Classic Landscape
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Sometimes, an artist’s muse is a beautiful woman. For Charles Sheeler, it was an automobile factory. 

After a stay in Europe learning about Cubism, Sheeler returned to the United States and couldn’t make a living as a painter. It became a blessing in disguise when a photography assignment brought him to his favorite painting subject, the River Rouge plant.

Sheeler was hired by the Ford Motor Company to photograph the River Rouge plant, at the time the world’s largest automobile factory (or factory of any kind, for that matter), employing over 75,000 workers.  After completing the photo assignment, he created four paintings off the clock, including Classic Landscape. Sheeler was said to be in awe of the automobile factory, writing to a friend that it “defies description.” Imagine a child’s reaction to their first trip to Disney World - that was the sort of wonderment he felt. 

Classic Landscape was meant by Sheeler to be a parallel to the ancient temples of Greece and Rome, like the Parthenon or the Acropolis. Where the ancient Greeks and Romans had erected massive structures in reverence to their gods and goddesses, he felt our closest equivalents were our giant industrial factories. Sheeler once said “our factories are our substitute for religious expression."

If you think his statement is problematic, you’re not alone. Sure, the painting is meant to evoke a similar feeling to a temple, but you could also focus on the massive amount of pollution being pumped into the air. So, while many in Sheeler’s time echoes his awe of the inventions of the industrial age and found a sense of majesty there, others were starting to worry about the environment and the future repercussions, and rightfully so. Henry Ford’s son was clearly a fan, though, as he bought Classic Landscape for himself.

Regardless of environmental concerns, the painting grew to earn its name, as it proved to be a “classic” of its own era. 




  1. "Charles Sheeler: River Rouge Plant." Whitney. Accessed October 26, 2020. collection/works/1480.
  2. "Classic Landscape." Picturing the Americas. July 21, 2015. Accessed October 26, 2020.
  3. "Classic Landscape, 1931." National Gallery of Art. Accessed October 26, 2020. https://www.
  4. Dorfman, John. "To Be Precise." Art & Antiques Magazine. March 28, 2018. Accessed October 26, 2020.
  5. Lucic, Karen. Charles Sheeler and the Cult of the Machine. London: Reaktion Books, 1991.
  6. Rawlinson, Mark. Charles Sheeler: Modernism, Precisionism and the Borders of Abstraction. London: I.B. Tauris, 2008.
  7. Venn, Beth, Adam D. Weinberg, and Kennedy Fraser. Frames of Reference: Looking at American Art, 1900-1950: Works from the Whitney Museum of American Art. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1999.

Comments (2)


I like this piece because the lines are very precise and easy to follow.


I like this artwork for its linear depth.