One of America's most innovative modernists, Charles Sheeler is perhaps most famously remembered for his precisionist images of factories--sharply defined and dramatic depictions of industry. He was likewise accomplished as a photographer and at varied moments in his long career, as a still life painter. Yellow Iris is part of a small group of graceful still lifes from the 1920s in which Sheeler focuses on the contrast of natural and geometric forms, a theme that reappears in many of his works.
Sheeler was particularly busy with photographic magazine commissions during the 1920s leaving him little time to paint. The genre of still life was particularly appealing as he could leave the elements, which were often chosen from his collection of American decorative arts, set up for long periods of time and maintain a consistent light source with the use of his photographic flood lights. Carol Troyen and Erica E. Hirshler wrote of this body of work, "The remarkable series of still lifes Sheeler produced in the mid-1920s were constructed from deceptively simple means. He generally used a traditional formula: fruits or flowers arranged on a tabletop, supplemented by simple articles of furniture, glassware and pottery. He painted the same forms repeatedly...The objects Sheeler painted again and again in the 1920s were consistently plain--the flowers were never exotic species, the glassware and furnishings were distinguished by their proportions rather than by the surface embellishments--and he rendered them in an understated, self-effacing way." (Charles Sheeler: Paintings and Drawings, Boston, Massachusetts, 1987, p. 106)
The Etruscan oinochoe and octagonal table in Yellow Iris are both examples of elements that Sheeler used multiple times. According to William Henning, "Sheeler was probably attracted to the oinochoe's graphic outline, and like most of the American objects he collected and painted, it was probably an object of everyday use, artist in form yet not produced as an art object...By including this historically classic object with American household items in his still lifes, he affirmed his appreciation of classic form in the everyday." (in Yale University Art Gallery, Charles Sheeler: American Interiors, exhibition catalogue, New Haven, Connecticut, 1987, p. 30) The octagonal table first appeared in the present work and subsequently appeared in three other paintings executed in 1925 and 1926. "The octagonal table is a candlestand, a late-eighteenth-century object that (according to the prevailing taste for high-style forms) would not have seemed particularly distinguished to Sheeler's contemporaries. It was, in fact, a production-line item devoid of all fancy carving: the only decorative feature is the curved molding defining the table's edge." (Charles Sheeler: Paintings and Drawings, p. 106)
Yellow Iris manifests Sheeler's interest in the challenge of creating compelling works with everyday objects and addresses several of his photographic interests. He explores the concepts of positive and negative through the contrast of the ebony oinochoe and the ivory pitcher and the distinct, clear dileneation of forms based on an unseen light source to the right of the work. He reduces the still life to four elements--flowers, oinochoe, small pitcher and apple--and simplifies the forms to imbue the work with clarity. "From 1923 the objects appeared to have a greater realistic tangibility and were placed in a recognizable setting, but they were depicted with greater austerity and with an insistence upon an objective concern for formal relationships and less upon the natural qualities of the objects themselves." (L. Dochterman, "Charles Sheeler" in The Quest of Charles Sheeler, exhibition catalogue, Iowa City, Iowa, 1963, p. 16) The background is reduced ambiguously to washes and strokes of color and only the top of the forward tilting table is visible, imbuing the work with an unsettling lack of solidarity and location. This inherent unease makes Yellow Iris a thoroughly modern rendition of a traditional genre.