“America is the country of the art of the future… Look at the skyscrapers! Has Europe anything to show more beautiful than this?” – Marcel Duchamp, 1915
Precisionism was the first art movement indigenous to the United States. It reached its peak in popularly in the 1920s and ‘30s, and it played an important role in American Modernism.
Blending Cubism-like geometric forms with the exactness of photography, artists of the movement aimed to celebrate America during a modern era of industrialization. (Elsewhere, in Europe, it was the Futurist movement that aimed to portray technology’s dominance over nature.)
Precisionism celebrated all that was rapidly being constructed in America’s towns and cities – bridges, skyscrapers, factories, and more – all with an overarching goal of bringing structure back to art. Precisionist artists of the movement, then more commonly called “Immaculates”, were inspired by new developments in American architecture, honing in on eye-catching angles, edges, and points of view.
The Emergence of Precisionism
The name Precisionism was first coined in the mid-’20s by Alfred H. Barr, the then director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. However, some believe it was named by Charles Sheeler, the American painter and commercial photographer.
In 1927, Sheeler had been hired to photograph the Ford Motor Company’s new industrial complex in Dearborn, Michigan. Inspired by his time learning about Cubism and Futurism in Europe, Sheeler turned his photographs into a series of paintings with elements from each movement, in addition to Photorealism. This view of his surroundings became known as Precisionism.
Fascinated by the industrialization and modernization of the country, other artists (who patriotically considered themselves solely American, despite their European influences) were inspired to create in Sheeler’s footsteps, collectively working to “celebrate man-made dynamism and new technologies.”
Then came a strew of popular paintings of office buildings, skylines or cityscapes, tunnels, subway platforms, bridges, apartments, and more – and while many focused on urban settings, some, like Charles Sheeler, brought Precisionism to the country. He created geometric works portraying barns and country roads, among other types of rural architecture and man-made structures.
7 Precisionist Artists to Know
While several American artists worked in the Precisionist style during the 20-year span of the movement, there are a few in particular to note. Let’s take a closer look at Precisionism’s defining artists, as well as some of their most notable works.
George Copeland Ault, born in 1891 in Ohio, spent most of his life in New York and New Jersey. Although born into a wealthy family, they lost their fortune in the 1929 stock market crash. Ault’s life was a tragic one – his mother died in a mental institution, his three brothers committed suicide, and he became an alcoholic in the 1920s.
Ault did enjoy some success as an artist, exhibiting at the Whitney Museum of American Art and Addison Gallery of American Art – but his neurotic behavior distanced him from the gallery world in the 1930s.
While he’s considered an important Precisionist artist and grouped with others like Charles Sheeler due to his portrayal of rural architecture, Ault became best known for his realist works. Furthermore his personal ideologies didn’t match up to those of the Precisionism movement; he once called skyscrapers the “tombstones of capitalism.”
But according to his wife, Ault painted to create order out of chaos, and simplified his surroundings using geometric, flat shapes. He is particularly celebrated for way of capturing the nighttime – the light of darkness, as seen in his popular work above, Bright Light at Russell’s Corners (1946).
Ralston Crawford, born in 1906 in Ontario, was an abstract painter, lithographer, and photographer. Crawford spent some time working at the Walt Disney Studio in California, then furthered his study of art at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the Barnes Foundation, where he first learned of Picasso and Matisse.
Crawford became known for his abstract portrayals of cities and factories, bridges, and shipyards, which categorized him as Precisionist. Later, influenced by Spanish bullfighting, cemeteries, and jazz music, his work became more abstract.
Crawford’s works have been part of public collections at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Walker Art Center, and more.
Charles Demuth of Pennsylvania was born in 1883, first specializing in watercolor and turning to oil painting later in his career, when he became instrumental to developing Precisionism.
During his career, Demuth heavily focused on his beloved home city of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, inspired by both commercial and civic architecture there. He painted factories (including a 7-panel Lancaster factory series), boathouses, and warehouses, all inspired by structures around town. Structures like smoke stakes, skyscrapers, and bridges also appear in his works.
Demuth made frequent trips to New York City, which fuelled his interest in avant-garde styles and Cubism. He painted urban and rural landscapes in a “quasi-Cubist, sharply defined manner,” which associated him with Precisionism, as did his structured scenes, industrial settings, and non-abstract geometric figures.
Another renowned Precisionist who began working in the style around 1915, before the height of the movement, was William Preston Dickinson. Born 1889 in New York City, he was a third-generation American brought up in a working class family, and the son of an amateur painter. Luckily, Dickinson’s art school tuition, as well as his trip to Europe, was funded by art patron Henry Barbey.
After World War I, Dickinson returned home from studying in Paris and ultimately achieved his first solo show at Daniel Gallery. He spent a summer in Omaha in 1925, producing a series of drawings that focused on granaries and factories there, and later painted urban life during his year in Quebec. He was one of the first American artists to heavily focus on industrial subjects.
By the late 1920s, Dickinson had become an influential American modern artist, having successfully woven together influences from Cubism, Fauvism, Synchronism, Post-Impressionism, and Futurism in his works.
Charles Sheeler has been dubbed one of the founders of American modernism, and can be credited for developing the “quasi-photographic” painting style we cover in this article: Precisionism. He also was one of the most celebrated (and entirely self-taught) photographers of the American 20th century.
After studying in Italy and visiting Paris, Sheeler returned to America with the understanding that he wouldn’t make a living as a Modernist painter in an overly saturated market. So he decided to pursue commercial photography, with a focus on architecture. He was hired to photograph Ford’s factories, which then inspired him to paint in a Precisionist manner.
Traumatized by the death of a close friend and fellow Precisionist Morton Livingston Schamberg, a victim of the 1918 influenza epidemic, and an artist who often depicted machinery and technology in his works, Sheeler went on to focus on the similar subjects in his paintings.
Photographer and filmmaker Paul Strand, born in 1890 in New York, was critical to turning photography into an art form in the 20th century alongside modernist photographers Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Weston. He was also one of the few sole photographers associated with the Precisionism movement.
Strand’s early work, including the above-shown Wall Street, show the artist’s experimentation with abstraction. In the 1930s, Strand went on to help create the Photo League, which brings together photographers who use their art to help promote political and social causes.
After some years showing his support for the Communist Party, Strand left the US in 1949 and spent the remaining years of his life in France, where he continued to live a creative life, and where he met his third wife.
Last but not least, Georgia O’Keeffe, aka the ‘Mother of Modernism,’ was an important Precisionist artist. Born in 1887 in New Mexico, O’Keeffe later lived and worked in New York, where she came to know and get inspired by several other American modernists including Charles Demuth and Paul Strand.
O’Keeffe adopted a Precisionist style, and while she didn’t spend her entire career painting buildings and factories, she began to paint “simplified images of natural things.” This later carried over into her series of New York skyscrapers between 1925-1929.
O’Keeffe became famous for not only her impact on the Modernist and Precisionist movements, but her general “transcendent approach to life and painting,” as well as her bold, monochromatic palette and pioneering forms of abstraction that rendered her an American icon.
Following World War II, many European avant-garde artists fled to the US, and with this migration came new styles, ideas, and movements that aimed to appeal to all Americans. Alongside American Scene Painting, Magical Realism, and Surrealism came Abstract Expressionism, which took over as Precisionism faded.
But Precisionism certainly left a mark on American Modernism, not only leaving us with pioneering and influential artists who went on to inspire new generations, but also helping to transition artists from pure realism to abstraction.
Works by renowned Precisionist artists like Georgia O’Keeffe are still seeing high, even record, results at auction; in 2018, one of O’Keeffe’s 1926 New York skyscraper pieces sold for $13.3 million at Sotheby’s sale.