Charles Sheeler's precise painting style, informed by his sharply-focused photography, was well-suited to record the American industrial boom during the first half of the twentieth century, and he benefitted from several corporate commissions. Late in 1938 Sheeler received a request from "Fortune" to paint a series of pictures on the theme of "power." The resulting images were to be reproduced in the magazine. He traveled extensively in 1939-40, seeking subjects for the paintings, and during this time he visited a small power plant in New Bedford, Massachusetts, the scene of "Fugue." The painting was one of the first pictures Sheeler made after completing his six well-known compositions for the magazine. "I was on a motor trip though New England and in passing through New Bedford in the late afternoon I came upon this subject unexpectedly," he wrote. "It was a breath-taking sight. I walked around it for several hours." (Sheeler to W. G. Constable, Curator of Paintings, December 20, 1940, Art of the Americas files, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). The plant, no longer standing, supplied power for the city's electric trolleys.
Sheeler made several different photographs of the site from a neighboring park and later selected one of his pictures (The Lane Collection) as his model for "Fugue." In the painting, he faithfully rendered the facts of the scene but eliminated many incidental details recorded in the photograph, among them a chain-link fence that ran behind the barrels, guy wires which supported the chimneys and smokestacks, and the thick black smoke that issued from the stacks. He chose instead to emphasize the formal aspects of the composition: the stately rhythm of the smokestacks and the play of their cylindrical forms with those of the tank, barrels, and utility poles below; the elegant checkered patterning of the small windowpanes; and the orderly configuration of the gray corrugated siding of the central shed.
The conscientious repetition of like forms in the painting presumably inspired Sheeler's title, for a fugue is a musical composition in which a theme is introduced by one voice and then repeated and developed by other voices into a well-defined whole. The constant overlapping of forms in a fugue is here realized in visual terms. Each structure is flattened and superimposed upon the next, creating a band of design across the picture's surface and emphasizing two-dimensional pattern rather than spatial recession. This purposeful control is reiterated by Sheeler's choice of a small brush and the tempera medium, whose quick-drying properties require the careful use of deliberate strokes. "Fugue" is the first of several compositions of the 1940s with musical titles, including "Improvisations" (1945, The Lane Collection) and "Counterpoint" (1949, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.).
"Fugue" was first exhibited, along with recent works by other artists, at the Downtown Gallery's inaugural show in its new 51st Street location in New York City. Reviewers admired its exactness and its crisp, cool palette (Jeanette Lowe, "51st Street Becomes Downtown," "Art News," vol. 39, October 19, 1940, p. 12). It was immediately purchased by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (the only modernist painting the museum bought that year), where it joined "View of New York" (35.69). Sheeler continued to be inspired by this functional, unornamented building with its rhythmic grouping of smokestacks, and painted two other canvases based upon it: "Fugue" (1945, Regis Collection, Minneapolis) and "Stacks in Celebration" (1954, Dayton Art Institute).
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).