Millard Sheets was born in Pomona, California. He developed an interest in art at a very young age, and by seven he was taking lessons from one of his neighbors. At the age of 12 he won his first competition at the Los Angeles County Fair. Shortly after he began to receive instruction from Theodore Modre, the fairs Director of Fine Arts, and a former student of Robert Henri in New York. At 16, Sheets began studying privately with Clarence Hinkle, who stressed the importance of the underlying abstract structure in painting. After completing high school in 1925, Sheets attended the Chouinard School of Art (now Cal Arts) in Los Angeles, where he studied painting, drawing, fashion and fabric design. He took special interest in the evening class in mural painting taught by F. Tolles Chamberlain. It was while studying with Chamberlain that Sheets became aware of the work of Giotto and Botticelli, and came under the spell of Chinese art and the work of the English artist Frank Brangwyn.
In the early 1930s, Sheets became one of the leaders of the California Watercolor School, and was recognized as a major Southern California Regionalist. During World War II, he designed buildings for Army Air Force training schools and was Life magazines artist in Asia. Following the war, Sheets served as director of the Scripps College Art Department, the Claremont Graduate School Art Department and the Otis Art Institute. Sheets also was highly active as an architect and muralist. Among his more than 150 murals are works at the University of Notre Dame and in the dome of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.
"The Garden of Eden" dates from the period 1929-1930. The four-panel screen was commissioned for a home in Mentecito, California, and was one of a number of decorative projects that Sheets took on during this early period of his career. The art writer Michael Swan reported that at the beginning of Sheets third year at Chouinard, "his talents had secured for him a teaching position for one day a week at [the school]. This was not enough to cover his needs, but it enabled him to move into Los Angeles and take a studio with a young architect. Immediately he occupied his mind with ways and means of earning enough income in addition to his teaching salary to enable him to continue his studies for the ensuing two years. He was eager to do any job where his art training was brought into practice. He did special decorations for homes, made architectural renderings for leading Los Angeles architects, and conducted in his studio at night an etching class for artists and architectural draftsmen. Burning the midnight oil was the rule and not the exception in his studio, and every hour of every day was occupied to the last minute with classes, painting, consultations with architects, or lying on scaffolding doing decorations on ceilings of Hollywood houses." ("Millard Sheets, 3 Art Instruction" [September 1939]: 5).
Swan also noted Sheets early interest in creating fantastic or mystic paintings which carry suggestion to the very brink of realization (Ibid., p. 7).
The simple, clean, streamlined elegance of "The Garden of Eden" reflects the impact of Art Deco on Sheets' art of the period. In the 1930s, Sheets often employed pale blues and greens and emphasized lively surface rhythms. The screens flat, simplified forms bring to mind his fresco "Progress", created for Bulocks Store for Men in Los Angeles in about 1930, and watercolor "Horses Running from Lightning"(c. 1930, former collection of King Vidor). In 1939, Sheets related his all-encompassing view of art: "The present custom of breaking the term art into the so-called fine arts, commercial arts, applied arts, and now industrial art, could have grown only through ignorance of the meaning of art. Art consists of a universal desire to solve everyday problems in both the spiritual and physical world. From archaic Greek pottery to the spiritual world of El Greco is but an evolution from a simple desire for a well-decorated useful form to an overwhelming grasping for vision beyond ordinary human experience." ("The Education of an Artist, Art Instruction 3" [October 1939]: 14).