Charles Sheeler (1883-1965)
On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial int… Read more An American Place: The Barney A. Ebsworth Collection
Charles Sheeler (1883-1965)


Charles Sheeler (1883-1965)
signed and dated 'Sheeler-1947' (lower right)--signed and dated again (on the stretcher)
oil on canvas
24 x 20 in. (61 x 50.8 cm.)
Painted in 1947.
The Downtown Gallery, New York.
Mr. and Mrs. Charles A. Bauer, acquired from the above, 1947.
[With]James Maroney, Inc., New York.
Acquired by the late owner from the above, 1978.
Archives of American Art, Downtown Gallery Papers, roll ND40, frames 240-41.
M. Breuning, "Americans Who Are Not Artistic Illiterates," The Art Digest, vol. 22, no. 1, October 1, 1947.
M. Friedman, "The Precisionist View," Art in America, vol. 48, no. 3, Fall 1960, p. 31, illustrated.
L.N. Dochterman, "The Stylistic Development of the Work of Charles Sheeler," vol. 2, Ph.D. dissertation, University of Iowa, 1963, p. 435, no. 47.267.
M. Friedman, Charles Sheeler: Paintings, Drawings and Photographs, New York, 1974, p. 127, illustrated.
C. Troyen, E. Hirschler, Charles Sheeler: Paintings and Drawings, exhibition catalogue, Boston, Massachusetts, 1987, p. 186n1.
D. Ngo, ed., Art + Architecture: The Ebsworth Collection + Residence, San Francisco, California, 2006, n.p., illustrated.
New York, The Downtown Gallery, New Painting and Sculpture by Leading American Artists, September 23-October 18, 1947, no. 19.
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, 1947 Annual Exhibition of Contemporary Painting, 1947, no. 138.
New York, The Downtown Gallery, Charles Sheeler, January 25-February 12, 1949, no. 4.
São Paulo, Brazil, São Paulo Museum of Art, First Biennal International Exhibition, October 1951, no. 64.
Worcester, Massachusetts, Worcester Art Museum, Five Painters of America: Louis Bouché, Edward Hopper, Ben Shahn, Charles Sheeler, Andrew Wyeth, February 17-April 3, 1955.
Iowa City, Iowa, University of Iowa, The Quest of Charles Sheeler: 83 Works Honoring His 80th Year, March 17-April 14, 1963, pp. 28, 50, no. 54, fig. 20, illustrated.
Washington, D.C., National Collection of Fine Arts; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia Museum of Art; New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, Charles Sheeler, October 10, 1968-April 27, 1969, p. 25, no. 112.
St. Louis, Missouri, St. Louis Art Museum; Honolulu, Hawaii, Honolulu Academy of Arts; Boston, Massachusetts, Museum of Fine Arts, The Ebsworth Collection: American Modernism 1911-1947, November 20, 1987-June 5, 1988, pp. 162-63, 215, no. 59, illustrated.
Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art; Seattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, Twentieth-Century American Art: The Ebsworth Collection, March 5-November 12, 2000, pp. 229-32, 297, no. 60, illustrated.
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Sara Friedlander
Sara Friedlander

Lot Essay

A virtuoso of both painting and photography, Charles Sheeler employed his exacting eye on the American scene for over four decades utilizing both mediums. As a leading member of the Precisionist movement, Sheeler employed his photography training to create an art form which questioned the hard boundaries between representation and reality. Painting both industrial and agrarian subjects alike, Sheeler’s unique fusion of art, industry and the modern American landscape earned him the reputation as one of the most revered American artists of the twentieth century. Refined in its exactitude, Cat-walk is a tour de force of the artist’s mature aesthetic and a triumphant achievement of American Modernism.

Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1883, Charles Sheeler attended the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1906 studying under the acclaimed 19th century American master William Merritt Chase. While in school, Sheeler lived with his friend and classmate Morton Livingston Schamberg, and both men supported themselves as commercial photographers while continuing to paint. In 1909, following a trip to Paris and subsequent visit to the homes of Michael and Sarah Stein, early supporters of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, Sheeler began to employ a more Cubist-inspired style in his work. For the rest of his career, Sheeler’s art sought to capture that elusive boundary between photography and painting in a distilled, refined clarity of style with Cubist undertones.

Comprised of artists including Sheeler, Ralston Crawford, Charles Demuth, George Ault, Elsie Driggs, Georgia O’Keeffe and Morton Schamberg, the Precisionists were not an organized movement but a group of artists who each independently arrived at a hard-edged, clean style of painting. As some of the first observers of modern, industrialized America, the Precisionists captured the United States as the country changed from an agrarian to an industrialized society, creating a form of art which was distinctly American. Gail Stavitsky writes, “Interpreted as a classic reaction against the impermanent formlessness of Impressionism and the Eight, Precisionism proposed a fundamental reordering of experience, a clarifying search for architectonic structure underlying the chaos of reality. Indeed, metaphors of architecture, science, engineering, and mechanization were often employed to characterize the Precisionists’ methodical, radical construction of compositions” (G. Stavitsky, Precisionism in America, 1915-1941: Reordering Reality, exh. cat., Montclair Art Museum, 1994, pp. 34-35).

By time Sheeler painted Cat-walk in 1947, the artist had already received considerable acclaim for his work for over two decades. In 1927, Sheeler was commissioned by the Ford Motor Company to photograph their automobile plants in River Rouge, Michigan. Sheeler spent six weeks documenting the company’s factories in River Rouge, and the resulting body of work was used as part of the promotional campaign for the release of the Model A. Ford. From this journey resulted one of the artist’s unquestioned Precisionist masterpieces, Classic Landscape (1931), given by Barney Ebsworth to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. in 2000.

As part of his artistic process, Sheeler continued to make these types of journeys for decades. Sometime around the mid-1940s, Sheeler journeyed to a synthetic rubber plant in West Virginia where he made a number of documentary photographs. Four paintings resulted from this trip, Incantation (1946, Brooklyn Museum), Mechanization (1946, Whitney Museum of American Art), It’s a Small World (1946, Newark Museum) and the present work, Cat-walk. Unlike Sheeler’s earlier imagery, here he begins to depict his subject matter with magnified abstraction, only allowing viewers to see a portion of the scene. Carol Troyen observes, “His concern with the underlying structure, design, and pattern found in realistic scenes had been a constant in his work, but now he literally narrowed the focus of his industrial subject matter, changing his approach to address his new graphic style…he began to paint fragments of machines and industrial apparatus, segments selected purely for their formal arrangement of line and shape” (C. Troyen, Charles Sheeler: Paintings and Drawings, exh. cat., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1987, p. 186).

In Cat-walk, Sheeler bestows a visual feast of geometric lines and colors upon the canvas, making the composition appear reductive yet frenetic at the same time. As the reds of the catwalk jut across the picture plane, so do the rigid blues and blacks of the steel and sky. In an intense, magnified perspective, the viewer becomes immediately confronted with the magnanimity of the machine, mighty in its presence. In Cat-walk, Sheeler maintained the realism of the original photograph upon which the work was based, but flattened and simplified the image to emphasize the rhythmic repetition of cylindrical and linear forms. With a limited palette of sky blues, rich reds, luscious browns and blacks, Sheeler creates an elegant fugue of disparate perspectives and elements, drawing the eye in while not allowing it to fully resolve the composition into a single, comprehensible whole.

With an intense geometric rigor, Cat-walk recalls the abstractions of the De Stijl master Piet Mondrian with his clarity of line, color and form. Indeed, Sheeler had been interested in abstraction since his early years, writing in 1916: “I want to define art as the perception through our sensibilities, more or less guided by intellect, of universal order and its expression in terms more directly appealing to some particular phase of our sensibilities…One, two, or three dimensional space, color, light and dark…all qualities capable of visual communication, are materials to the plastic artist; and he is free to use as many or as few as at the moment concern him. To oppose or relate these so as to communicate his sensations of some particular manifestation of cosmic order—this I believe to be the business of the artist.” (C. Sheeler, quoted in J.H. Maroney, Jr., “Charles Sheeler Reveals the Machinery of His Soul,” American Art, vol. 13, no. 2, Summer 1999, p. 49).

Having first achieved success as a photographer, it was natural that throughout his career Sheeler chose functional subjects and depicted them with sharply defined forms, capturing and abstracting existent patterns in his paintings as only a photographer could. Troyen writes, “Sheeler’s paintings, with their photographic underpinnings to reflect ‘nature seen from the eyes outward’ comprise nothing less than a fifty-year exploration of his understanding of reality. At the same time, they are a nostalgic attempt to bring the past forward into the present. That such an intellectually ambitious program could be visually satisfying in so many different media is a tribute to the romantic soul behind the disciplined hand that crafted them” (C. Tryoen, op. cit., p. 43) Sheeler had been radically experimenting with film and photography since his early days. In 1921, he and fellow photographer Paul Strand explored the dynamism of New York City’s architecture in their experimental Manhatta, considered the first avant-garde American film. The dynamic angles of the skyscrapers and city blocks they captured would recur through much of Sheeler’s subsequent career. Indeed, throughout the twentieth century, American artists continued to engage in these themes Sheeler explored, including urban subject matter. For example, captivated by the rapidly industrializing cityscape, West-Coast artists Richard Diebenkorn and Wayne Thiebaud rendered linear, eagle-eyed perspectives of their San Francisco homes.

As with many of his best works, Sheeler depicts the industrial subject of Cat-walk with complete detachment. Human presence is absent, and only subtly suggested as the creator of the monumentalized industrial forms. All evidence of the artist’s hand is eliminated by clean, even brushwork, heightened by the thin and seamless character of the oil medium. “Underlying this seemingly dispassionate attitude was an idealism about America’s history and destiny. Indeed, many critics have regarded him as an artist whose work epitomizes a clear-eyed native, visual tradition; he has been considered a pragmatic Yankee whose no-nonsense, efficient approach to picture making reflects America’s historic virtues. He seemed to fit the stereotype. ‘Sheeler is truly an American with American ancestors behind him,’” wrote Forbes Watson (M. Friedman, Charles Sheeler, Paintings, Drawings, Photographs, New York, 1975, p. 209).

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