The Image Makers by Eric von Schmidt

Editor's Note --This chapter is from Eric's unpublished book, Last Stands: A Sprawl of Epic Paintings Spanning America's First Turbulent Century of Growth

The people I'll be talking about here were trying, in their various ways, to do the same thing. TELL A GOOD STORY WITH A PICTURE.

Four were working with paint, one was working with film, and then there's the academic guy with the biography thing.

The first five guys were all born before 1900. The other guy with the typewriter was born later. I'm here to talk about them all.

I have a problem with the academic guy, Professor Ronald L. Davis, and his biography: JOHN FORD / Hollywood's Old Master. (University of Oklahoma Press, '95) which admittedly I had picked up with pleasurable anticipation.

A Contained  Fluidity...

By chance, that very spring of '95, I helped assemble of my father's (and my own) canvases, curated by painter and graphic designer, Howard Munce. In fact, several of Von's had been used for the same Saturday Evening Post stories that John Ford was later to incorporate into his "Cavalry Trilogy" films.

The paintings we chose were a minimal representation compared to his life-long output of well over a thousand works, but blessedly what remained were some of the finest -- the "family” collection. Many had been painted over the years for now forgotten magazines like Sunset, Elks, Shriners, American, True, Look, as well as the really big guns of the mid thirties to mid fifties. Collier's, Cosmopolitan, and the Saturday Evening Post were the slickest Slick of them all.

When we ended up with sixty or more paintings, almost all oil on canvas, nearly all measuring from 24" x 30" to 36” x 50", we began to wonder, did my father paint absurdly large, or has our vaunted technology, our lasers, drum scanners and computers, obliged us to paint absurdly small?

They all expressed a pictorial unity, a poster-like clarity of meaning, a contained  fluidity... and seeing them all side by side it struck me that they all began as tiny sketches, a scribbled pencil composition, all rendered in tone, with no detail at all, and that in his mind translated to sky / earth, shadow / light. For him all the rest of it was already there -in his mind.

The Three Rs (Remington, Russell & Rockwell)

And when I read in Davis' biography (on page 187) that when in Monument Valley, shooting "My Darling Clementine", "Ford would arrive on the set, grab his finder (an optical device that shows the area visible through the camera's lens) and he would be ready to go to work,” the von Schmidt/Ford connection became clear.

Artists are a notoriously elusive bunch. John Ford (1894 -1973) is a classic example. Now let me name some others Davis mentions: Frederic Remington (1862 -1907), Charles Marion Russell (1869- 1926), and some he doesn't; Harold von Schmidt (1893- 1989), and Norman Rockwell (1894 -1978).

The elusiveness of these artists was due in part to the fact that all of them, but Remington, tended in their work to celebrate the common man rather than Themselves -- to glorify their lives and the work they did rather than their own. In fact, Ford, Russell and my Old Man, professed to be little more than “day laborers." Ford, in particular despised “intellectuals" and academics, while Von delighted in running on the Democratic ticket in a town that always voted republican. Charlie Russell made a career out of poking fun at stuffed shirts and royalty, although he and Mrs. Russell accepted all their invitations. Rockwell was a little closer to the reality of his abilities but was still canny enough to ask the plumber if he liked his latest Saturday Evening Post cover. Remington, the exception, was a bit of an east-coast snob and the only one who seemed, toward the end, to pursue art with a capital “A ".

Actually, all of them were acutely aware of their worth and false modesty aside, felt comfortable with the splendid rank chosen by Colonel “Davy" Crockett, when in March of 1836, was offered the command of the defense of the Alamo and said “no thank you. I prefer to remain a ‘High Private’”, surely the most egalitarian rank of all...the operative word was “high”.

As Von's canvasses emerged from the cramped stacks, they almost seemed to breathe a sigh of relief. It was like turning back through the pages of history. Look here: a small group of combat soldiers barely visible through a screen of jungle foliage; look closer, you notice the bullet holes in the leaves. Now here, a western: riders exploding toward the viewer with other figures by an adobe building firing at them, trying to hit the horses: everyone is absolutely terrified. Next, there is a girl in a hoop skirt, slumped against a closed door, her eyes brimming with tears, a crumpled letter on the floor nearby. Here: hidden Apaches gaze down a rock out-cropping at a wagon train far below. A warrior kneels on the back of his pony to get a better look...he is wearing a cap decorated with the feathers of an owl...he is a watcher...

...bullet holes in the leaves

artist -- Harold von Schmidt


The Fetterman Massacre

While peeling back the layers of history and viewing these huge paintings, one after the other, each canvas as fresh and vibrant as if it had come off the easel yesterday, we realized that the limitation of the gallery space would not present a problem. These paintings, so tautly constructed, each so powerful individually, they could almost be hung frame-to-frame. Indeed, they could even be "stacked," one above the other. Each had a startling immediacy and could hold its own!

Lots of "Von" stories got told over the course of that exhibition. And "Jack" Ford Stories, too. Seeing some of those cavalry paintings reminded me that Von was Ford's favorite living western illustrator and how he used Von's compositions in his westerns shot in Monument Valley.

But you certainly wouldn't know it by reading Davis' book about John Ford.

I was in high school at the time, and posed for almost all the pictures (both as Indians and the cavalry), and I can attest how proud the family was of the "Jack/Von" Mutual Admiration Society. We were as delighted to see Ford's recreation of the Old Man's compositions in his cavalry films as when they first appeared as double page spreads in the Saturday Evening Post.

Davis does underline the Saturday Evening Post connection when he mentions that the film, "Fort Apache" was based on James Warner Bellah's short story "Massacre”. "Ford read the story aboard the 'Lurline' on his way to Hawaii. He told his daughter to wire Merian Cooper, (his partner) to buy the movie rights." Davis then goes on to say that the film became Ford's version of the Custer Legend. While this is probably true, Bellah actually used for his story incidents that related to a different battle, the "Fetterman Massacre”, which happened near Fort Phil Kearny in the winter of 1866. However with a name like "Fetterman" your chances of ending up a legend in American history are about zip.

Ford used historical fact when it suited his purpose. Bellah had used Sioux and Cheyenne as the attackers in the Massacre (which was correct for either the Fetterman or the Custer Massacre) Ford, on the other hand, used real Navajo and had them dress up to look like Apache -- historically incorrect on both accounts!

Fetterman Massacre

artist -- Harold von Schmidt

Eric Meets "The Duke"

The von Schmidt/Ford connection thickened later that summer. After I had posed for all those "shape-shifting" warriors, I was dispatched to a camp in Durango, Colorado, called the "Explorer's Camp." I was not thrilled about going but it did have its moments. One of those was a visit to Monument Valley where a film company was making a movie. The movie was called "Fort Apache".

We arrived at night by truck, and I doubt if Ford was there, but I do remember meeting John Wayne. He was huge. My hand disappeared into his and he said... "Your Old Man? He painted the pictures for this? That's Great, Kid!" I was too dazed to say "yeah, and I posed for them!" I was, in fact, speechless.

Maybe John Wayne didn't know the name of the guy, who had done those pictures, but he knew the pictures. Ford knew those pictures too, and he knew the guy who painted them!

Davis, unfortunately, did not. What we find in the biography, are numerous references to Russell and Remington, what one writer has called the Tweedle-di and Tweedle-dum of Western Art. Unlike Captain Fetterman, their splendidly alliterative names trip lightly off the tongues of those who couldn't tell a Bodmer for a Bierstadt. And while they embodied totally different approaches, they seem to be forever joined-at-the-hip, as if Charlie had gone to Yale Art School with Frederic, and Remington had been a night-herder with Russell.

The Image Makers Page 2

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