Charles Sheeler from postcard



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Sheeler -- Doylestown, 1917

Bucks County Barn, 1917 In 1917, Sheeler moved from Philadelphia to Doylestown, Pennsylvania where he shared a studio with his closest friend, Morton Schamberg. Together, they rented an eighteenth-century farmhouse where they were isolated from the distractions of the city. He re, they were able to experience a rural and mostly agricultural America that once was (Lucic 37).

Doylestown House-Exterior View, 1917 Sheeler's photographs from this period are from the Doylestown area and, in many ways, this body of work supports the agrarian myth of early American farming. Sheeler accomplished this by by reducing the reality of farm commerce to mere aesthetic value. Historian Richard Hofstadter, in his book The Age of Reform, gives the clearest summary of the agrarian myth and the reality of farm business:

Doylestown House--Stairway with Chair, 1917 But what the articulate people who talked and wrote about farmers and farming-the preachers, poets, philosophers, writers, and statesmen-liked about American farming was not, in every respect, what the typical working farmer liked. For the articulate people were drawn irresistibly to the noncommercial, nonpecuniary, self-sufficient aspect of American farm life. To them it was an ideal...The farmer himself, in most cases, was in fact inspired to make money and such self-sufficiency as he actually had was usually forced upon him by a lack of transportation to markets, or by the necessity to save cash to expand his operations...The more commercial this society became, however, the more reason it found to cling in imag ination to the noncommercial agrarian values (23-24).

Side of White Barn, 1917 Sheeler's photographs from 1917 such as Bucks County Barn, Doylestown House--Exterior View, Doylestown House--Closet Door with Scythe, Doylestown House--Stairway with Chair, Side of White Barn, and Buggy all refle ct Hofstadter's view of the agrarian myth that surrounded the early American farm culture. The lack of human labor and the non-functioning status of the farm indirectly point to the demise of the farm as a center of production. Clearly, Sheeler did not s eek to portray the "real thing," as Miles Orvell calls it, but rather he sought to show an America as he thought it should be seen.

Buggy, 1917 As with all of Sheeler's photographs, these represent what Karen Lucic refers to as a "frozen scene" that is "haunted with a sense of human absence" (14). All of the Doylestown area photographs are just as Lucic describes. There are no indications as to what happened to the family who once inhabited the Doylestown House, once used the Bucks County Barn, or once traveled with the Buggy.

Doylestown House--Closet Door with Scythe, 1917 There are no signs of the Progressive era rhetoric or agrarian-related economic strife at the turn of the century. There are no indications that this farming town lost impetus because of factory produced goods, higher-paying factory wages, and commericali sm in general. Of course, the scythe by the door in the photography titled Doylestown House--Closet Door with Scythe, may be the crucial symbol to understanding Sheeler's thoughts on the loss of agrariansim--the scythe on one hand represents the br inging in of food for life (such as wheat or other grains), but on the other hand it is in folklore that the Grim Reaper brings death by his scythe.

Clearly, Sheeler reduces the life and plight of the American farmer (at least according the agrarian myth) to nothing more than a pleasing (though not necessarily beautiful) aesthetic image comprised of "mysterious backlighting" and "bold, assertive shape s (Lucic 40). Sheeler himself said, "I am largely attracted to things seen in nature by instinct for their intrisic beauty rather than seeing them as manikins upon which to drape my pet theories" (Sheeler 95). In essence, Sheeler sought to bring the beaut y of the agrarian myth into the twentieth-century through is photography rather than portray a realistic view of the fate of the American yeoman farmer.

Created by Michael Kidd as a project of the
American Studies
MA program at the
University of Virginia.