Charles Sheeler (1883-1965)
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Charles Sheeler (1883-1965)

White Sentinels

Charles Sheeler (1883-1965)
White Sentinels
signed and dated 'Charles Sheeler - 1942.' (lower right)--signed and dated again and inscribed with title (on the reverse)
tempera on board
15 x 22 in. (38.1 x 55.9 cm.)
Painted in 1942.
The Downtown Gallery, New York.
Mr. and Mrs. Richard Loeb, New York, by 1946.
The Edith Gregor Halpert Collection, New York.
Sotheby Parke-Bernet, New York, 20th Century American Paintings, Drawings, Watercolors and Sculpture: The Edith Gregor Halpert Collection (The Downtown Gallery), 14 March 1973, lot 24, sold by the above.
Acquired by the late owners from the above.
J. Gibbs, "Cross-Section of Sheeler's Classic Precision," Art Digest, vol. XX, March 1946, p. 9, illustrated.
L. Dochterman, The Stylistic Development of the Work of Charles Sheeler, Ph.D. dissertation, University of Iowa, 1963, no. 47.270.
Art News, vol. LXXII, February 1973, p. 8, illustrated.
S. Reich, "The Halpert Sale, A Personal View," American Art Review, vol. I, September-October 1973, p. 86, illustrated.
J. Barnitz, et al., The David and Peggy Rockefeller Collection: Art of the Western Hemisphere, vol. II, New York, 1988, pp. 114-16, no. 55, illustrated.
New York, The Downtown Gallery, American Art 1942, Opening Exhibition, New Painting and Sculpture, September 22-October 10, 1942, no. 13.
New York, The Downtown Gallery, Exhibition of Recent Paintings by Charles Sheeler, March 5-23, 1946, no. 9.
Rochester, New York, Rochester Memorial Art Gallery, In Focus: A Look at Realism in Art, December 28, 1964-January 31, 1965, no. 70, illustrated.
Trenton, New Jersey, The New Jersey State Museum, Focus on Light, May 20-September 10, 1967, no. 96, illustrated.
Washington, D.C., National Collection of Fine Arts, Smithsonian Institution; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia Museum of Art; New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Charles Sheeler, October 10, 1968-April 27, 1969, pp. 22-23, no. 95, illustrated.
Washington, D.C., National Collection of Fine Arts, Smithsonian Institution, Edith Gregor Halpert Memorial Exhibition, April 7-June 25, 1972, no. 26.
Corpus Christi, Texas, Art Museum of South Texas, American Paintings from the Estate of Edith G. Halpert, January 19-February 10, 1973.
Boston, Massachusetts, Museum of Fine Arts; New York, Whitney Museum of American Art; Dallas, Texas, Dallas Museum of Art, Charles Sheeler: Paintings, Drawings, Photographs, October 13, 1987-July 10, 1988, no. 65.
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Lot Essay

Charles Sheeler was captivated throughout his career by architecture, its structure of different interlocking pieces and the geometric patterns created by those combinations. His close friend and renowned poet William Carlos Williams once wrote, “Charles Sheeler has lived in a mechanical age. To deny that was to lose your life…What was he to do about it? He accepted it as the source of material for his compositions.” (“Postscript by a Poet,” Art in America, October 1954, p. 215) Dating from 1942, the present work’s simplified forms and flattened texture capture Sheeler’s style in transition from his early realistic renderings to the more abstracted, cubist style of his paintings from the 1950s. Incorporating both realism and abstraction, White Sentinels is an important example of Sheeler’s sophisticated studies of the shapes and colors of an increasingly industrialized America.

Born in Philadelphia, Sheeler knew from an early age that he was going to be an artist. First attending the School of Industrial Art in Philadelphia, he subsequently studied with William Merritt Chase at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. After trips abroad to London and Spain and his graduation from the Academy, he utilized his self-taught photography skills to form a business capturing images for architects. Even when he became known as a painter later in his career, “photography stayed by him as a profession all his life, a means of expression in itself, a counterpoise to his painting, one art delimiting the other.” (F.S. Wight, “Charles Sheeler,” Art in America, October 1954, p. 187) In fact, Sheeler’s creative process for White Sentinels demonstrates how closely his photographic and fine art are interrelated.

In 1941, Sheeler went on a photographic exploration with his friend and fellow photographer Edward Weston through the area surrounding Ridgefield, Connecticut. In the town of New Milford, both men found inspiration in a rambling barn on Old Town Farm Road that consisted of two wooden silos, a corn crib and a shed. In his photograph Connecticut, Weston depicts the barn up-close and from an angle with dramatic shadow effects. Sheeler’s version, entitled Barn in Connecticut and only recently rediscovered, is more direct and the clear inspiration for White Sentinels. Carol Troyen and Erica Hirshler write, “Sheeler was clearly deeply moved by these buildings. He never exhibited his photograph, but always preserved it as a reference and perhaps a memento of his friendship with Weston.” (Charles Sheeler: Paintings and Drawings, Boston, Massachusetts, 1987, p. 182) Along with the present work, the scene also influenced several other Sheeler paintings, including On a Connecticut Theme (1958) in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

White Sentinels, like the photograph Sheeler took the previous year, depicts the New Milford barn from a straight-forward perspective, with the two silos side-by-side in the center of the composition. Similar to the high contrast between dark and light tones in the black-and-white gelatin-silver print, the tempera portrayal juxtaposes bright white siding and saturated turquoise-blue sky with dark black roofs and windows. Inspired by the broken-down wooden fence in front of the building in his photo, Sheeler suggests this structure in his painting through scattered logs standing out of the grass in the foreground. These natural, curving forms provide a striking contrast to the regularized building materials, particularly since Sheeler streamlined the edifices in his painting.

In the forties, Sheeler started to be more directly abstract in his landscapes, as seen in the present work. Despite the uneven texture and differentiated boards evident in photographs of the barn, in White Sentinels, only the shed on the left has individual planks, and only the stones on the foundation are defined. The majority of the barn is reduced to geometric color fields of white and black. “The structure of the ‘barn’ was perceived as a series of interlocking patterns composed of shapes, edges and spaces. Everything extraneous was removed…In his environment he saw meter and order, high purposes served through an economy of means and a quality of unpretentious integrity in production of anonymous craftspeople. Having perceived that, he desired to express it himself.” (T. Dintenfass, Charles Sheeler: Classic Themes, New York, 1980, pp. 15, 17) Frederick Wight suggests this direct approach is also markedly American, stating, “What is most American in Sheeler is not the American scene but the American way of seeing. Americans had a way of seeing hard facts with sharp edges in the light of reason.” (“Charles Sheeler,” Art in America, October 1954, p. 181) As demonstrated in White Sentinels, Sheeler’s unique precisionist style was an important, and distinctly American, reaction to the growth of industry in the mid-twentieth century.

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