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Millard Sheets (1907 – 1989)

Circus Wagons, 1927, watercolor on paper, signed and dated lower left, 10 x19 ¾ inches (sight), provenance includes Stary-Sheets Art Gallery (Gualala, CA); J. Ralph & Louis Stone Foundation; presented in a newer metal frame behind glazing


About the Painting

Millard Sheets was only twenty years old and in his third year of studies at the Chouinard Art Institute when he painted Circus Wagons. Despite his youth, Sheets was already an accomplished artist who had publicly exhibited his work and won prestigious prizes. Within several years, he would have his first solo exhibition at one of Los Angeles’ premiere galleries and become a painting instructor at his alma mater. In Circus Wagons we already see Sheets deft handling of the watercolor medium and his interest in the California Scene. In this case, Sheets captures a back lot view of a traveling circus, a subject he sometimes returned to, including in a color screen print in the collection of the National Gallery. Sheets made a career by painting what he knew and observed firsthand. This approach allowed Sheets to capture with authenticity the details of each narrative. Even with a narrowly limited palette and an economy of brushstrokes, Sheets effectively depicts the southern California scene with its strong and mysterious shadows, as well as the workers and circus animals. Seen through the hindsight of his six-decade long career, Circus Wagons offers a fascinating insight into the early development of California Scene painting which would by the mid-1930s become the best recognized style on the West Coast.

About the Artist

Millard Sheets was the dean of California watercolorists. His list of accomplishments is so extensive that his entry in Who was Who in American Art is over forty lines. Born in Pomona, California, Sheets became a painter at an early age, winning a prize at the Los Angeles County Fair in 1918. By the mid to late-1920s, Sheets became a regular at art exhibitions in the western part of the United States, winning several additional prizes before he reached the age of twenty-five. Sheets studied at the prestigious Chouinard Art Institute from 1925 through 1929 with Frank Tolles Chamberlin and Clarence Hinkle and had his first solo show with Los Angeles’ Dalzell Hatfield Gallery in 1929. During the 1930s, Sheets was invited to exhibit at almost every major American Museum and in many ways, his work came to represent the California watercolor school. This success allowed Sheets to devote much of his time to working as a professional artist. His contemporary and friend, Edward Biberman, recalled that Millard Sheets may have been the only Southern California artist during the Depression Era to support himself primarily through the sale of his paintings. In addition to these sales, Sheets was an art instructor at Chouinard, the Otis Art Institute and Scripps College, where he eventually became the head of the Art Department. During World War II, Sheets served as an artist for Life magazine. Later, he was on the Board of Trustees for the California Institute of Arts and Scripps College. In addition to his paintings, Sheets was an architectural designer who produced over one hundred murals and mosaics, many of which were installed at Home Savings & Loan buildings throughout California. His works are in the permanent collection of dozens of public collections, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Art Institute of Chicago.

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