The Philadelphia-born painter and photographer Charles Sheeler admired the functionalism, simplicity, refinement, and craftsmanship of early American and Shaker architecture and furnishings. He observed that the Shakers “would seem almost to have had a mathematical basis for their crafts, so knowingly and with such exactitude were their designs planned and realized.” We could say the same about Sheeler’s paintings. His modernist aesthetic encompassed elegant linearity; precisely defined shapes and contours; thin, even, and painstaking paint application; and an extraordinary sensitivity to geometric order.
The rectilinear elements of interior architecture inspired a number of Sheeler’s works, including "The Upstairs." Here the artist portrays his 1786 farmhouse in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, which he had not seen in many years but had recorded in photographs and drawings. His immediate impetus for returning to the theme of early American structures might have been a visit to Colonial Williamsburg in 1935. In any case, nationalistic writers, artists, and politicians rediscovered a taste for distinctly American subjects in the 1930s, when "Life" magazine hailed Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry, and Grant Wood as the “big three” of contemporary American art.
Sheeler admired indigenous architecture principally for its abstract formal qualities, but this attraction was not unemotional. In "The Upstairs," the harsh light creates eerie shadows, particularly those of the unseen window mullions, that endow this interior with a mysterious, unsettling atmosphere. The abrupt cropping of the chair, and the implicit invitation to the viewer to climb a staircase to an unknown destination, heighten this feeling.