WASHINGTON — When Charles Sheeler first stood before a Cubist painting by Pablo Picasso, he felt that "an indelible line had been drawn between the past and the future."
The year was 1908, the place was Paris, and Sheeler, a 25-year-old native of Philadelphia, was inspired to create a distinctly American kind of Cubism, linked to the straight lines and hard edges of American industry.
French Cubists distorted the shape of objects and the space they appeared in. The American artist combined Cubism and Realism, said Charles Brock, curator of a retrospective exhibition called "Charles Sheeler: Across Media." It opened at the National Gallery of Art on Sunday, the 41st anniversary of Sheeler's death.
The artist's most familiar work covers the River Rouge plant of the Ford Motor Co. at Dearborn, Mich., which he spent six weeks documenting in 1927. The plant was once one of the world's largest and most technically advanced, with as many as 100,000 workers in 1,300 acres.
When some critics complained that Sheeler's photos and paintings of the stark industrial scene made it look inactive, he replied: "Well, it's my illustration of what a beautiful world it would be if there were no people in it."
Talented as both a painter and photographer, Sheeler also pioneered in film. A short semi-documentary called "Manhatta" is one of 52 works in the show. Made in 1920 with Paul Strand, it intersperses bits of Walt Whitman poetry among 20th century clips of downtown New York.
The exhibition is the first to explore the links among Sheeler's work in all three media.
"Sheeler was dubbed the 'Raphael of the Fords' during his life and, more recently, 'an iconographer for the religion of technology,' " said Earl A. Powell III, director of the gallery.
"He was recognized as one of the founders of American Modernism and one of the master photographers of the 20th century."
After his return from Europe, Sheeler took up photography, first specializing in portrayals of art and architecture. When it came to his photography, he favored sharply focused images, unlike many earlier practitioners whose blurry pictures tried to imitate traditional art.
"Photography is nature seen from the eyes outward, painting from the eyes inward," he said.
Critics admire his images of ordinary objects in an old Quaker house he rented with another artist, Morton Schamberg, near Doylestown, Pa. The house was a subject that he went back to repeatedly for 20 years after he ended the lease.
Pictures he made there won Sheeler the attention of Alfred Stieglitz, himself a famous photographer, an exhibitor of modern art and the husband of artist Georgia O'Keeffe. All three were associated with what critics called "precisionism."
An old-fashioned heating stove in the Doylestown house, its shape lighted sharply from behind, is the subject of much-admired Sheeler photos and drawings. Some gloominess in these depictions has been associated with the deaths of his friend Schamberg and Sheeler's first wife, Katharine Baird Shaffer.
After the exhibition closes in Washington on Aug. 27, it will move to the Art Institute of Chicago from Oct. 7 to Jan 7, and then on to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco from Feb. 10 to May 6, 2007.