Bucks County Barns

a chapter of the exhibition catalogue

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

by Karen Lucic



Interestingly, Sheeler here comments on the value of this material for its ability to provide historical insight into "the mentality and vision of the people at the time it was produced." This contradicts Sheeler's usually stated disregard for "history or the record" in his art and his collecting activities. He further states that the folk tradition "may not be reverted to with the anticipation of a similarly resulting conviction." By the 1930s, he felt the difficulty of replicating the authenticity of the nineteenth-century folk tradition. Characteristically, he both admired the material and kept it at arm's length.

Sheeler's statement indicates an evolving attitude toward the relationship of folk and modern art. In the late 1910s and early 1920s, a small vanguard of modern artists, critics, and gallery owners fostered appreciation of American folk art. But with the opening of the Metropolitan Museum's American Wing in 1924, a wider enthusiasm for early Americana resulted. Naturally, Sheeler's desire to protect himself from charges of antiquarianism increased as the 1920s progressed and the appreciation of folk art became a popular fad. Sheeler's stance in the 1930s was often adamant: "To revere the past for its antiquity rather than its intrinsic merit is as futile as to revere yesterday for no better reason than that it preceded today."[64]

As he became increasingly labeled a painter of the American scene, Sheeler necessarily reconceived his modernist identity. On the one hand, he felt fundamentally tied to a native tradition: "It seems to be a persistent necessity for me to feel a sense of derivation from the country in which I live and work."[65] But on the other hand, he was skeptical about defining the essential qualities of America's aesthetic traditions:

The question of an American tradition in painting could worry me quite a bit if I would let it. Obviously we are a composite of many influences, but the same thing is true to an extent even of French art. Consider our friend Picasso from across the Spanish border. We seem to derive from many sources. I suppose some variation from these sources makes something which is our own, but just how to define this![66]

To his credit, Sheeler avoided simplistic concepts of national identity, realizing that in a profoundly hybrid country like America, visual language draws from extremely heterogeneous sources. This awareness also pervades the work of Sheeler's fellow Pennsylvanian, Charles Demuth. In Demuth's After Sir Christopher Wren (fig. 7) -- a depiction of the eighteenth-century Trinity Lutheran Church in the artist's native Lancaster -- the title adds an unexpected dimension to what at first seems to be an exclusively American icon: the white steeple of a colonial church. By acknowledging the English derivation of a venerated local monument, Demuth, like Sheeler, qualifies the notion of a purely indigenous American tradition.

Although national identity was a pressing concern for modernists like Sheeler and Demuth in the 1910s and 1920s, their understanding of America as an amalgamation of various foreign traditions kept them from conceiving of their country in a zenophobic or rigidly exclusionary way. [67] In fact, Sheeler avoided defining '"Americanness" at all. In an interview with Friedman in 1959, the artist stated that his painting was American because he used American subjects, and he would not go any further than that. [68]

Yet in his art, Sheeler repeatedly memorialized the places that gave him a sense of distinctive origins, most notably Bucks County. For him, as for his friend William Carlos Williams, regional specificity provided a workable alternative to an undefinable, general concept of "America."[69] The poet obviously spoke for himself when he wrote: "He wants to have the feet of his understanding on the ground, his ground, the ground, the only ground that he knows, that which is under his feet."[70] But Williams's assertion of native rootedness also applies to Sheeler's identification with specific locales. For Sheeler, however, this was better shown than said.

Over the years, Sheeler covered much ground in his survey of the nation. He added the Manhattan business district, Detroit factories, and Shaker villages to his repertoire of visually arresting American places. But he never forgot the lessons of the Pennsylvania countryside. He came back often to Bucks County (in his imagination if not in actuality) where he first discovered how to make modernist art from local tradition.


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