheeler's and Hicks's presentations of Bucks County architecture, however. They worked in completely different artistic contexts, and the meaning of their pictures diverges as well. Hicks portrays an idealized vision that includes human participants. As is evident in the pictures of farmers and their properties included in nineteenth-century Bucks County almanacs (cat. 41), the Cornell family appears as proud owners of their land, crops, animals, and buildings. Sheeler's drawings, in contrast, depict only an inanimate fragment of rural farm life. Human associations are veiled or absent. Despite the possible inspiration of folk painting, Sheeler's barn imagery remains essentially modernist in divorcing the subject from its original context.

Nevertheless, Sheeler clearly admired folk art. He owned several folk paintings and once photographed Whittier's Home, a work by an anonymous folk artist.. [43] In addition, some of his still lifes display an awareness of typical folk motifs. Driscoll links Sheeler's early flower paintings, such as Three White Tulips, 1912 (cat. 42), to the ornamentation on an eighteenth-century Pennsylvania German dower chest once in the artist's own collection (cat. 43).[44] Such motifs also appear in many later paintings, notably Red Tulips of 1925 (cat. 44). At the time of Sheeler's memorial exhibition at the Downtown Gallery in 1966, which included both his own work and the folk art he collected, a New York. Times critic noted a correlation.[45]

Many of Sheeler's colleagues during the 1910s and 1920s shared his interest in folk artifacts. Among the earliest students of American folk painting and sculpture were New York artists such as Hamilton Easter Field and Robert Laurent who summered in Ogunquit, Maine.[46] Sheeler undoubtedly knew of the Ogunquit artists' interest because in 1918, members of this group mounted a display of American folk art in New York, probably the first inspired by modernist values.[47] At the same time, Pennsylvania artists began to investigate the Bucks County folk tradition. An artist in New Hope persuaded the self-taught painter Joseph Pickett to submit a work to the Pennsylvania Academy annual exhibition in 1918.[48] Two decades later, artists and critics in West Chester, Pennsylvania, similarly encouraged the African-American folk painter Horace Pippin to gain official recognition.[49]

The Whitney Studio Club also vigorously promoted folk art as a complement to American modernism. Juliana Force, assistant to Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, became Sheeler's patron in 1923 when the artist and his wife, Katharine, moved into an apartment above the Club on 10 West Eighth Street,[50] Force was a native of Doylestown and had bought an eighteenth-century farmstead in neighboring Holicong in 1914.[51] Like Sheeler's other patrons the Arensbergs -- who furnished their New York apartment with regional country furniture (fig. 6) -- Force filled Barley Sheaf Farm with Americana, especially folk art and Shaker furniture -- most of it purchased from original owners during forays into the countryside (cat. 45). The artists in Force's circle frequently visited her Bucks County retreat. Sheeler came often in the 1920s, and a legend arose that he once used the barn on her property as the subject of a painting.[52]

In 1924, the Club staged the most ambitious display of American folk art to that date..[53] New York painter Henry Schnakenberg selected and arranged the show, and many lenders to the exhibition were artists as well, including Robert Locher, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Dorothy Varian, Alexander Brook, Katherine Schmidt, and Charles Demuth. Sheeler lent three works from his own collection, The Temple of Egina by H. M. Ware, a watercolor entitled 'Twas Ever Thus, and Portrait of a Woman, which was illustrated in the catalogue. The exhibition included forty-five objects ranging from paintings on velvet to a cigar-store Indian.[54]

 

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