We’ve been reminding folks this week about the upcoming release of the Made in America: Building A Nation stamps. Each pane of stamps showcases 12 images of early 20th-century industrial workers, whose contributions were essential to the growth of the modern United States.
Artist Charles Sheeler, who happens to have been born on this day in 1883, was just as fascinated by the growth of American industry in the early 20th century as we are. His photographs and paintings, many rendered in a flat, hard-edged style known as Precisionism, reflect his interest in technology and streamlined architecture.
During the 1920s, commercial photography provided Sheeler with a good living. In 1927, he received a commission to photograph the Ford Motor Company plant in River Rouge, Michigan, a few miles west of Detroit. Those photographs became successful as both advertising and fine art.
No cars appear in the images. Instead, Sheeler concentrated on the power of the machines and the architecture of the industrial plant, emphasizing the impersonal grandeur of the enterprise. He went on to present this idealized view of industry in several paintings, including American Landscape (1930), that celebrate the company’s—and the nation’s—strength and productivity.
By calling his painting American Landscape, Sheeler explored the relationship between rural traditions and his modern subject matter. He presents an industrial world as the equivalent of the natural world. Even the water in this landscape is a man-made canal. To emphasize the modern quality of his vision, Sheeler worked to eliminate signs of brushwork from his painting. The tiny human figure on the railroad track in the lower left quadrant indicates the scale of the enormous smokestack and other industrial apparatus. Sheeler is commenting on the way human culture was coming to dominate nature. Painted at the height of the “machine age,” Sheeler’s painting celebrates the order and rationality of industry.
In 1939, Fortune magazine commissioned Sheeler to make a series of paintings on the theme of power. He visited marvels of modern engineering such as the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Boulder Dam. The resulting paintings were reproduced in the magazine and exhibited in New York.
Late in his career, he made a series of paintings of abandoned mill buildings, reflecting his longstanding interest in architecture. Some of his interiors depict both antique furniture and modern appliances, joining the handmade past and the industrial present.
The Charles Sheeler stamp can be found on the Modern Art in America stamp sheet, which was issued on March 7, 2013. The sheet is available online, by calling 800-STAMP24 (800-782-6724), and at Post Offices around the country. The Made in America stamps will be issued on Thursday, August 8. We will post more details about the official dedication ceremony soon.