The Precisionist Movement
The Art History Archive - Precisionism


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The Precisionist View

In between the two World Wars two American artists (Edward Hopper and Charles Sheeler) began a new style loosely connected to Art Deco. Where Art Deco was more about high society, wealth and living the high life, Precisionism was more like the 19th century Realist art of Courbet and Manet. Precisionism showed real people in real situations, real objects and architecture. However the Precisionists didn't associate themselves with other realism artists in the United States (such as American Scene, the Regionalists painters such as Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry).

"The thing that makes me so mad is the 'American Scene business'" Hopper told an interviewer in 1964 "I never tried to do the American Scene as Benton and others did. I think the American Scene caricatured America."

Benton and the Regionalists had isolated themselves to painting images of the mid-west and agricultural topics. Edward Hopper instead painted the urban scenery, with a sense of quiet despair. There was quality of sadness and yet a feeling that life goes on in Hopper's paintings.

The term Precisionism itself was first coined in the early 1920s. Influenced strongly by Cubism and Futurism, its main themes included industrialization and the modernization of the American landscape, which were depicted in precise, sharply defined, geometrical forms. There is a degree of reverence for the industrial age in the movement, but social commentary was not fundamental to the style. The degree of abstraction in the movement ranged considerably (Sheeler's work was sometimes almost photorealistic).

Precisionism wasn't avante garde. Hopper had studied the work of Manet while in Paris, and works like Edouard Manet's "A Bar at the Folies-Bergère" now seems quite similar when compared to Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks" of 1942.

During the Great Depression Hopper's art became even more melancholy. The city felt deserted with lonely coffee drinkers, solitary people looking forlorn and lost. It was in this was Hopper sympathized with the downcast working people of the city.

Charles Sheeler in contrast began his career as a commercial photographer specializing in architecture and would later add painting to his repertoire. He pioneered sharp focus effects and even collaborated on the film "Manhatta" (named after Walt Whitman's poem Mannahatta) in which the city was viewed from above (a revolutionary idea at the time). He used the same viewpoint in "Church Street E1" in 1920.

It was Sheeler who inaugurated the new style (soon to be called Precisionism) in which strict geometry and a love of technology were combined to mirror urban and city life.

In 1927-28 Sheeler was commissioned by the Ford Motor Company to document the Red River Plant in Michigan, a work that marked him as an admirer of machinery and industrial landscapes.

Sheeler's work however were strangely devoid of people. Although the machines and buildings were all man-made there were rarely people in his work. He glorified the machine and the architecture, giving his urban landscapes a feeling of being almost robotic. Sheeler's "American Nude" of 1918-19 is one of his very few works that show people.

Georgia O'Keeffe also lived in New York from time to time and did architectural Precisionist works. Usually she painted flowers and images from south-west United States, but her architectural works from her time spent in New York do make up a sizeable section of the work she made.

Charles Demuth was also a prominent Precisionist. George Ault was also loosely associated with Precisionism. Similar artists include: Ralston Crawford, Louis Lozowick and Jan Matulka. The movement had no presence outside the United States, and although no manifesto was ever created, the artists themselves were a close group who were active throughout the 1920s and 1930s, and exhibited together. Georgia O'Keeffe, however, remained connected to Precisionist ideals until the 1960s, although her best-known works are not closely related to Precisionism. Her husband, photographer Alfred Stieglitz, was a highly regarded mentor for the group.

Precisionist artists have also been referred to as "Cubist-Realists", "Sterilists", and "Immaculates". Their art would have an influence on the magic realism and Pop Art movements.

Precisionist Paintins

  • Charles Sheeler - American Nude - 1918-19
  • Charles Sheeler - Church Street E1 - 1920
  • Louis Lozowick - Minneapolis - 1925
  • Jan Matulka - Arrangement New York - c.1925
  • Edward Hopper - Sunday - 1926
  • Georgia O'Keeffe - New York Street-No. 1 - 1926
  • Georgia O'Keeffe - The Shelton with Sunspots - 1926
  • Edward Hopper - Eleven A.M. - 1926
  • Edward Hopper - Reclining Nude - 1924–27
  • Edward Hopper - Lighthouse Hill - 1927
  • Edward Hopper - Automat - 1927
  • Charles Sheeler - Criss-Crossed Conveyors, Ford Plant - 1927
  • Georgia O'Keeffe - Radiator Building, Night New York - 1927
  • Georgia O'Keeffe - Pink Dish and Green Leaves - 1928
  • Georgia O'Keeffe - New York Night - 1929
  • Charles Sheeler - Upper Deck - 1929
  • Edward Hopper - Chop Suey - 1929
  • Edward Hopper - Early Sunday Morning - 1930
  • Charles Demuth - Chimney and Watertower - 1931
  • Charles Sheeler - Classic Landscape - 1931
  • Charles Sheeler - Rolling Power - 1939
  • Edward Hopper - Office at Night - 1940
  • Ralston Crawford - Overseas Highway - 1940
  • Edward Hopper - Nighthawks - 1942
  • Edward Hopper - Approaching a City - 1946
  • Georgia O'Keeffe - Brooklyn Bridge - 1949
  • Edward Hopper - Morning Sun - 1952
  • Edward Hopper - Carolina Morning - 1955
  • Edward Hopper - A Woman in the Sun - 1961


    Biography of Charles Sheeler

    Precisionists have been classified as a group of artist who began to depict the use of machinery using styles and techniques of the previous movements before them such as abstraction, cubism and Abstract Expressionism. This movement came around shortly after World War 1, when the use of machines began to boom within the United States. The precisionist movement was originally started in nineteen hundred and fifteen when a group of artists got together and decided to look forward to the art of the future. The movement was built around the idea of artists using the precision of their instruments to display these ideas of machinery throughout America. (Precisionism in America . . . 12-13).

    Construction and machinery were the two main influences of the precisionism movement which became big in the nineteen twenties around the time World War one was ending. With streamlining though mechanization becoming an ideal everyday thing for Americans, and things such as skylines going up in New York, anywhere from fifty to seventy story buildings in cities such as Cleveland and cities like Memphis and Syracuse were beginning to install twenty story buildings. Precisionism became an art movement more as a response to society and the production of new products like motion picture films, antifreeze and cigarette lighters (Lucic. . .16).

    Cubism, abstraction and Abstract Expressionism are the common art movements that come to mind when asked about artists. However, these movements all led up to and strongly influenced the movement of the precisionist artists. Precisionism is roughly a combination of these three movements together, using geometrical shapes and using them in abstract forms. These two ways are influenced by cubism and abstraction, while Abstract Expressionism comes from the expression of the artists’ mind and feelings of the subject matter (Doezema, 74-75). American Artists always find it important to truly reflect the transformation that is occurring in the society. Artworks in the 1920s tended to show the rapidly growing nation along with its expansion of technology and industry. As a typical artist strongly influenced by big changes of the new age, Charles Sheeler revealed a love for contemporary urban life and the beauty of the machine through many of his photographs and paintings.

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    As a son of an executive of a steamer company, Charles Sheeler (1883-1965) began his very first art classes at the School of Industrial Art in Philadelphia. After applying a number of times to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, he finally accepted in 1903. There he studied under William Merritt Chase, who helped cultivate Sheeler’s early painterly style. After graduation in 1906, he and his fellow artist, Morton Schamberg, began to experiment with photography which was used to support their paintings. He experienced the new trends in modern art through Cezanne, Picasso, Braque, and Matisse during a trip to Paris in 1908. In 1920, Sheeler, in collaboration with photographer Paul Strand, made a short experimental film named Manhatta, one of the first American art films.

    In 1927 the Ford Motor Company hired Charles Sheeler to spend six weeks in its River Rouge Plant taking photographs. It was when he was deeply impressed by that mighty factory, and consequently, he became passionate and involved in this subject. Under the gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz’s encouragement, Sheeler showed his works in New York, where his reputation grew and where he eventually settled. Sheeler is associated with a group of American painters called Precisionists, and is best known for his paintings and photographs of architectural and industrial subjects.

    Throughout his career, Charles Sheeler was haunted and sustained by the architecture of Doylestown, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where he rented a house called Worthington from about 1910 to 1926. It seems that pictures of simple interior houses and barns in rural area are totally contrasted to his works in New York; however, these photographs play an important part in establishing the artist’s point of view. The elements windows, stairs, doors, ladders … in Doylestown farmhouses, later on, transform into those in industrial factories and tall buildings at the center of the city. The elements are preserved: the way the artist captures the images does not change, but the viewers experience a drastic change. For Sheeler, Doylestown houses were a refugee from the hectic commercialism of the urban society. Although he ultimately gave up his tenancy of the Worthington house, Sheeler maintained a claim on its image throughout his career. (Davies… 135-9)

    Each view in the series emphasizes the emptiness and integrity of the little house. The Interior with Stove (1917) was taken from the southeast side of the house. The dark stove appears to be the sole light source for the interior. The window presents no opening to the world beyond the room. A latched door and a closed window with hinges uniquely increase the austerity and loneliness of the inside world. The source of light is actually a photographer’s lamp hidden behind the stove, which created a dramatic contrast of lights and darks, of shadows and highlights that turn the empty room into a graphic composition.

    Twenty six years later, the image appears again in an oil painting of 1943, The Artist Looks at Nature. It portrays the artist seated at his easel and soon becomes one of his most luminously successful drawings. Although facing a contemporary landscape, the painter creates an image of the Worthington house on the paper. Regardless the change in the scene, Interior with Stove still recalls to the artist’s vision. The wall-surrounded and the built-up environment signify the kind of modern development that Sheeler fears would kill the old integrity of the little house (at the upper left corner of the painting). The painting is covered with a pale, lightly green of grass.

    The questionable aspect of the drawing is that the faceless artist who we assume Charles Sheeler concentrates in a scene that is obviously nowhere in front of him. Why is he painting his interior scene outdoors? His subject is totally out of memory. Apparently the artist is dressed neither for outdoors nor work: he is wearing a white shirt and a vest, a necktie, and formal shoes. His grey shirt and his brown pants are perfectly matched with the painting and its frame. The combination of colors which is really sophisticated expresses a special emotional interaction between Sheeler and the place. The painting shows the relationship of space and time. It also symbolizes the synthesis of rural architecture and the machine age.

    In 1915, Sheeler began another series of photographs that captured the architectural traditions of Bucks County. This series portrays the barns which are less functional in Sheeler’s time than they were when originally built. The two-storey hay mows in these Pennsylvania barns used to provide abundant rooms for storage. The photograph in the figure shows an abandoned barn, with shingles missing from the roof and door to the left pulls away from its hinges. The fence is incapable of holding animals. The viewers and easily perceive the disappearance of the agricultural way of life. Usually constructed of fieldstone, the barn is banked against the hill. A loaded hay wagon can drive directly from the north side into the threshing floor. Cattle stalls on the lower floor open to a pen. Small outbuildings such as stables, corncribs, chicken coops, smoke houses and wood sheds, cluster around the central barn.

    However, technological innovations in the late nineteenth century have reformed these monumental buildings. Threshing floors were no longer necessary, and automatic hay baling and grain storage in silos had transformed the traditional way of dealing with crops. Those buildings in the collection were often abandoned and even began to disappear from the countryside. As an ethical artist of the modern society with huge displacement of olds with news, it is highly responsible for Sheeler to raise this issue in the series. Buggy, also a photograph from this series, can be used to compare to the one of the barn.

    Charles Sheeler created the vivid contrast between light and dark by cleverly placing an electric lamp at the left. Similar to barn exterior, the Buggy overwhelms the viewers with the sense of abandonment. How long has it been since this buggy was last used? At the time this image was made, gas and steam-powered vehicles began to replace horse-drawn carriages in American roadways.

    In the time of World War II, the United States was undergoing a major technological revolution. Electrification and innovations in the construction, transportation, and communication industries were transforming both rural and urban landscape. In cities, many older buildings were being torn down and replaced with modern architecture. Inspired by famous European artwork in avant-garde styles from the early trip to Paris, Sheeler and Schamberg experimented with pictorial constructions gleaned from Duchamp, Picasso and especially Cezanne and the cubists. With deep knowledge about photography he’s gained from Doylestown, with his passion about the rapidly developing industry and mechanism, Sheeler finally got a wonderful opportunity to give birth to the most important series of his career, the Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge Plant in Dearborn, Michigan.

    Working in the fall of 1927 on a commission from the Philadelphia advertising agency N. W. Ayer & Son, Sheeler spent six weeks photographing a subject that he called “incomparably the most thrilling I have had to work with.” Though the plant now has been depicted a number of times, Sheeler was the first to photograph what was then the largest industrial complex in the world. Designed by the industrial architect Albert Kahn, an iron ore was converted into the final assembly of the automobile. A new model of Ford Plant was built between 1917 and 1927 over approximately two square miles. Rather than depicting workers manufacturing cars, Sheeler tends to be interested in the function of the individual machines contained in the big system, such as a blast furnace, a huge ladle for molten steel, a stamping press, a hydraulic shear, or the grouping of the eight 320-foot stacks of the power house.

    It was 1927 when Sheeler created one of the most remarkable drawings that marks his level of cubism perception: Criss-Crossed Conveyors He cleverly selected a perfect site that made an angle below the crossed conveyors to show three dimensional perspective of the view. Zayas, an avant-garde critic, said “It was Charles Sheeler, who proved that cubism exists in nature and that photography can record it (Hight …19).”

    An important characteristic of Charles Sheeler which we can rarely see in most artists is that he uses his photographs as the reason and the impetus for his drawings. In his well-known 1939 photograph called Wheels, there is a little burst of steam coming out of the power piston that drives the locomotive wheels. Critics and scholars likely consider this arresting photograph as an icon of kinetic energy in the machine age. Wheels is the photographic antecedent of the painting Rolling Power. It is associated with engine, power and steel, which are the symbols of the machine era.

    It has also been observed, infrequently, that the engine in Rolling Power has one more wheel than the engine in its photographic antecedent. What prompted Sheeler to extend the scale, format and composition of the photograph when he made the painting? If we look carefully, it is clearly noticeable that some details of wear, grease and dirt on the locomotive wheels in the photograph, have been wiped out of the painting. In addition to that, the puff of steam in his drawing is so much whiter and thicker. Steam is, of course, an attribute of the powerful Hudson locomotive that is itself a legitimate agent of the machine age. Sheeler could have waited for all the steam to dissipate before taking the picture. Thus, evidently, steam plays an important part in the scene. Steam could represent the kinetic energy embodied by the machine or it could be used to indicate time.

    The obvious technique that Sheeler used to demonstrate that dynamism of the locomotive is close-up. The camera angle is perpendicular to the surface of the wheel and engine so that everything appears as two dimensional objects. “Sheeler has imparted to a neat two-dimensional composition multidimensional references with implications of dualism (Maroney…26-57).” It is really interesting to see how Sheeler converts three-dimensional objects either into two-dimensional ones on paper (in Wheels), or into three-dimensional ones (in Criss-Crossed Conveyor), just simply by choosing the right angle and the proper location of the camera. In his transition from photograph to painting, Sheeler further adjusts the details that are inherent in the photograph. The top edge of the locomotive and the bottom edge of the steel track help focus the presence of two consecutive wheels (the photograph only has one wheel). The linkage between the wheels makes it well functional and stable which improves the balance of the image.

    Another interesting example of his similar works emerges in two pieces: the photograph River Rouge Plant Power House (1927) and the vivid painting Stacks in Celebration (1954). It is pretty easy to recognize the similarities: the sky is clear and new tall chimneys arrogantly stand by themselves, wholly distinguish from short flat buildings underneath. The photograph must be taken from a location relatively closed to the bottom of the chimneys. The sun is bright and there is a huge contrast between two opposite sides of the chimney. The steep angle of the camera promotes the height of the chimneys. Cylinder, the beautifully symmetric shape of the chimneys, is shot completely from the bottom to the top.

    However, in the painting, the lines are not sharp and the height of the chimneys is not emphasized. We can never find a real place to capture such a view because Sheeler did not use any vanishing points to create clear perspectives to viewers. Moreover, the light source and the shadows do not really associate with each others to help visualize the picture; adversely, they make the image more abstract and elegant. There are many different light beams across the sky which makes the chimneys more colorful than ever. It is possible to see the chimneys behind the one in the front and that increases the level of abstraction.

    Talking about Sheeler, we can’t omit two of his breakthrough paintings, which affirm his position in the photography community: the American Landscape (1930) and the Classic Landscape (1931).* They both were painted using oil on canvas, a great choice of media, which helps promote the precision of the paintings. Both of them depict typical figures of new developing factories in the 1920s. Sheeler cleverly applies one-vanishing-point technique in both paintings to make the view truly realistic.

    The American Landscape has the vanishing point on the left (out of the paper) and the Classic Landscape has its vanishing point on the right. In the American Landscape, there is a nice balance between two basic elements: sky and water. The factory located near the water source is practically essential for all kinds of industry. The combination of buildings, workers, machines and of course chimney is wonderful especially when their reflections to the water are so nice and clear.

    Smoke from the chimney gently mixes in thick prevailing clouds. The sun is blocked but it is still a very bright day. The big crane in the right makes its mark on the painting by its extremely dark color which is totally contrast to the scheme color of the background. In the Classic Landscape, the factory appears to be empty and lonely in the sunset. The railway across the land plays the same role of the waterfront in American Landscape. The light brown chimney is still there dividing up the sky. There are no workers, no machines, no smoke, and no reflections. Everything is at rest. A big pile of rock in the left has the same significance as the black crane in American Landscape. Two paintings are some how related in terms of colors, combinations, layouts, and especially the implicit love of the artist to the landscape.

    Charles Sheeler is also well known of his contribution to modern architecture. Not only the photographs at Bucks County count but other paintings in New York later on in his life are significant as well. Three major symbols that he used in most of his architectural works are simply ladders, windows and stairs, which are easy to be seen in his Doylestown pictures. In architecture and literature the window is thought to be the eye of the house. In art the window signifies the eye of the painter.

    Windows and doors serve different functions in Sheeler’s interior and exterior views. Windows and doors on the exterior walls of a building do not have the same power as windows and doors that are seen from within. Windows and doors that adorn Sheeler’s interior spaces speak of something that he does not entrust windows and doors to speak of when seen from without (Maroney…26-57). In interiors, they are forward to the soul; in exteriors, they are barriers to it. The walls are the borders of the inside and the outside. A great example would be the photograph Interior with Stove (1917) compared with the painting Windows (1952). As we can see from Interior with Stove, the light in the middle of the dark room applies a strong spirit inside which is totally separated from the outside world by shut door and window. In Windows, the buildings are infinitely tall and the windows steadily arranged on the wall prevent the outside world from everything within.

    Ladders, windows and stairs also appear in Sheller’s commissioned pieces. In his painting Upper deck, a ladder runs diagonally along its left edge. The ladder, like the ventilators that are at the center of the subject, represents a transmission between one state and another, in this case, between two decks. The upper deck is not where the exhaust fans sit, but where the intake fans are located, the airways to the ship’s interior. The “windows” leading to the interior of the ship are the two solid black holes in the intake fans, a symbol of impenetrable and limitless inner spaces, and barriers between these inner and outer states. Another ladder symbol is the prominent railroad track in Classic Landscape (1931) as we mentioned before. Sheeler used it as a device to mark the passage of sequential time. Yet another ladder project appears in River Rouge Plant Power House (1927), in which long ladders cling along the side of the chimneys all the way from the bottom to the top.

    During all his life, Sheeler always carries these original subjects: ladders, windows, and stairs.

    With all his works in many different styles, from realistic to total abstract, from exterior to interior, from agricultural to suburban life, Charles Sheeler has been considered as one of the most extraordinarily talented artists. His wonderful art works will always live as the key to the past in general and to the machine era in particular.


    Bibliography

    Hight, E.M. Charles Sheeler. Art New England v. 24, no. 1 (Dec-2002/Jan-2003) p. 18-19, 67

    Chris Chang. Manhatta. Film Comment v. 39, no. 5 (2003) p. 17

    Keyes, N. The photographs of Charles Sheeler. The Magazine Antiques (1971) v. 133 (March 1988) p. 678-91

    Oates, J. The works of Charles Sheeler. American Artist (May 1998) v. 62 no. 670, p. 46

    D, Aaron. The Great American Thing: Modern Art and National Identity (1915-1935). Art Bulletin (March 2003) v. 85 no. 1 (Peer Reviewed) p. 138-9

    Becker, L. Delmonico building, Charles Sheeler. School Arts v. 101 no. 5 (January 2002) p. 43-6 (Peer reviewed)

    Kernan, N. Boston: Charles Sheeler’s photography [Exhibit]. The Burlington Magazine v. 145 (January 2003) p.51-3 (Peer Reviewed)

    Lucic, K. Charles Sheeler: American interiors [Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven]. Arts Magazine v.61 (May 1987) p. 44-7

    Davies, K. Charles Sheeler in Doylestown and the image of rural architecture. Arts Magazine v. 59 (March 1985) p. 135-9

    Maroney, J.H. Charles Sheeler reveals the machinery of his soul. American Art v. 13 no. 2 (Summer 1999) p. 26-57 (Peer Reviewed)

    Precisionism in America, 1915-1941: reordering reality. Abrams, Montclair Art Museum. New York. 1994.

    Doezema, Marianne. American Realism and the Industrial Age. Cleveland Museum of Art. Cleveland, Ohio. 1980.

    Lucic, Karen. Charles Sheeler and the Cult of the Machine. Havard University Press. Cambridge. 1991.


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