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Charles Sheeler


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(b Philadelphia, 16 July 1883; d Dobbs Ferry, NY, 7 May 1965).

American painter and photographer, the best-known exponent of Precisionism. Between 1904 and 1909 he made several trips to Europe, and he gradually abandoned the bravura handling of Chase (his teacher at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts) for a manner influenced by European modernism—the paintings he exhibited at the Armory Show of 1913, for example, were much indebted to Cézanne. In 1912 Sheeler took up commercial photography for a living while continuing to paint. He worked for a while in fashion photography, but his shy personality was not suited to this world, and he concentrated more on very mundane subjects such as plumbing fixtures. The clarity needed in such work helped to transform his style of painting to a meticulous smooth-surfaced manner that was the antithesis of his early approach. He began to paint urban subjects in about 1920 and over the next decade shifted from simplified compositions influenced by Cubism (on ‘the borderline of abstraction’ in his own words) to highly detailed photographic-like images. In 1927 he was commissioned to take a series of photographs of the Ford Motor Company's plant at River Rouge, Michigan. His powerful images, presenting a pristine view of American industry, were widely reproduced and brought him international acclaim. Increasingly, also, he was recognized as the finest painter in the Precisionist style, his work standing out as much for its formal strength as for its technical polish. Sheeler's paintings continued in this realistic vein in the 1930s, but in the mid-1940s his style changed dramatically: he began using multiple viewpoints and bold unnaturalistic colours, although his brushwork remained immaculately smooth. In 1959 he suffered a stroke and had to abandon painting and photography.

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