How did Charles Sheeler's days as a Conde Nast photographer inform his paintings?

Evening gown designed for Greta Garbo, 1931, photograph of Helen Menken, and Mural Installation, 1939 (detail). Curator Kirsten Jensen discusses the work of Philadelphia-born painter and fashion photographer Charles Sheeler at the Michener Museum.

Philadelphia-born painter Charles Sheeler is considered one of the founding fathers of American modernism.

But here is a little-known fact: While Sheeler was developing his austere approach to the linear, industrial landscapes he’s so well known for, he worked as a fashion and celebrity photographer for Condé Nast.

Those photos, taken during fashion photography's youth -- the late 1920s and '30s -- helped shape Vanity Fair and Vogue’s coverage of the rich and famous, from the end of the flapper era through the beginning of the age of Hollywood glamour. 

And though we remember those decades as a time when style was at the top of its game, fashion -- much less fashion photography -- wasn’t respected in the art world. At all.

Scholars pooh-poohed it. Sheeler described the Condé  Nast gig -- what today would be a plum job -- as “taking a daily trip to jail."

Yet thanks to a new exhibit at the James A. Michener Art Museum, “Charles Sheeler: Fashion Photography and Sculptural Form,” Sheeler -- whose posed still lifes of women in cloches and coats influenced the work of such revered photographers as Annie Leibovitz and Wolfgang Tillmans -- is finally getting his fashion due.

Camera icon morton schamberg/ Courtesy of The Lane Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
A rare photograph of Charles Sheeler taken by his friend, Morton Schamberg

“The question that started this project is: If 1926 to 1931 are the years in which we consider Sheeler beginning to codify his artistic vision that would inform the rest of his career, how can we ignore these Condé Nast photographs?” asked Kirsten Jensen, the museum’s Gerry and Marguerite Lenfest chief curator and the brains behind this elegantly produced show.

You just can't.

Sheeler’s Condé Nast years are important, Jensen argues, because they represent a merging of his disparate styles: flat, cubist linearity, and three-dimensional sculptural form, themes deftly threaded throughout the show.

The periphery of the museum's Martin Wing Gallery features dozens of black-and-white photographs referencing Sheeler’s early work of Bucks County barns and his weekend home in Doylestown (just blocks away from the museum on Mercer Street). “Doylestown House -- Stairs from Below” is one such piece on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There are also photographs from the late teens and early '20s, such as “African Musical Instrument,” that Sheeler photographed in 1917 for the Marius de Zayas Gallery in New York.

After Sheeler made a name for himself photographing Doylestown homes and galleries, like Alfred Stieglitz’s Gallery 291, his friend and Condé Nast’s second director of photography, Edward Steichen, hired him. Photos from those years, including a delightful series of French boxer-turned-vaudeville-film-star Georges Carpentier dancing the Charleston, are a part of the show, too. 

The fashionista, however, will want to skip the background story (although I recommend she doesn’t) and go right to the heart of the exhibit positioned at its center.

Here live 12 striking, mixed-media vignettes: portrait shots Sheeler took for both magazines positioned on murals (actually blown-out details of Sheeler’s paintings and photographs) that include mannequins clad in A-line period pieces borrowed from the rich costume and textile collections of the Museum of the City of New York and Drexel University.

Each of these vignettes is significant, Jensen says, because it illustrates how Sheeler’s photographs of Doylestown homes inspired the work in his Condé Nast years. In turn, Sheeler's fashion stills had a lasting effect on the industrial-inspired paintings and photography he was later commissioned to do. 

“This exhibition really proves that artists don’t work in a vacuum and we can’t discount any body of their work,” Jensen said. “They are influenced by everything around them: fashion, music, theater design, and, in the case of Sheeler, the industrial age."

This collaborative approach to the history of fashion works at its best in the dramatic presentation of Sheeler’s 1931 photograph of actress Helen Menken in a stunning, black velvet gown. Paired with it is a detail shot of “Installation,” a photograph from Sheeler’s Power series that ran in Fortune magazine in 1938. But the star of the grouping, from Drexel's collection, is a 1931 gown Gilbert Adrian made for Greta Garbo that's a near-replica of the Menken dress. (We don't know the origin of the Menken dress because, at the time the photograph was taken, only household-name designers like Dior and Chanel were routinely given credit for their work by magazines.)

Camera icon charles sheeler
Actress Helen Mencken wearing a dress by unknown designer. Picture originally published in Vanity Fair in 1931 

Sheeler's work as a textile designer for the now-defunct New York firm Heller Industries is also a part of his fashion story. One vignette includes a photo of Edith Halpert, a gallery owner who worked with Sheeler and eventually persuaded him to give up Condé Nast, clad in a day dress fashioned from a navy blue-and-mustard-yellow-striped Sheeler knit.

Camera icon Jessica Griffin/ Staff Photographer, left: Edith Halpert/ Charles Sheeler
Left: Mannequin wears day dress fashioned from a replica of a Charles Sheeler knit. Right: Edith Halpert in a day dress fashioned from actual Sheeler knit.

Claire Beevers, Philadelphia University’s director of the master's in textile-design program, recreated the fabric, and Jensen’s mother, Marilynn Cowgill, sewed a facsimile of the dress using a 1937 McCall’s pattern.

Interestingly, it was Cowgill who first planted the seed in Jensen’s mind to create a fashion exhibit around Sheeler’s work.

In the early 2000s, Cowgill returned to FIT, where she studied the impact of architectural design on fashion. That led her to the Condé Nast archives, where she discovered Sheeler’s work. She told her daughter, who at the time was completing her graduate studies in American art history at the City University of New York, and Jensen filed away that tidbit.

Fast-forward to 2014, and Jensen was the chief curator at the Michener. Late in the year, she reached out to Condé Nast with the concept, and she spent the early part of 2015  combing through more than 300 photos in the Condé Nast archives.

Shortly after, the Michener received $300,000 in funding from the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage.

“As a scholar, I love finding these hidden narratives and revealing them,” Jensen told me Friday. 

“And,” said Jensen, wearing her own fabulous vintage Valentino skirt suit studded with cute ribbons, “I just love fashion.”

The James A. Michener Art Museum is located at 138 South Pine Street, Doylestown, 215-340-9800.  The exhibit runs through July 9.  For more information vist michenerartmuseum.org