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- 20th Century American Painting
- Amoskeag Canal , 1948
- oil on canvas
- 22 1/8 in. x 24 1/8 in. (56.2 cm x 61.28 cm)
- Charles Sheeler (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1883 - 1965, Dobbs Ferry, New York)
- Museum Purchase: Currier Funds, 1948.4
- Not on View
Interpretive text from Exploring American Art: An Online Resource for the American Collections
Charles Sheeler's sharply delineated and pristine images of industrial subjects exemplify the Precisionist aesthetic of the 1930s and 1940s. Born in 1883, Sheeler studied at the School of Industrial Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, both in his native Philadelphia. Among his teachers was William Merritt Chase (q.v.), with whom he traveled to Europe with fellow students in 1904 and again in 1905. On a third trip to Europe in 1908-09, Sheeler encountered the work of the French moderns. Shortly afterward, the artist abandoned his Impressionist style and began to investigate the work of Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) and the Cubists. By the mid-1910s he had developed a Cubist approach marked by clean lines, flatness, and reductive forms. Early subjects included interiors and the barns of rural Bucks County, Pennsylvania, but after his move to New York City in 1919, Sheeler focused on the urban and industrial subjects for which he became best known.
A gifted photographer, Sheeler turned to the camera as a starting point for many of his paintings and drawings. Combining the heightened clarity of straight photography with his own version of Cubism, Sheeler developed a hard-edged Realist style that came to be known as Precisionism. Although others, including Charles Demuth (q.v.) and Georgia O'Keeffe (q.v.), had arrived at similar styles, Sheeler devoted much of his career to Precisionism and is today regarded as its leading figure. After the World War II he painted a number of semi-abstract compositions based on juxtapositions of photographic negatives. Sheeler gave up painting after suffering a debilitating stroke in 1959, and during the last years of his life, he was the subject of several retrospective exhibitions. The artist died in Dobbs Ferry, New York, in 1965.
In 1946 Bartlett Hayes, then director of the Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, invited his friend Charles Sheeler to be the school's artist-in-residence. During his monthlong stay in Andover, Sheeler discovered a derelict nineteenth-century textile mill in the nearby town of Ballardvale. Inspired by its simple geometry, he made the mill the subject of a major painting, Ballardvale (1946, Addison Gallery of American Art). Sheeler's experience in Andover had been a positive one, and when Hayes's colleague, Gordon Smith, director of the Currier Gallery (now Museum) of Art, asked the artist to return to New England two years later, he readily complied.
Sheeler arrived in Manchester in May 1948. According to the agreement he had reached with Smith, he was to stay not less than one week but no more than two, during which period he would produce two gouache studies of the subjects of his choice. For this he would be paid the handsome sum of $1,000. In addition, the artist would then be paid another $1,500 to work up one of the studies into a finished oil painting. Although the weather in Manchester was rainy and the atmosphere depressing, Sheeler worked rapidly and purposefully. He took numerous photographs, and by September he had completed the two gouache studies, both of Manchester's Amoskeag Mills. Acting on the wishes of the Museum's trustees, Sheeler chose the more settled and panoramic of the two compositions for his oil painting, Amoskeag Canal.
Amoskeag Canal is a serene image that draws the viewer into its fictive space through strong perspectival lines formed by the banks of the waterway and the red brick mill buildings that flank it on either side. Carefully balanced, the roughly symmetrical composition lends the scene a stable quality that complements the aura of stillness that surrounds the mill complex. As is frequently the case in Sheeler's paintings, there is no obvious human presence here, only the industrial landscape itself.
Scholars and critics have long pondered Sheeler's peculiar approach to industrial subjects. While the pristine perfection of the artist's style argues for a celebratory stance vis-à-vis American industry, the sense of emptiness inherent in his scenes sends a more neutral if not negative, message. Sheeler was famously reluctant to give opinions about his paintings, but on occasion he did speak of them in formal terms. In much of his work, he sought the underlying basic geometry that he perceived in the world around him. With their spare lines, factory and mill buildings proved ideal subjects in the artist's quest to represent both observed reality and the ideal forms undergirding it. In Amoskeag Canal, Sheeler deliberately reduces incidental details, rendering the mill buildings as crystalline masses delineated by contrasts of light and shadow. Yet unlike his earlier Cubist work, Sheeler stops short of overt abstraction, remaining true to the traditional principles of illusionistic painting. The result is a rarefied image of "reality," stripped of nonessentials, clean, airless, and fundamentally enigmatic in nature.
Martin Friedman. Charles Sheeler: Paintings, Drawings, Photographs. New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 1975.
"Portrait of the Mills." Currier Gallery of Art Bulletin, April 1949, n.p.
Carol Troyen and Erica E. Hirshler. Charles Sheeler: Paintings and Drawings. Ex. cat. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1987.
The information presented here is reviewed regularly and may change as result of ongoing research.