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Bucks County Barns

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Bucks County Barns

Artist: Charles Sheeler (American, 1883 - 1965)

Date: 1924
Medium: Colored pastel pencil with graphite and black charcoal on Japanese paper mounted on board
Dimensions:
Overall: 9 x 13in. (22.9 x 33cm)
Signed:
Inscribed: Recto, lower right (graphite): "Sheeler 1924"
Credit Line: Edward W. Root Bequest
Object number: 57.232
Text Entries

In 1917-18, Sheeler produced approximately two dozen drawings, photographs, and gouaches of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century barns in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.(1) This series marks the transition between the artist’s internalization of European modernism and the emergence of his mature style which cast him as the consummate Precisionist of his generation.(2) The barns held an abiding interest for Sheeler, who admired them because their “shapes were determined by their practical use.” He further wrote that the materials of which the barns were constructed—wood, stone and plaster—“anticipated by a considerable time the interest of the contemporary artist in the relation of contrasting surfaces as an important contribution to the design of a picture.”(3) While the earliest of these compositions are very spare and abstract, by 1918 Sheeler had developed his sketches and photographs into more finished gouache compositions of grand, isolated barns with differentiated surface textures.(4)

Sheeler returned to drawing the barns in 1923-24; the MWPI work, drawn with short, sharp strokes of colored pencil, dates to this phase. Based on information provided by Sheeler himself, scholars once believed that the artist relinquished his Doylestown studio by this time and that the later Bucks County compositions were in fact based on idealized memories.(5) More recently, it has been discovered that Sheeler retained the studio until at least March 1926.(6) Therefore, the MWPI work may have been made in Pennsylvania, but it differs from the 1917-18 drawings depicting iconic barns. The individual textures and isolated volumes of the earlier images have given way to eight or ten structures interwoven with foliage in a Cézannesque marriage of forms.(7) The buildings in the MWPI drawing are also contextualized; Sheeler placed them at some remove from a dirt road and green meadow in the fore-ground. Whether he drew the image on site or not, this physical distance from the structures parallels the emotional distance created by the nostalgic evocations of an idyllic summer’s day in the country.(8)

MEM

1. Carol Troyen and Erica E. Hirshler, Charles Sheeler: Paintings and Drawings (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1987), 98. Sheeler had a studio in Doylestown, Pa., for about sixteen years, and the literature on his barn images is extensive. See Constance Rourke, Charles Sheeler: Artist in the American Tradition (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1938, and Kennedy Galleries, Inc., and Da Capo Press, 1969), 59-60, 67-70; Dochterman, Quest of Charles Sheeler, 11-13, 16; Driscoll, Charles Sheeler, The Works on Paper, 52-54, 58; Karen Davies, “Charles Sheeler in Doylestown and the Image of Rural Architecture,” Arts Magazine 59 (March 1985): 135-39; Troyen and Hirshler, Charles Sheeler, nos. 9 and 11. See also Rick Stewart, “Charles Sheeler, William Carlos Wiliams, and Precisionism: A Redefinition,” Arts Magazine 58 (November 1983): 102, for a discussion of the esthetics of place and the development of a native art.

2. See also Karen Lucic, Charles Sheeler and the Cult of the Machine (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991), 40.

3. Charles Sheeler Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., microfilm NSh-1, frame 92.

4. See Barn Abstraction, 1917 (Philadelphia Museum of Art) and Burks County Barn, 1918 (Columbus Museum of Art) respectively. In decontextualizing the early versions of the barns to underscore their immutable, inherent beauty, Sheeler sited them outside their expected genre, the landscape. In the absence of nature’s presence, as well as of evidence of human activity, Sheeler’s barns from this period could be interpreted as still life rather than as landscape, based on the distinction Norman Bryson, In Medusa's Gaze: Still Life Paintings from Upstate New York Museums (Rochester, N.Y.: Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, 1991), 8, has made between the two genres: “Landscape painting is concerned with a gaze that opens, still life with a gaze that closes. With nearly all still life, a convention is observed that ensures that we stop asking questions of what might lie ‘beyond’ the far edge. . . . The convention that brackets out spatial recession creates an enclosure, a bounded arena, within which the gaze can concentrate its energies. With landscape painting, the spatial conventions work in quite the opposite direction. There, the gaze is lured away from the subject, out into greater and greater distances.” It should be noted, too, that Sheeler painted important still life images between 1918 and 1923, his two early barn periods.

5. See Rourke, Charles Sheeler: Artist in the American Tradition, 59.

6. See Davies, “Charles Sheeler in Doylestown and the Image of Rural Architecture," 139.

7. To date, a specific photograph relating to the MWPI drawing has not been identified, but John Driscoll to author, February 7, 1994, stated that a correlation between individual structures in the MWPI drawing and photographs from 1917-18 might exist.

8. See also Troyen and Hirshler, Charles Sheeler: Paintings and Drawings, 98.

 

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