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)

Still Life

Charles Sheeler (1883-1965)
Still Life
signed and dated 'Sheeler-1938' (lower center)--signed and dated again and inscribed with title (on the stretcher)
oil on canvas
8 x 9 in. (20.3 x 22.9 cm.)
Painted in 1938.
The Downtown Gallery, New York.
Nelson A. Rockefeller, New York, acquired from the above, 1938.
Grand Central Art Galleries, New York.
Hirschl & Adler Galleries, Inc., New York, acquired from the above, 1979.
Acquired by the late owner from the above, 1979.
Archives of American Art, Downtown Gallery Papers, reel ND40, frames 282-83.
New York, The Downtown Gallery, 1939.
New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Charles Sheeler: Paintings, Drawings and Photographs, October 2-November 1, 1939, no. 42, illustrated.
Boston, Massachusetts, Institute of Modern Art, Ten Americans, October 20-November 21, 1943, no. 24, illustrated.
Houston, Texas, Contemporary Arts Museum, Sheeler, Dove Exhibition, January 7-23, 1951, no. 25.
Boston, Massachusetts, Museum of Fine Arts; Dallas, Texas, Dallas Museum of Art, Charles Sheeler: Paintings and Drawings, October 13, 1987-July 19, 1988, pp. 160-61, no. 55, illustrated.
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. 11, 168-69, 219, no. 62, 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. 226-28, 297, no. 59, illustrated.
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Audubon to Warhol: The Art of American Still Life, October 27, 2015-January 10, 2016, pp. 246-47, no. 119, illustrated.
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Lot Essay

As a painter, photographer, Precisionist and Realist, Charles Sheeler’s unique career reflects a consistent interest in form. Mechanical aesthetics served as inspiration from his early studies in applied design at the School of Industrial Art in Philadelphia to his renowned mature paintings of industrial America in the 1930s. Even in the artist’s still lifes, fruit and flowers give way to a focus on manmade forms. Indeed, in the present work, Still Life, Sheeler depicts common household objects with only a hint of greenery, elevating the everyday through a sophisticated minimalism and modern photographic composition. As Carol Troyen and Erica Hirschler have described the present work, “volume dominates here, and as in his architectural subjects of the same period, the objects become weighty, iconic, pure in outline, and above all monumental—they seem far larger than the tiny size of the canvas would allow” (C. Troyen and E. Hirschler, quoted in T. Stebbins, Charles Sheeler: Paintings and Drawings, exh. cat., Boston Museum of Fine Arts, 1987, p. 160).

Sheeler discovered the valuable relationship between the mediums of painting and photography early in his career, often seeking inspiration from his old photographs for compelling compositions to paint. Painted in 1938, the present painting relates to a series of the artist’s 1920s photographs, including Untitled (Two Pitchers and a Vase) (1922, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York). In preparing the initial composition to capture on film, Sheeler manipulated objects from his collection into what he called ‘arrangements’ to unlock various perspectives, visual effects and studies on form. In Untitled (Two Pitchers and a Vase), he carefully positioned two of his favorite ceramics so that the white, ironstone pitcher eclipses part of the taller, black Etruscan wine jug (known as an oinochoe). A simpler white vase to the right of the composition adds additional contrast and shadow effects. As demonstrated by this photograph, Sheeler’s “arrangements” on film were themselves works of art while existing purposefully as studies from which to paint.

Sheeler’s appreciation for the beauty to be found in the seemingly utilitarian is best evidenced by his deep appreciation for American decorative arts. The artist was a prominent Americana collector himself, amassing a distinguished group of pottery, rugs, Shaker furniture and domestic artifacts. In fact, the artist once reflected, “[my] interest in Early American architecture and crafts, has, I believe, been as influential in directing the course of my work as anything in the field of painting” (C. Sheeler, quoted in unpublished manuscript, Archives of American Art, 1938).

When Sheeler revisited the “arrangement” of Untitled (Two Pitchers and a Vase) in 1938 to paint Still Life, he explored the artistic license available in the medium of painting to transform the composition into a simpler, more modern version with maximal visual impact. While his camera had captured the imperfect, pitted surfaces of the aged objects, here Sheeler could employ his Precisionist interests by eliminating flaws and rendering an impeccably clean composition with his paintbrush. He also notably exchanged the empty white vase at right for a small glass of water with leaves from a coleus plant, adding a satisfying addition of color, shape and texture. Rather than the overlapping shadows of his photograph, Sheeler plays with the reflections in the water glass as well as the shiny countertop on which the objects rest. With these elements and his meticulous attention to clean lines and voluminous forms, Still Life exhibits the exacting eye and skilled hand which gained Sheeler renown throughout his career.

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