Clockwise from top left (Detail) Marsden Hartley (1877-1943), Calm after Storm off Hurricane Island, Vinal Haven, Maine, painted in 1937-38. Estimate $1,500,000-2,500,000; (Detail) Charles Sheeler

American Modernism in 5 themes

A guide to key strands in early 20th-century American painting, from industrial landscapes to desert vistas, via Paris and abstraction. Featuring works from The Barney A. Ebsworth Collection, 13-14 November, and American Art, 20 November

In the early 1900s, America underwent a period of rapid modernisation. With the advent of the railroad and mass production, America’s landscape was irrevocably transformed. Into this machine-efficient world of factories and skyscrapers came artists, trying to make sense of the modern age. Their paintings reflected the concerns of the American people, the ever-evolving landscape and the alienation felt amid the immense shadows of ascending cities.

Many of the artists had trained in Europe and were aware of the intellectual revolution in art happening there. Some adopted Cubist and Surrealist techniques, like Stuart Davis, while others, such as Georgia O’Keeffe and Charles Sheeler, looked to the landscape for inspiration. A further group of artists, among them Josef Albers and Charles Green Shaw, abandoned representation altogether for a radical new concept known as abstraction.

Each artist performed a triumphant territory grab for American Modernism. The result was a multifarious movement that encompasses many different styles and subjects, and which anticipated the later post-war movements that included Abstract Expressionism.

Here we take a look at five defining themes that came to represent this great dawning of American culture.

1. The American landscape and the Stieglitz Circle

Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) was a pivotal figure in early American Modernism. A pioneering photographer and gallery owner, he was a tireless promoter of a group of artists who sought to depict the American landscape with a spiritual intensity. Among them were the painters Georgia O’Keeffe, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, Charles Demuth, John Marin and the photographer Paul Strand. They became known as the Stieglitz Circle and were exhibited at Stieglitz’s gallery, An American Place, in New York.

Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986), The Red Maple at Lake George, painted in 1926. 36 x 30  in (91.4 x 76.2  cm). Estimate $7,000,000-10,000,000. This lot is offered in American Art on 20 November 2018 at Christie’s in New York © 2018 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum  Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York 

Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986), The Red Maple at Lake George, painted in 1926. 36 x 30 in (91.4 x 76.2 cm). Estimate: $7,000,000-10,000,000. This lot is offered in American Art on 20 November 2018 at Christie’s in New York © 2018 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York 

Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) would wander in the landscape surrounding Stieglitz’s family home at Lake George in Upstate New York, collecting leaves, apples and flowers, which she then depicted in her paintings — often cropping the subject, or painting it in close-up and heightening the colour, to create images of striking intensity.

Marsden Hartley (1877-1943), Calm after Storm off Hurricane Island, Vinal Haven, Maine, painted in 1937-38. 22 x 28  in (55.9 x 71.1  cm). Estimate $1,500,000-2,500,000. This lot is offered in An American Place  The Barney A. Ebsworth Collection Evening Sale on 13 November 2018 at Christie’s in New York

Marsden Hartley (1877-1943), Calm after Storm off Hurricane Island, Vinal Haven, Maine, painted in 1937-38. 22 x 28 in (55.9 x 71.1 cm). Estimate: $1,500,000-2,500,000. This lot is offered in An American Place | The Barney A. Ebsworth Collection Evening Sale on 13 November 2018 at Christie’s in New York

Marsden Hartley (1877-1943) and John Marin (1870-1953) devoted much of their careers to painting the jagged coastline of Maine, capturing the turbulent seas with bold, vigorous brushstrokes. Their technique arguably anticipated the later Abstract Expressionist movement.

John Marin (1870-1953), My-Hell Raising Sea, painted in 1941. 25 x 30  in (63.5 x 76.2  cm). Estimate $250,000-350,000. This lot is offered in An American Place  The Barney A. Ebsworth Collection Evening Sale on 13 November 2018 at Christie’s in New York

John Marin (1870-1953), My-Hell Raising Sea, painted in 1941. 25 x 30 in (63.5 x 76.2 cm). Estimate: $250,000-350,000. This lot is offered in An American Place | The Barney A. Ebsworth Collection Evening Sale on 13 November 2018 at Christie’s in New York

Like O’Keeffe, Arthur Dove (1880-1946) sought to unlock the mystique of the natural environment in his paintings. In Long Island, below, the artist depicts the rocks along a harbour wall as ominous primordial shapes.

Arthur G. Dove (1880-1946), Long Island, painted in 1940. 20 x 32  in (50.8 x 81.3  cm). Estimate $1,000,000-1,500,000. This lot is offered in An American Place  The Barney A. Ebsworth Collection Evening Sale on 13 November 2018 at Christie’s in New York

Arthur G. Dove (1880-1946), Long Island, painted in 1940. 20 x 32 in (50.8 x 81.3 cm). Estimate: $1,000,000-1,500,000. This lot is offered in An American Place | The Barney A. Ebsworth Collection Evening Sale on 13 November 2018 at Christie’s in New York

2. The industrial landscape and the Precisionists

The Precisionists were not an organised movement but a group of like-minded individuals who sought to depict, through soft, precise brushwork, the sleek lines and flat, hard-edged forms of the new industrial landscape. Among them were the painters Charles Sheeler, Ralston Crawford, Charles Demuth, George Ault, Joseph Stella, Elsie Driggs and Morton Schamberg. These painters echoed the anonymity of the city by hiding their personalities from the viewer. They created a new form of art that was cool, detached and powerfully atmospheric.

Charles Sheeler (1883-1965), Cat-walk, painted in 1947. 24 x 20  in (61 x 50.8  cm). Estimate $1,200,000-1,800,000. This lot is offered in An American Place  The Barney A. Ebsworth Collection Evening Sale on 13 November 2018 at Christie’s in New York

Charles Sheeler (1883-1965), Cat-walk, painted in 1947. 24 x 20 in (61 x 50.8 cm). Estimate: $1,200,000-1,800,000. This lot is offered in An American Place | The Barney A. Ebsworth Collection Evening Sale on 13 November 2018 at Christie’s in New York

The above painting by Charles Sheeler (1883-1965) is based on a trip to a factory in West Virginia. It epitomises the Precisionist aesthetic, converting industrial architecture into a geometric arrangement of American red, white and blue.

Francis Criss (1901-1973), Melancholy Interlude, painted in 1939. 25¼ x 30  in (64.1 x 76.2  cm). Estimate $100,000-150,000. This lot is offered in An American Place  The Barney A. Ebsworth Collection Evening Sale on 13 November 2018 at Christie’s in New York

Francis Criss (1901-1973), Melancholy Interlude, painted in 1939. 25¼ x 30 in (64.1 x 76.2 cm). Estimate: $100,000-150,000. This lot is offered in An American Place | The Barney A. Ebsworth Collection Evening Sale on 13 November 2018 at Christie’s in New York

Francis Criss (1901-1973) was inspired by heavy industry along the East River in Manhattan to create Melancholy River, above, a scene that also incorporates elements of Surrealism.

John Henry Bradley Storrs (1885-1956), Study in Architectural Forms, executed circa 1923. 65¾  in (167  cm) high on a 23  in (58.4  cm) marble base. Estimate $500,000-700,000. This lot is offered in An American Place  The Barney A. Ebsworth Collection Evening Sale on 13 November 2018 at Christie’s in New York

John Henry Bradley Storrs (1885-1956), Study in Architectural Forms, executed circa 1923. 65¾ in (167 cm) high on a 23 in (58.4 cm) marble base. Estimate: $500,000-700,000. This lot is offered in An American Place | The Barney A. Ebsworth Collection Evening Sale on 13 November 2018 at Christie’s in New York

The sculptor John Storrs paid homage to the modern architecture of the skyscraper with strikingly vertical sculptures, such as the monumental masterpiece Study in Architectural Forms, above.

George Copeland Ault (1891-1948), New England Landscape, painted in 1933. 11⅞ x 15⅞ (30.2 x 40.3  cm). Estimate $60,000-80,000. This lot is offered in American Art on 20 November 2018 at Christie’s in New York. Rights and Reproductions Michael Rosenfeld Gallery (info@michaelrosenfeldart.com)

George Copeland Ault (1891-1948), New England Landscape, painted in 1933. 11⅞ x 15⅞ (30.2 x 40.3 cm). Estimate: $60,000-80,000. This lot is offered in American Art on 20 November 2018 at Christie’s in New York. Rights and Reproductions Michael Rosenfeld Gallery (info@michaelrosenfeldart.com)

While primarily associated with urban imagery, Precisionist artists would also apply the same minimal approach to still-lifes or rural landscapes. George Ault’s New England Landscape, above, is a fine example.

3. The Americans in Paris

From the late 19th century, Paris was the capital of the avant-garde, attracting artists, musicians and writers  from all over the world to live there. The list of Americans drawn to the cultural demi-monde  is well known: George Gershwin, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald could all be found applying their sinewy intellects in Gertrude Stein’s salon.

Joseph Stella (1877-1946), Tree of My Life, painted in 1919. 84 x 76  in (213.4 x 193  cm). Estimate $6,000,000-8,000,000. This lot is offered in An American Place  The Barney A. Ebsworth Collection Evening Sale on 13 November 2018 at Christie’s in New York

Joseph Stella (1877-1946), Tree of My Life, painted in 1919. 84 x 76 in (213.4 x 193 cm). Estimate: $6,000,000-8,000,000. This lot is offered in An American Place | The Barney A. Ebsworth Collection Evening Sale on 13 November 2018 at Christie’s in New York

The city enabled the American artists Elie Nadelman, Joseph Stella, Marsden Hartley and Patrick Henry Bruce to become acquainted with the pioneers of Cubism and Fauvism — styles that they then reinterpreted as American Modernism.

Patrick Henry Bruce (1881-1936), PeintureNature Morte, painted circa 1924. 28½ x 36  in (72.4 x 91.4  cm). Estimate $2,000,000-3,000,000. This lot is offered in An American Place  The Barney A. Ebsworth Collection Evening Sale on 13 November 2018 at Christie’s in New York

Patrick Henry Bruce (1881-1936), Peinture/Nature Morte, painted circa 1924. 28½ x 36 in (72.4 x 91.4 cm). Estimate: $2,000,000-3,000,000. This lot is offered in An American Place | The Barney A. Ebsworth Collection Evening Sale on 13 November 2018 at Christie’s in New York

Patrick Henry Bruce (1881-1936) moved to Paris in 1903, where he became a favourite of French avant-garde circles. He knew Gertrude and Leo Stein and enrolled in Henri Matisse’s school, where he embarked on a style that would come to define him. Using geometric forms that resembled domestic objects — as in 1924’s Peinture/Nature Mort, above — he created a series of boldly coloured still-life paintings that incorporated Cubist elements.

Stuart Davis (1892-1964), Still Life in the Street, painted 1941. 10⅛ x 12⅛  in (25.7 x 30.8  cm). Estimate $500,000-700,000. This lot is offered in An American Place  The Barney A. Ebsworth Collection Evening Sale on 13 November 2018 at Christie’s in New York © Estate of Stuart Davis Licensed by VAGA at Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York 

Stuart Davis (1892-1964), Still Life in the Street, painted 1941. 10⅛ x 12⅛ in (25.7 x 30.8 cm). Estimate: $500,000-700,000. This lot is offered in An American Place | The Barney A. Ebsworth Collection Evening Sale on 13 November 2018 at Christie’s in New York © Estate of Stuart Davis/ Licensed by VAGA at Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York 

In 1928 the artist Stuart Davis (1892-1964) moved to Montparnasse, attracted by its vibrancy and its mix of modern and traditional architecture. He met Alexander Calder and Fernand Léger, and embarked on a series of abstracted cityscapes that incorporated planes of colour and overlapping lines. The later work Still Life in the Street, above, painted in 1941, reinterprets one of his early Parisian compositions.

4. The great American desert

Many American artists were attracted to the raw and alarming beauty of the arid southwest. Some, like the members of the Taos Society of Artists, settled there and became known for their paintings of the region’s wide skies and its people. Others, like Georgia O’Keeffe, Marsden Hartley and John Marin, were drawn here from New York by its sublime isolation.

Maynard Dixon (1875-1946), Cloud, painted in 1941. 16 x 20  in (40.6 x 50.8  cm). Estimate $25,000-35,000. This lot is offered in American Art on 20 November 2018 at Christie’s in New York

Maynard Dixon (1875-1946), Cloud, painted in 1941. 16 x 20 in (40.6 x 50.8 cm). Estimate: $25,000-35,000. This lot is offered in American Art on 20 November 2018 at Christie’s in New York

Maynard Dixon (1875-1946) created awesome visions of the seemingly infinite landscape of the southwest. With 1941’s Cloud, above, we can see his trademark low horizon and marching cloud formations.

Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986), Porcelain Rooster, executed in 1929. 15 x 8⅛  in (38.1 x 20.6  cm). Estimate $250,000-350,000. This lot is offered in American Art on 20 November 2018 at Christie’s in New York © 2018 Georgia OKeeffe Museum  Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York 

Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986), Porcelain Rooster, executed in 1929. 15 x 8⅛ in (38.1 x 20.6 cm). Estimate: $250,000-350,000. This lot is offered in American Art on 20 November 2018 at Christie’s in New York © 2018 Georgia O'Keeffe Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York 

Georgia OKeeffe (1887-1986), Black Door with Snow, painted in 1953-1955. 36 x 30  in (91.4 x 76.2  cm). Estimate $1,000,000-1,500,000. This lot is offered in American Art on 20 November 2018 at Christie’s in New York © 2018 Georgia OKeeffe Museum  Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York 

Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986), Black Door with Snow, painted in 1953-1955. 36 x 30 in (91.4 x 76.2 cm). Estimate: $1,000,000-1,500,000. This lot is offered in American Art on 20 November 2018 at Christie’s in New York © 2018 Georgia O'Keeffe Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York 

Georgia O’Keeffe and Rebecca Salsbury Strand (1891-1968) first journeyed west in 1929, staying in Taos, New Mexico, with Mabel Dodge Luhan, the Gertrude Stein-like figure of the southwest, who hosted artists and writers including AnselAdams and D.H. Lawrence. The house was known as Los Gallos (The Roosters) due to the brightly coloured porcelain roosters on the roof, as depicted in O’Keeffe’s Porcelain Rooster  pastel, above, executed on that first trip in 1929.

O’Keeffe eventually relocated to New Mexico, living both at Ghost Ranch and the ‘big house’ in Abiquiu. In addition to the landscape, she was fascinated by the adobe architecture of the area and made a series of paintings inspired by the black door of her enclosed patio — including Black Door with Snow, above — evoking the geometry of the building with an exploration toward abstraction.

Marsden Hartley (1877-1943), Landscape with Single Cloud, painted in 1922-23. 28½ x 41  in (72.4 x 104.1  cm). Estimate $500,000-700,000. This lot is offered in American Art on 20 November 2018 at Christie’s in New York

Marsden Hartley (1877-1943), Landscape with Single Cloud, painted in 1922-23. 28½ x 41 in (72.4 x 104.1 cm). Estimate: $500,000-700,000. This lot is offered in American Art on 20 November 2018 at Christie’s in New York

Marsden Hartley first arrived in New Mexico in June of 1918, and was immediately inspired by the clear light and colours of the landscape. He saw the land as otherworldly and painted it as such — Landscape with Single Cloud, above, is a good example — continuing to do so even when he was living in Berlin in the early 1920s.

5. American Abstraction and the Park Avenue Cubists

In the late 1930s a group of American painters that included Josef Albers, Ilya Bolotowsky, Byron Browne, Werner Drewes, Paul Kelpe, and Vaclav Vytlacil founded The American Abstract Artists (AAA). Their aim was to develop a new approach to painting characterised by shapes and primary colours.

Among the initial circle of the AAA was also a small cohort of wealthy abstract artists from New York, known colloquially as the Park Avenue Cubists. They included Albert Gallatin, Charles Green Shaw, George L.K. Morris and his wife, Suzy Frelinghuysen. The group were inspired by Pablo Picasso, Juan Gris, George Braque and Fernand Léger, and combined Constructivist and Cubist principles into their paintings.

Charles Green Shaw (1892-1974), Untitled, painted in 1940. 30 x 22  in (76.2 x 55.9  cm). Estimate $70,000-100,000. This lot is offered in An American Place  The Barney A. Ebsworth Collection Evening Sale on 13 November 2018 at Christie’s in New York

Charles Green Shaw (1892-1974), Untitled, painted in 1940. 30 x 22 in (76.2 x 55.9 cm). Estimate: $70,000-100,000. This lot is offered in An American Place | The Barney A. Ebsworth Collection Evening Sale on 13 November 2018 at Christie’s in New York

Charles Green Shaw (1892-1974) studied architecture at Columbia University before becoming an abstract artist. His polygonal shapes in primary colours reflected the New York City skyline, while the wire-like lines, as typified in Untitled  (above), are similar to the mobiles that Alexander Calder was developing at around the same time.

Suzy Frelinghuysen (1911-1988), Composition, painted in 1943. 40 x 30  in (101.6  cm x 76.2  cm). Estimate $120,000-180,000. This lot is offered in An American Place  The Barney A. Ebsworth Collection Evening Sale on 13 November 2018 at Christie’s in New York

Suzy Frelinghuysen (1911-1988), Composition, painted in 1943. 40 x 30 in (101.6 cm x 76.2 cm). Estimate: $120,000-180,000. This lot is offered in An American Place | The Barney A. Ebsworth Collection Evening Sale on 13 November 2018 at Christie’s in New York

Collage was a common practice of the Cubists. The artist Suzy Frelinghuysen (1911-1988) used corrugated cardboard to blur the lines between representation and abstraction, and between two-and three-dimensional art. While at first appearing wholly abstract, Her Composition, above, painted in 1943, actually relates to an image of a bullfighter.