On a Shaker Theme

Charles Sheeler (American, 1883–1965)


58.42 x 73.98 cm (23 x 29 1/8 in.)

Accession Number


Medium or Technique

Oil on canvas

On View

Saundra B. and William H. Lane Galleries (Gallery 328)


Americas, Contemporary Art



Showing his deep respect for Shaker design, Sheeler wrote, “The Shaker communities, in the period of their greatest creative activity, have given us abundant evidence of their profound understanding of utilitarian design in their architecture and crafts. They understood and convincingly demonstrated that rightness of proportion in a house or a table, with regard for efficiency in use, made embellishment superfluous,” (Quoted in Constance Rourke, “Charles Sheeler: Artist in the American Tradition,” New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1938). Sheeler probably started collecting Shaker pieces in the 1920s, and began to include his Shaker furniture in paintings of domestic interiors such as “Interior” (1926, Whitney Museum of American Art). In 1934, he visited the Shaker villages in Hancock, Massachusetts and in New Lebanon, New York, where he photographed the Second Meeting House. In the same year he painted his first oil of Shaker architecture, “Shaker Buildings” (private collection), a rendering of the laundry and machine shop in Hancock, which he was to portray in three more paintings, including “On a Shaker Theme.”
The laundry and machine shop is a three and one half story building constructed in 1790. The structure served as a washhouse, machine house, herb and seed room, and woodshed and thus it exemplified the Shaker principle of maximum utility (Mary Jane Jacob, “The Impact of Shaker Design on the Work of Charles Sheeler,” unpublished M.A. thesis, 1976, quoted in Flo Morse, “The Shakers and the World’s People,” New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1980, p. 138). Over time and subsequent renovations it had acquired a unique shape. Two additions to the original building created interesting relationships of structural angles and forms that especially appealed to Sheeler. He depicted the building a second time in 1941 in “Shaker Detail” (The Newark Museum), showing a closer view but from the same angle as in his 1934 “Shaker Buildings.” His final two paintings of the laundry and machine shop are the Museum’s painting and “On a Shaker Theme #2” (Babcock Galleries), both composite images painted in 1956. While the first two pictures of the laundry and machine shop are straightforward representations, in the last two paintings, Sheeler interpreted the Shaker architecture in his late style, which employs more abstracted forms.
In 1946, Sheeler had begun to experiment with composite photography as a basis for his paintings. He superimposed photographic negatives, sometimes reversing them, to arrive at evocative compositions. In “On a Shaker Theme,” Sheeler overlaid two images, one slightly smaller and in reverse, of the portion of the laundry and machine shop depicted in “Shaker Detail.” He also radically simplified the details of the building so that windows and doors are reduced to rectangles. Sheeler’s method of overlapping images resulted in a complicated scaffolding of diagonals and verticals. “On a Shaker Theme” celebrates the refined geometric forms that underlie Shaker design, although its compositional intricacy eschews the Shaker virtues of purity and simplicity. This complexity, however, becomes integral to the piece if we consider the title of the painting to be musical - Sheeler had used musical titles starting in 1940 with “Fugue” [40.780] - as in Brahms’s “Variations on a Theme by Haydn.” Some of Brahms’s variations on a simple theme become quite complex with the addition of contrasting but parallel melodic lines played along with the theme. Thus Sheeler took the simple geometric shapes that he admired in Shaker architecture as his theme, and by using composite photography created an intricate tribute to a beloved building.

Janet Comey


Lower right: Sheeler-56; Reverse, on backing board: Do not/remove this board./Sheeler.


The artist; Stephen and Sybil Stone Foundation; to MFA, 1972, gift of the Stephen and Sybil Stone Foundation.

Credit Line

Gift of the Stephen and Sybil Stone Foundation