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Eric's unpublished book, Last Stands: A Sprawl of Epic Paintings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
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.
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
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
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...
holes in the leaves
artist -- Harold
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
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
artist -- Harold
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
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
The Image Makers Page 2
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