Trained both as an architect and painter, Morton Schamberg lived a short but productive life, and earned a reputation for being a visionary who foresaw machines as both dehumanizing and contributing to good living. Throughout his life, he was fascinated by what he perceived as beauty in their shapes and lines, and in 1916 began a series of still lifes paintings of machine objects. He was also an accomplished photographer, concentrating primarily on portrait subjects. Schamberg was born in Philadelphia and studied at the University of Pennsylvania, and beginning 1903, at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. At the Academy, he was a student of William Merritt Chase and was best friends with Charles Sheeler, future Precisionist painter with whom Schamberg later shared painting and photography studios in Philadelphia and Doylestown. Chase regarded Sheeler and Schamberg as favorite students and later went to Europe with Schamberg, traveling with him in Spain, Holland and France. However, when these former students began exploring abstraction, Chase was appalled and became so distraught that he got to the point of never speaking again to either one of them. As a mature painter, Schamberg was a modernist who reflected his interest in machines through Cubist imagery. From avant-garde styles he observed in Paris such as Fauvism and Synchromism, he did color-rich abstract landscape paintings.
He devoted his career to both painting and photography, earning a living much of the time as a photographer. Alfred Stieglitz, New York photographer and promoter of modernist styles, was a key person in urging Schamberg to express his art talents through photography. Experimenting with new techniques, Schamberg became the first photographer to use a silver paper screen for a background to achieve many subtle effects of light and shade.
He traveled abroad several times, and in 1910 discovered modernist art in Paris where he was specially influenced by Pablo Picasso, Paul Cezanne, and Henri Matisse. These artists espoused Cubism and Fauvism, and their influence and that of other avant-garde painters re-directed Schamberg away from the influence of his former teacher, Chase, and from Impressionism that had gained a strong hold in America. Schamberg also experimented with Synchromism and Precisionism. Returning to Philadelphia, he depicted abstracted human figures, experimenting with color planes. By 1915, he was painting landscapes and doing bold color canvases.
His work, influenced by Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia, became increasingly abstract and hard-edged and experimental. He did assemblage, and in 1916 created God, which was made from plumbing pipes and was one of the first examples in America of Dada-style sculpture. He also assembled Philadelphia's first modern art exhibitions. In 1913, he exhibited paintings at the 1913 New York Armory Show, which for many Americans was their first exposure to abstract art. Schamberg seemed quite enthusiastic for this exhibition. Upon receiving an invitation to that exhibition, he wrote to fellow artist Walter Pach:
"It is rather funny as I have just gotten to the point where I don't care whether anyone sees my pictures for years to come . . . However, this thing sounds as though it might be worth while." (Brown, p. 64).
His Armory-Show entries included three figures and a landscape. In the flu epidemic of 1918, Morton Schamberg died. He had "promise as one of America's foremost modernists" (Zellman, p. 770) but his life was cut short. His funeral was on his 37th birthday.