Charles Sheeler’s 1932 painting, River Rouge Plant, is considered a paramount work of American Modernism. The oil on canvas work measures 20 x 24 inches or 8 inches and currently resides at the Whitney Museum of American Art. It depicts the Ford Motor Company’s plant in River Rouge, near Detroit. Sheeler created the painting with a combination of source photographs taken at multiple angles to show different aspects of the plant.
The painting shares clear similarities with Sheeler’s 1926 Interior piece demonstrating his continued fascination with industrial subjects. In this painting, though, Sheeler focuses on the more ambitious and grandiose subject of an entire industrial complex, as compared to Interior which shows a transmission line found in Ford’s Highland Park factory.
From River Rouge Plant, Sheeler goes beyond realism to explore dimensions between modern industry, photography and painting. The work demonstrates his iconic style which revitalized American identity; presenting it through a composition of straight lines and flat geometric forms with strong shapes such as cubes and pyramids whilst keeping vibrant colours and vigorous brushwork – qualities that can also be seen in Richard Estes’ works.
By combining elements from different mediums into one expressionistic piece, Charles Sheeler created truly innovative works like River Rouge Plant which continue to inspire art scholars and viewers alike. His eye-catching 1926 Interior was just one part in a series of masterpieces painted during this period and stands equally inspiring next to its 1932 successor.