CHARLES SHEELER AND THE SHAKERS

“I know a good print when I see it.  I know when it is good and why it is good.  It is the neck of a man, the nose of a woman . . . . It is a photograph by Sheeler.  It is.  It is the thing where it is.  So.  That’s the mine out of which riches have always been drawn.”[i]

Charles Sheeler
“Shaker Window”
c. 1935
B&W photograph
The William H. Lane Collection,
Museum of Fine Arts,
Boston, Massachusetts

This is one of many observations made by William Carlos Williams regarding his long time friend Charles Sheeler.  Williams was constantly calling for an “intense vision of the facts”[ii] and considered a painting or a photograph or a poem as a thing to be shaped or carved out in the process. 

Williams noted this many times throughout his career:  from his early work, in several of his essays, and in his epic poem Patterson.  It even came up in his “Introduction” for Sheeler’s Retrospective Exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1939 where he observed:  “It is in things that for the artist the power lies. . . .”[iii]

Sheeler had a wide range of interests, not only through his professional work but also as an inquisitive and thoughtful human being.  He supported himself for many years as a documentary photographer both with Vogue and Fortune Magazines, as well as work for the Metropolitan Museum of Art.    

These projects often paralleled his aesthetic interests, complimenting his studio work.  Modern industrial subjects such as the factories in Ballardvale, Massachusetts and the Ford Motors plant in Detroit, Michigan became important sources of inspiration for this work.  Simultaneously, he was interested in, and paid visits to historic farmhouses in Pennsylvania and New England, as well as communitarian sites such as the Ephrata Community in Lancaster County, and the Shaker Villages in both Mount Lebanon, New York and Hancock, Massachusetts.  He even began collecting certain pieces of antique furniture with which he furnished his own home:  folk art, ceramics, curved wooden boxes, and of course many Shaker chairs, cabinets, and tables. 

Charles Sheeler
“Buildings at Lebanon”
1949
Tempera and graphite on pressed board faced with sized paper
14 5/16” x 20 1/4” 
Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota 

William Carlos Williams even noted how his friend Charles Sheeler had taken certain objects and constructed an environment in which to live.  Williams writing in his autobiography stated: 

“The poem is our objective, the secret at the heart of the matter—as Sheeler’s small house, reorganized….”

“Charles Sheeler, artist, has taken the one rare object remaining more or less intact…and proceeded to live in it…and make a poem (a painting) of it….”[iv] 

“How shall we in this region of the mind which is all we can tactically, sensually know, organize our history other than as Shaker furniture is organized?  It is a past, totally uninfluenced by anything but the necessity, the total worth of the thing itself, the relationship of the parts to the whole.  The Shakers made furniture for their own simple ritualistic use, of white pine, applewood, birch—what they had.  Sheeler has a remarkable collection of this furniture.”[v]                

Charles Sheeler
“American Interior”
1934
Oil on canvas
32 1/2” x 30”
Gift of Mrs. Paul Moore,
Yale University Art Gallery,
New Haven, Connecticut

For several years Sheeler had been working on an autobiography, which he turned over to the writer Constance Rourke, who edited and organized it.  Rourke drew heavily upon Sheeler’s words, which became an important element in her monograph on this artist in 1939.  Later, the historians Faith and Edward Demming Andrews referred to this book in their article on Sheeler in “Art in America” that focused on his interest in the Shakers: 

“But as time went on he must have become more and more convinced that he wanted to do, through his medium, what the Shakers . . . had done in theirs:  to strip away all that was superficial, to find the essential, the absolute, the inner undisguised meaning, the final irreducible character in form.”[vi] 

Charles Sheeler
“Americana 31”
1931
Oil on canvas
36” x 48”
Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Milton Lowenthal,
Museum of Modern Art, New York

Sheeler himself had many things to say regarding his interests and this collection.  They were historic artifacts by that time, but they were also very contemporary in feeling and form.  He stated that:  “I don’t like these things because they are old but in spite of it.  I’d like them still better if they were made yesterday because then they would afford proof that the same kind of creative power is continuing.”[vii] 

Charles Sheeler
“Shaker Detail”
1941
Oil and tempera on Masonite
8.75” x 9.75”
Wallace M. Scudder Bequest
Newark Museum of Art, Newark, New Jersey

“No embellishment meets the eye.  Beauty of line and proportion through excellence of craftsmanship make the absence of ornament in no way an omission.  The sense of light and spaciousness received upon entering the hall is indicative of similar spiritual qualities of the Shakers.  Instinctively one takes a deep breath, as in the midst of some moving and exalted association of nature.  There were no dark corners in those lives.”[viii] 

Charles Sheeler
“On a Shaker Theme”
1956
Oil on canvas
30” x 36”
Stephen and Sybil Stone Foundation,
Wareham, Massachusetts

“—Say it, no ideas but in things— 
         nothing but the blank faces of the houses
         and cylindrical trees 
         bent, forked by preconception and accident—
         split, furrowed, creased, mottled, stained—
         secret—into the body of the light!”[ix]


[i] Williams, William Carlos; “The Descent of Winter” included in Imaginations; New Directions Publishing Corporations; New York, New York; 1971; p. 253.     

[ii] Williams, William Carlos; “The Descent of Winter” included in Imaginations; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1971; p. 231.

[iii] Williams, William Carlos; Selected Essays; New Directions Publishing Corporations; New York, New York; 1992; p. 234.     

[iv] Williams, William Carlos; The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1967; pp. 332-333.

[v] Williams, William Carlos; The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1967; pp. 333-334.

[vi] Andrews, Faith and Edward D.; “Sheeler and the Shakers;” Art in America; New York, New York; Number One; 1965; p. 95.

[vii] Rourke, Constance; Charles Sheeler:  Artist in the American Tradition; Kennedy Galleries, Inc., and Da Capo Press; New York, New York; 1938 and 1969; p. 136.

[viii] Rourke, Constance; Charles Sheeler:  Artist in the American Tradition; Kennedy Galleries, Inc., and Da Capo Press; New York, New York; 1938 and 1969; p. 136.

[ix] Williams, William Carlos; Patterson; New Directions Publishing Corporations; New York, New York; 1992; pp. 6-7.     

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