The Museum recently acquired Tree and Landscape, a painting in tempera on paper by Charles Sheeler from 1947. The painting will serve to expand the narrative of American modernism told in the Museum’s American art collection.
Charles Sheeler helped to define American modernism in the first half of the 20th-century through his paintings and photographs of the manmade world. In his Precisionist works, he captured historic and modern buildings in depopulated landscapes using crisp, hard lines. Tree and Landscape maintains elements of this style in its tangle of tree branches, but moves away from Precisionism in its generalized background. Using rapidly spread pigment to convey a deeply personal scene, Sheeler approaches gestural abstraction in this painting.
Sheeler often worked in tempera on paper to plan the color relationships of his large oil on canvas paintings. Here he layers tempera, building color in order to determine relationships between various elements in the composition. Art historians now privilege these tempera paintings for their freshness and spontaneity.
Tree and Landscape is unique among Sheeler’s tempera paintings, however, as it is part of a small group of works in which he returns to painting nature late in his career. It also does not correlate to an oil on canvas composition by the artist. Instead, Tree and Landscape appears to represent a copper beech tree growing behind the artist’s stone house in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York, which photographer Barbara Morgan captured in her 1945 image, Charles Sheeler and His Favorite Beech Tree. This tree inspired Sheeler to create a series of about 15 photographs in the early 1950s. In these photographs, Sheeler’s beech tree dominates its surroundings or fills the picture plane. Created just before Sheeler made his series of photographs, Tree and Landscape shows Sheeler looking beyond architectural subjects to nature, likely in his own backyard.