Lot 46
  • 46

Charles Sheeler

300,000 - 500,000 USD
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  • Charles Sheeler
  • Gelatin silver print
  • 9 3/8 x 7 1/2 inches
warm-toned, signed, titled, and dated in ink and with 'Photography - Exhibits,' numerical, and reduction notations in pencil on the reverse, 1927


Sotheby's New York, 7 October 1998, Sale 7194, Lot 135A


'Four Photographs: Ford Plant,' Hound and Horn, April-June 1930, Vol. III, No. 3, unpaginated

Samuel M. Kootz, 'Ford Plant Photos of Charles Sheeler,' Creative Art, April 1931, p. 264

'Painter Sheeler's Second Love is Photographing Plain Things,' LIFE, 8 August 1938, p. 45

Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr., and Norman Keyes, Jr., Charles Sheeler: The Photographs (Boston, 1987), pl. 48

Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr., Gilles Mora, and Karen E. Haas, The Photography of Charles Sheeler: American Modernist (Boston, 2002), cover and p. 147

The Rouge: The Image of Industry in the Art of Charles Sheeler and Diego Rivera (The Detroit Institute of Arts, 1978), cat. no. 9, p. 42


As in the best of Sheeler's industrial studies, this image uses light and shadow to highlight both the impressive form of its subject as well as the machine's function. The photographer's vantage point below the towering steel further dramatizes and abstracts the pictorial space. The print itself is in generally very good condition. It is on semi-glossy double-weight paper with Sheeler's distinctive rich golden tonality. When the print is examined very closely in high raking light, small surface scratches and impressions that do not appear to break the emulsion, as well as occasional matte deposits and some original retouching, are visible overall. This print is trimmed to the image, the corners are bumped, and there is tiny edge chipping in the upper left corner. The following is on the reverse of the print in an unidentified hand in pencil, unless otherwise specified: 'Photography - Exhibits'; '43' [circled]; '37 8 41' [crossed out]; '4" ' [crossed out in pink]; and '45' [in red crayon]. The reverse is soiled and there are small abrasions to the upper paper-ply.
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note

In 1927, Charles Sheeler was asked by the N. W. Ayer advertising firm to produce a series of documentary photographs for one of the firm’s clients, the Ford Motor Company.  Ford’s River Rouge plant in Detroit was the largest industrial complex in the world at that time, comprising all aspects of automobile production, from smelting steel to assembly. 

Sheeler visited the Rouge in November of 1927 and spent considerable time touring the sprawling campus, connected by nearly 100 miles of railroad track, before photographing.  Sheeler later recalled, ‘There, I was able to find forms which looked right because they have 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).  Industry, for Sheeler, served as a symbol for modern life, and photography was the ideal medium with which to document its massive structures.

The River Rouge images, of which the present photograph is one, were subsequently reproduced widely in the United States and Europe, earning Sheeler almost immediate international recognition.  In February 1928, Vanity Fair published the famous Criss-Crossed Conveyors image when it awarded the Rouge plant its ‘Celebrity of the Month’ status.  A number of the photographs were included in the landmark Film und Foto show in Stuttgart in 1929, and a select group was shown in Sheeler’s retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art in 1939. 

The photograph offered here shows the west side of Blast Furnace A at the plant.  In the blast furnaces, raw ore was converted into iron, and impurities, called slag, were removed.  By the early 1930s, when Sheeler turned almost exclusively to painting, he continued to draw inspiration from these River Rouge photographs.  He used the image offered here as the basis for his 1947 painting Industrial Forms, in which the structures in the photograph are present in a simplified, abstracted composition.     

As of this writing, only four other prints of this image have been located, all in institutional collections: in the great repository of Sheeler’s work, the Lane Collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; in the Julien Levy Collection at the Art Institute of Chicago; at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; and in The Museum of Modern Art, New York, a print originally in the collection of Thomas Walther.