The Image Makers 3

Indeed, if it weren't for collections of Norman Rockwell covers of a few of these magazines, most of the general public would not even know they once existed. Norman was peer and good friend of Vons. He even wrote an introduction for a collection of Von's work. He was born the same year as Ford, 1894, a year after Von, and was equally precocious. Rockwell's first Post cover appeared in 1916, and though he did an amazingly wide range of work -- book illustrations, posters, and murals --he remained best known for his covers. Over the years he created a charming and immediately identifiable style -- Americana. One tableau after another -- each a story in itself, all filled with telling, touching details. It was part of a magazine cover's job, to entice people to buy it! It was part of Rockwell's great genius that each is a perfectly balanced and contained composition; (there is a serenity even in his hijinks!) It was conceived to sell the magazine itself, an entity that provided a sense of contentment, of middle-class pride.

At roughly the same time (in a variety of magazines, but mostly the Post,) Von was creating the mythic West. His sense of drama, first hand knowledge and experience, and most of all sense of space and natural light. This plus his knowledge of the horse.

But unlike Norman's covers with their vertical repose, Von's talent was making movement and painting an illustration whose job was to sell the individual story.

Von And Rockwell

When someone would ask my Old Man "what was happening" he was always delighted, and his grinning response was always "read the story and find out!" For while Norman was knitting his splendid covers, Von was tearing-up-the-pea-patch. No static and serene scenes. The Old Man had let loose with another dynamic horizontal that skidded across both pages of the double spread! Of course the content of the story dictated the content somewhat, but Von always thought in terms of motion and, of course, so did John Ford!

Norman was an exquisite colorist who created individual harmonies for each new cover, and Von' s years of outdoor sketching gave his illustrations a supremely natural look. It wasn't so much that you were looking at an outdoor scene but that you actually were outdoors!

There was a key difference in their working methods that became something of a major divergence among the illustrators of the period; the rise of photography. It had already achieved a presence in American art and illustration well before the turn of the century. In the 1880s the painter Eakins pioneered its uses. More decorative adaptations were found in the work of N.C. Wyeth, Maxfield Parrish and others. Every illustrator seemed to have their own opinion and/ or prejudice.

The "yeah" sayers maintained that the posing of the proper model in the correct costume (or lack thereof) not only allowed for the painter to "freeze” the pose, experiment with various light sources, to "play with alternatives", etc. The "Nay" sayers to photography maintained that this elaborate procedure would render any vivacious concept "Dead-On-Arrival."

It is almost embarrassing to admit, when I was growing up in Westport, Connecticut, (arguably the Illustration Capital of the World in the forties and fifties) how much controversy this was still provoking.

Howard Pyle, who was both Von's and Norman's hero, claimed he made it all up in his head (except for some instances where he simply copied civil war photographs cold). Charlie Russell didn't use models. Remington may have on occasion. Schrievogal apparently couldn't get out of bed in the morning without a photograph to show him where his pants were.

Von and Norman came from the old school. In the beginning they both worked directly from the model. While Rockwell's work at this time mostly related to kids who found it hard to hold a pose, and whose faces were identifiable, he soon turned to taking photographs, especially when the effect of vitality was needed. For him it was a splendid tool. At a young age he had so thoroughly mastered his craft, that instead of limiting his abilities, photography freed him.

Von was very much the opposite. During his early years his likenesses tended to be generic, which hardly mattered since most of the stories he was doing for Sunset Magazine involved animals. Elephants called "Chang Loi," an otter named "Lutra," and eagle called "Kenau." These were the hay days of anthropomorphism: (Rudyard Kipling, Ernest Thomas Seton) and while animals were still allowed to walk around stark naked, not to have a splendid name would be positively indecent. In fact, it wasn't until Von came east in 1924 to study with Harvey Dunn, that he began to use models on a regular basis.

No camera need apply. Von occasionally used professionals, but more often used teenagers from around town. Everyone in the family posed too. That meant you climbed up on the model-stand, wearing the proper coat, hat, boots, and " assumed the damn pose." The stand itself was a large wooden packing crate about eight by ten feet across and sixteen inches high, which also had an adjustable rack that supported a saddle for mounted poses. And there you stood until your muscles screamed and vision blurred. After ten or twenty minutes you took a short break. In theory you could break any time, but that seldom happened, as models, by the very nature of the job itself, tend to be vain and masochistic.

...But Those Horses!

I was sick so often during my first grade that to get me out of the house I was given a small enamel table with the legs cut off which was put in afar corner of Von's studio. I flunked the grade, but I became the mascot of Von' s models, and best of all I watched him take a blank white 30” by 40” canvas from start to finish, often in less than a week! Not just once or twice, but again and again! It was the closest thing to magic I ever witnessed. Especially where horses, or any animals were involved. There would be my adult friend Coleman Chamock leaning forward in the saddle, left hand on horn, a Colt Navy-Six clutched in his hand. But the galloping horses? I was not surprised that Coleman appeared twice in the same illustration...once as a young man, then again as that guy leaning forward in the saddle who was old and had a bushy beard...but those horses, with terrified eyes and dilated nostrils? It had to be magic. And magic it was!

Little by little my Old Man's pecking order revealed itself -- who could really paint the horse. Of the western painters, in Von's book, Charlie Russell topped his list.

He had met Russell through Maynard Dixon in California, and revered him. Charlie had quit St. Louis for Montana in the 1880s, had been a night-herder, spent time with the Blackfoot Indians and painted what he knew. And while a born story-- teller, he glossed over portions of his own somewhat privileged past, which  ironically included a little known disability called dysgraphia which made it almost impossible for him to spell correctly or give a prepared speech. But what he handled with the utmost skill was the "look," the nature of the ornery and cagey phenomena of the "cow pony." Indeed when my Old Man showed up in New York City in 1924, he was paying Charlie the ultimate compliment: he was wearing Indian jewelry and Russell's trademark red sash!

When an artist friend, Arthur Mitchell, who had come east from Taos the year before, saw him on the streets of Greenwich Village he said, "Von, if I hadn't known you, I'da thought you was a He-whore!"

Russell vs. Remington

Russell had the good fortune of looking like a cowboy. This was not the case with his tweedle-dum counterpart, Frederic Remington. It irked Von that Remington was an easterner -- that he'd gone to Yale Art School. Even his looks were an affront. Here is "Bud" (his nickname) as described by a young Lieutenant with General Nelson Miles at the Pine Ridge Agency in 1890, (just before the massacre at Wounded Knee,)" weighing over two hundred pounds and dressed in odd attire: ...A great brown canvas hunting coat with bulging pockets, a little round hat... his gait was an easy waddle that conveyed a general idea of comfortable indifference to appearances and abundant leisure." He smoked the remains of a big cigar and appeared to the cavalryman as a "big, good-natured, overgrown boy..." Remington was only 29 years old at the time.

And Von described Russell, when he met him as "...built like a buffalo -- big head, big shoulders, big torso, but thin legs. He always wore a Navajo sash around his waist, and a hat, and made a colorful sight."

Remington came in a distant second to Russell, but Von was very much aware that "he knew the horse," (indeed it was inscribed on his tombstone.) Still, his eastern origins and education counted against him. Another factor may have played a part. Remington was part of a semi-racist movement led by the author / poet Owen Wister that celebrated the cowboy as a sort of Aryan, pure-blooded inheritor of the Crusades! Both Russell and Von considered this a bunch of "heifer dust." (read: desiccated cow manure.)

But around the turn of the century, many Americans shared this prejudice and films of the period reflected it. D.W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation" may have created the whole vocabulary of modern cinematography, dazzling such viewers as John Ford, (who was in it) and my Old Man (who saw it when it opened.) But inherently, it was a glorification of the Ku Klux Klan!

It was a period full of contradictions. John Ford (son of an Irish saloon keeper) was soon doing two-reel "Westerns" (in which Indian lives were expendable) for Universal Studios (owned by Carl Laemmle, a German Jew, in the garment business) which were being used to support the myth of Aryan Supremacy!

For men of comfortable backgrounds like Remington and Russell (born during the civil war) the Legend of the West was a powerful lure. Charlie and "Bud" were not fleeing the disastrous aftermath of the War itself...they'd been on the winning side...

For Ford/Feeney, Rockwell, and von Schmidt, all born in the 1890s, things were vastly different. It was an age of World's Fairs, self-congratulation and unlimited opportunity! Norman Rockwell, who came from a middle-class background similar to Russell and Remington, felt no need to go anywhere. Everything he needed was right where he was. He had only to adjust his compass slightly to the rural and he was on the road to glory.

The Demons Show Themselves

But Ford and Von both had demons. "Jack" Feeney / Ford's seemed to have developed within him a curiously mixed pride and self-loathing, a fury fueled by booze that pursued him all his life.

Harold von Schmidt's demon was more concrete. His reasons for reshuffling his past were more understandable. I had been aware that part of his reason for coming east in '24 was a failed marriage. I had met my half-sister, Joan, when I was a kid and was vaguely aware of my uncles and aunt out west, but they didn't visit us and we didn't visit them. Except for a "tragic accident" followed by a year spent in an orphanage, I knew little about my Old Man's childhood. Anecdotes were plentiful, but facts were few.

It wasn't until the summer I had turned sixteen that Von blurted out the story. We were on a sketching trip, and after camping out on the rim of Mesa Verde, we got in the '47 Pontiac and I couldn't get it started. I'd no doubt flooded it, started swearing and tromping on the gas peddle. He got very emotional -- told me I had to control my temper -- said it was the curse of the family -then –

that his father had killed his mother, and then killed himself...

when Von was four years old! I was in a state of shock. That his father, "The Captain," as everyone called him, was a violent man, that his first memory of him was of him lifting up a grown boy, holding him out at arm's length and throwing him over a six-foot board fence! Worst of all he said that he had witnessed the murder!

I've discovered since that while the details are mostly wrong, the actuality was terribly real. It was an awesome thing to carry hidden for so long! He never drank, seldom swore, and his illustrations bore a strange validity of feeling: emotions, whether tender or loving, scenes of conflict and violence that spoke of a hidden knowledge -- a hard -- won truth. And perhaps it made it all the more pleasurable to immerse himself in someone else’s story…

Rockwell's covers embodied a kind of "universal" story filtered through his own genius -- an empathy with the magazine -- buying public. Russell's and Remington's paintings and sculpture were more directly personal -- especially Russell's, who was a yarn-spinner. Remington, on the other hand, was more of a latter-day illustrator/journalist, who abandoned both when he turned to sculpture and easel painting.

Von, I believe, filtered everything through his own sensibility, but committed more fully to the author's version of the story. Rockwell, in his introduction to a wide- ranging selection of Von's work, writes "Harold von Schmidt is certainly one of the giants of American illustration...he is a wonderful painter of the West as well as an accurate interpreter of history and thereby a great researcher...he was never at a loss to develop appropriate illustrations of a romantic nature if the story called for it.

Certainly a partial listing of the authors he worked with bears this out: Willa Cather, William Faulkner, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlins, C.J. Jung, Don Marquis, Damon Runyan, C. S. Forester, Steven Vincent Benet, Pearl Buck, Edna Ferber, Kay Doyle, Mackinay Kantor, Ernest Hemingway are among them. This characteristic he shares with John Ford, who did not win any of his Oscars for Westerns. This exceptional quality won him Oscars for such diverse films as, “The Informer”, “The Grapes of Wrath”, and “How Green Was My Valley.”

Actually, Rockwell's introduction for Von could have been written for Norman himself. "...I prefer to believe he will be remembered as an artist/illustrator who painted all subjects with equal authority, great talent, devoted sensitivity and wonderful technical ability." Sounds like Norman to me.

Indeed, about the only thing he didn't include on his list was the one thing that my Old Man did that Rockwell didn't, and that was to paint illustrations where motion all but exploded off the printed page. Von, who had been an active participant in all manner of sports ( he was the player / captain of the wining 1920 Olympic Rugby team) had a profound understanding of action and reaction, which from the 1920s on, gave his illustration a new and dynamic direction -- one that would have a vast effect on the movie making of John Ford!  What Rockwell forgot in his introduction was "master of movement," especially if that motion involved animals, and especially if that animal was the horse.

The Image Makers Page 4

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