Early in his career during several trips to Europe between 1904 and 1909, Sheeler became acquainted with modernism. He was particularly astonished by the paintings by Picasso, Braque, and Cézanne he saw during a visit to Michael Stein's (avant-garde writer Gertrude Stein's brother)...
Early in his career during several trips to Europe between 1904 and 1909, Sheeler became acquainted with modernism. He was particularly astonished by the paintings by Picasso, Braque, and Cézanne he saw during a visit to Michael Stein's (avant-garde writer Gertrude Stein's brother) Paris apartment. Sheeler wrote of his reaction, "They were strange pictures which no amount of description, of which I had considerable in advance, could prepare me for the shock of coming upon them for the first time…But this much was evident in spite of the bewilderment, that something profound was in the making," (Carol Troyen and Erica E. Hirshler, "Charles Sheeler: Paintings and Drawings," Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1987, p. 44). Over the next few years Sheeler turned away from the fluid, popular style of painting he had learned from William Merritt Chase, and began to investigate the a more classical, structured manner of painting, inspired, for the most part, by Cézanne. During the 1910s, Sheeler often worked in series, setting himself compositional problems with a limited number of variables and conscientiously exploring their permutations, as though he were following a deliberate program of self-education. "Three White Tulips" belongs to one such series, of which three additional examples have been located, each painted in 1912 in oil on panel and each measuring approximately fourteen by ten and one half inches. In all four pictures, Sheeler adhered to the same general formula, with only minor variations in the number of flowers, their arrangement, and the vessel that holds them. One of the pictures ("Red Tulips," Regis Collection, Minneapolis) was sent to the 1913 Armory Show, the first great show of modern art in America, and thereafter to several other exhibitions. "Three White Tulips" represents the series at its simplest. The flowers are centered in the panel, their blossoms spread out in an elegant chevron that appears to fan out flat across the picture surface but also to twist slightly in space. The tabletop, outlined by a heavy black line that recedes diagonally into depth, is painted in the same opalescent hues and with the same patchy and slightly clumsy brush strokes as the background, vase, blossoms, and leaves-only the thick outline and the occasional use of white for highlights separate one form from another. The pictorial issues Sheeler evidently was exploring here were those preoccupying much of the international avant-garde during this period: the reconciliation of description and decoration, of flat and illusionistic space, and of the relative utility of local and ambient color in unifying and organizing a composition. His guide in this quest was Cézanne, whose special love for casual floral subjects, use of animated, seemingly unstudied brush strokes going off in all directions (particularly in the backgrounds of his pictures), and use of heavy outlines are here emulated, if not quite mastered. These pictures of tulips also point to Sheeler's appreciation of similar motifs appearing on chests (see 32.274), ceramics (see 02.323), and birth and marriage certificates produced by Pennsylvania Germans in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Sheeler knew their designs well, for as early as 1910 he spent numerous weekends exploring rural Bucks and Lancaster counties (the heart of "Pennsylvania Dutch" country). A dower chest he once owned (Christian Seltzer, "Pennsylvania German Dower Chest," 1781, Museum of Art, Pennsylvania State University), features ornamental panels of symmetrically arranged, schematically drawn tulips (a favorite motif of the Pennsylvania Germans) arrayed much as Sheeler does in "Three White Tulips." Splayed across the picture surface, they create a simple, charming arrangement. This unusual marriage of influences-the integration of revolutionary stylistic concerns and decorative patterns with roots in folk or primitive art-linked Sheeler with the most progressive artistic minds of his day. And although his technique is not fully mature here (he would soon substitute a smoother stroke and subtler color), "Three White Tulips" established a pattern for the rest of his work. Hereafter, his richest pictures would be those in which the traditional and the modern are harmoniously intertwined. This text was adapted by Janet Comey from Carol Troyen and Erica E. Hirshler, "Charles Sheeler: Paintings and Drawings" (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1987).
Lower left: Sheeler 1912
The artist, with Downtown Gallery, New York; to Parke-Bernet, New York; to William H. Lane (1914-1995), 1953; to William H. Lane Foundation, 1953; to MFA, 1990, gift of the William H. Lane Foundation.
Gift of the William H. Lane Foundation