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. Zinnias in a Bowl, presented here, is part of a small group of still lifes produced early in his career.
Their significance is emphasized by Carol Troyan, who notes that "in the summer of 1918, Sheeler began a group of flower studies of an elementary and traditional type: the tabletop still life. For these he posed a few common blossoms upright in an ordinary vessel, either a low pale porcelain bowl or an unadorned, slender-necked vase. At least three watercolors resulted from this exercise. In the next few years all three would be shown in New York and purchased by astute collectors of modern art who would become Sheeler's most important early supporters. Zinnia was purchased by John Quinn; Zinnias and Flower in a Bowl were bought by Fedinand Howald in 1919 from the dealer Charles Daniel for $150 and $100 respectively. These were the first of eight Sheelers Howald would acquire; they were also among the artist's first sales." (Charles Sheeler, Paintings and Drawings, Boston, 1987, pp. 8, 70).
In the present example, which is an addition to the known works from this period of experimentation, Sheeler has simplified the composition to a few central elements: three zinnia blossoms and a spray of yellow flowers in a bowl on a tabletop, enlivened with crisply contrasting colors of blue, green, red, orange and yellow. The composition draws almost directly from a photograph produced by Sheeler a few years before-Zinnias and Nasturtium Leaves of 1916-17 (The Lane Collection, The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). This investigation of a similar theme in two media underscores Sheeler's interest in the challenge of creating compelling works with everyday objects. Also common to both, he introduces the contrast of natural and geometric forms, a theme that reappears in many of his works, while creating an utterly simple, yet elegant and ultimately elegiac tribute to modernism.