Charles Sheeler - Photographs New York Monday, July 13, 2020 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Gift of the artist to The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1941
    Sotheby’s, New York, Photographs from The Museum of Modern Art, 25 April 2001, lot 90

  • Literature

    Stebbins, Haas, and Mora, The Photography of Charles Sheeler, American Modernist, p. 143
    Stebbins and Keyes, Sheeler: The Photographs, pl. 49
    Montclair Art Museum, Precisionism in America, cat. no. 54
    Detroit Institute of Art, The Rouge, cat. no. 10

  • Catalogue Essay

    ‘Sheeler was objective before the rest of us were’ — Edward Steichen

    In 1927 Charles Sheeler was hired by the advertising company N. W. Ayer & Son to photograph the Ford Motor Company’s new state-of-the-art factory complex near Detroit, situated on the banks of the River Rouge. The experience of photographing the River Rouge plant was a formative one for Sheeler, and provided him the opportunity to both utilize and further perfect his unique brand of photographic precision. The photographs he made at the Rouge became immediately famous and were reproduced widely in the media of the day. The photographs also served as inspiration for many of the paintings Sheeler would produce in the decades to come which duplicated – in part or in full – the industrial forms he had photographed with such objective clarity.

    Sheeler had trained as a painter under the American Impressionist William Merritt Chase and enjoyed some success in the New York art world in the first decade of the 20th century. A 1909 trip to Europe exposed him to Picasso, Matisse, and Braque and caused him to recalibrate his approach to painting. When he was dropped by his gallery as a result of the shift in his work, Sheeler began photographing architecture and works of art for clients to make up for the lost income. He found in the medium the perfect tool for his eye, one that worked in conjunction with his drawing and painting. Going forward, photography informed his painted work, and painting inspired his photography. Only a handful of artists have produced work as accomplished as Sheeler across media.

    The Rouge was, at the time, the largest industrial complex in the world and encapsulated every aspect of automobile manufactory. Sheeler spent six weeks touring the massive facility and learning the functions of the many structures before photographing. The bleeder stacks shown in this photograph served to release excess pressure from the tanks below. Sheeler’s photograph is objectively precise, yet also humanizes its subject. He later said of the Rouge: ‘There, I was to find forms which looked right because they had been designed with their eventual utility in view and in the successful fulfillment of their purpose it was inevitable that beauty should be attained’ (The Rouge, p. Sheeler:12).

    Sheeler’s Rouge photographs earned acclaim as both advertising images and art, and were reproduced in Ford News, Vanity Fair, and avant-garde publications such as Transitions and Hound and Horn. Pioneering gallerist Julien Levy included a selection in his American Photography exhibition in 1931. Levy and Lincoln Kirstein invited Sheeler to contribute to their 1932 exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Murals by American Painters and Photographers; Sheeler produced a mural-sized triptych of photographs from the Rouge.
    As of this writing only four other prints of this image are known, all in institutional collections: The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth; and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.


Ford Plant, River Rouge, Bleeder Stacks, Detroit

Gelatin silver print, printed no later than 1941.
9 1/2 x 7 1/2 in. (24.1 x 19.1 cm)
Signed in pencil on the mount; credited, titled and dated, possibly by the photographer, in pencil on the reverse of the mount.

$100,000 - 150,000 

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Sarah Krueger
Head of Department, Photographs

Vanessa Hallett
Worldwide Head of Photographs and Deputy Chairwoman, Americas

+212 940 1245


New York Auction 13 July 2020