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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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