In 1967, she attended a party of her old Yale classmates in New Haven, and met up with Ed Paier, proprietor of the Paier School of Art in neighboring Hamden. He kindly asked her to come and teach. At this time, many of the old Yale crowd were there: Ken Davies, Jean and Rudolph Zallinger, Leonard Everett Fisher, and even Charlotte’s drawing teacher, Deane Keller. Other good Paier friends would be part of our world as well. In 1970, my family decided to move to Cheshire, closer to Charlotte’s old home base. Charlotte would teach at Paier until 1984, primarily rendering and perspective in the Interior Design department, but later perspective, creative painting, and egg tempera in the Illustration and Fine Art sector.
Charlotte enjoyed her “kids” tremendously, often becoming a confidante of theirs.It was her custom, for many years, to have a tea party for the Interior Design students. This was a delightful event, featuring tea sandwiches, cakes, etc. A very large bouquet graced the coffee table. All these years later, I still correspond with some of her students.
Charlotte also did some china design work for Design Point Decal, prints with Greenwich Workshop, and licensing with Applejack Art Partners. She showed several paintings at the Ferguson Gallery in Hartford and the Greenwich Workshop gallery in Fairfield. She became more and more known for her large village scenes and interest in the antique. Meanwhile, she explored New England, particularly Connecticut. My explorations also were inspired by a library of art books that my parents both collected. I too would grow up to draw and paint. She passed away at age 83 in 2003.
It was in Charlotte’s case as Robert Frost had said of his own life:
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
She had a speech which she used to give to her students as inspiration, which summarizes her philosophy of art, and life:
As a general rule, resist what is fashionable. Your work will be “modern” simply because you are alive. To try to work in a fashionable “style,” or in an admired artist’s “technique” is a certain way to lose sight of your Self—the biggest mistake you could ever make! The only thing that would ever make your paintings desirable to others, or even great, is the fact that it is yours, and no one else could possibly have done it. Some say we are all as ants in this universe—what we say, do, or feel amounts to nothing, and makes no difference one way or another. I feel strongly that this is not true. Everything we say or do affects someone else, whether we, or they, know it or not: and it’s up to each of us, as individuals, to be conscious of this fact and arrange our efforts towards the benefit of every other person and of the world in general. To proliferate evil or ugliness in any form is to drag down the dignity of mankind. Many say mankind is foolish, lazy, ill-tempered and brutal, so why bother? Yes, he is all of these things, but he is also genial, loving, patient, and heroic in the troubles he must bear. Does he not deserve the best you can give him? Can he not use the encouragement? Can he fail to respond to beauty and not be the better forit? He cannot fail to respond—even the dullest brute is calmed by beauty.You will find that when looking into the depths of your Self, you have an inexhaustible supply of fascinating pictures, unlike any that any other person can produce. The older youare, the more pictures there are. Your own experiences in living, or simply in fantasizing,brought through your brain and fingers into picture form, is certain to appeal to other people, who will recognize the content of these pictures as common to all human beings, and will be delighted by them.
Charlotte continued to travel to New York on business throughout the 40’s and early 50’s. It was in the early 50’s that she had an art show at a local bank in Wallingford, Connecticut. Here she met my father, Arthur Koch. He also was a graduate of Yale, (1920) and spent many years teaching at Choate School. At first, it was a meeting of the minds, and later of the hearts. They were married in 1953.
In 1952, she did a commissioned portrait of Mrs. John Lodge, wife of the Connecticut Governor John Davis Lodge. This won first prize at the local Meriden Arts and Crafts show. Her hometown would eventually honor her with a spot in Meriden’s Hall of Fame. Early in their marriage, my father had done some work as an artist’s agent, for my mother and a few other artists. He had previously been director of American Artists Galleries. He formed a business association with one Andrew Baldwin, and later Mr. Baldwin commissioned Charlotte to paint a portrait of President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1960.
At the time, Eisenhower had recently left the presidency, and Arthur and Charlotte traveled to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania to meet him at his office. Charlotte was astonished at the Civil War cemetery there, with a shocking number of graves throughout the woodlands. Eisenhower was formerly a famous general in World War Two, and commander of the Normandy invasion, which brought American forces ashore in France to fight the Nazi occupiers. When he met Charlotte, he took her all around his office, showing her pictures of the invasion and telling her all about it. She later confessed that she was so impressed that she hardly remembered much of their conversation! She spent a morning there, sketching and photographing him, and made a portrait showing his characteristic gesture of holding his glasses in one hand. The toughest part of this painting was the President’s suit: it took hundreds of strokes to make the smooth-textured fabric blend! This portrait is now in Eisenhower’s hometown of Abilene, Kansas, at the Eisenhower Library.
During the 1950’s, Charlotte had largely stopped working in New York, and eventually Arthur did, too. She kept on doing the Christmas cards, sending several paintings a year to American Artists Group. As time went on, she expanded the range of these cards, painting many different Christmas trees, cupboards, and an enormous variety of snow scenes.
She also did many portraits of me, thirteen in all.
They showed her dreams for my future: expanded imagination, new discoveries, great wonder and new life. She also did ambitious landscapes, eventually executing several that were two by four feet. Many paintings also had family themes: my grandfather’s tool bench, a self-portrait on James Monroe’s porch, or a still life of my great-grandmother’s kitchenware. Many of the card designs contained little references to our family.
The family appeared in some paintings. Another card design showing carolers was inspired by a spontaneous carol sing that occurred in our old neighborhood.
Americana, antique, Charlotte Joan Sternberg, Charlotte Sternberg, Christmas, Connecticut, Egg Tempera, Favorite Places, Harvey Dunn, Historic, Howard Pyle, illustration, James Montgomery Flagg, New England, Painting, Realism, snow scene, World War I
As Charlotte was pursuing her illustration career in New York City, she met up with many well-known artists at the Society of illustrators, such as James Montgomery Flagg, illustrator of the “Uncle Sam Wants You” World War One recruiting poster. The man she would always remember as a kindred spirit was Harvey Dunn.
Another regional artist from South Dakota, Dunn was a pupil of the renowned and revered Howard Pyle. Pyle inspired a whole school of illustration (the “Brandywine school”) and even tutored N.C. Wyeth, Andrew Wyeth’s father. Dunn masterfully depicted his own prairie home, ran a small art school in New Jersey and was also known for his realistic World War One illustrations. She had dinner with him and his wife at a Spanish restaurant, where they ate paella and talked nonstop about art for hours. As she said, “He understood exactly what I was trying to do.”
It was also at this time that she began to work for American Artists Group, an association that would last for fifty years. Snowy winter scenes, carefully and lovingly executed in egg tempera, would become her best-known subject. Charlotte’s work looked back to earlier American artists, such as George Henry Durrie, and the Currier & Ives prints. The pleasure she had in completing these paintings seemed to come through in the finished product; her love of the New England landscape, the handsome horses, and the people enjoying themselves. Every year for many years, she completed three or four Christmas card paintings. These were either relatively small pieces done on illustration board, sometimes with a watercolor underpainting, or larger traditional gesso panels, usually 18 by 24. American Artists Group was well-known for its sophisticated variety of cards. Artists involved ranged all the way from the charming Tasha Tudor to the thoughtful Andrew Wyeth. The work she did for this company, more than any other, would put her work before the public eye. People frequently contacted her because they’d seen a card that they liked.
In Syracuse in 1950, Charlotte had an illustration assignment. She had been at the New York State fair all day, gathering reference for a Collier’s cover, and came out late in the evening. Only one restaurant was open. She went in and asked for a table—only to be refused. Decent girls, some thought, didn’t eat late by themselves. In all of her career, she had never been in such a situation. She went out and saw the light of a police station down the street. She went in, told the police the story, and showed them her identification. A policeman took her back to the restaurant, and announced, ”You have to feed this person.” Embarrassed, upset, and nervous, she ate with the cop at her side and her eyes on her plate. She never forgot this debacle. While she had generally been treated well in the business world, this was an exception.
She exhibited landscapes at Ferargil Galleries in New York City at this time. The majority of her paintings were based on the rural landscapes of Connecticut: this was the place that she went home to. While much development has occurred here, there are still beautiful and inspiring glimpses of the past. Connecticut’s landscapes are more intimate than many other American scenes. Small towns, each their own microcosm—the barns of yesteryear found in backyards—occasional farms–rolling hills traversed by brooks and stone walls—glowing autumnal color—all of this is part of life in this region. Communities cherish it, and, increasingly, work to preserve it. In common with other regional artists of the twentieth century, Charlotte loved her home and wanted to share the beauty of it with others. Viewers of her work often notice West Peak in Meriden, an enduring sign of her affection.
At this early stage, Charlotte tried inventive subjects—they were, after all, traditional Renaissance themes. Her excellent imagination began to flourish. This quality was one of her most wonderful characteristics. Many artists can “render,” or show objects accurately. Far fewer have the ability, and sheer nerve, to reassemble reality to their liking. What she had always loved also began to appear in her paintings: the rural life, old-fashioned Americana and Connecticut scenes. She graduated from Yale in 1942 with a BFA, and the Ethel Childe Walker prize for “most improvement.”
Charlotte spent a short time teaching junior high school, but decided that she wanted to do something else. The war at last came to an end: people danced in the streets and went downtown to applaud and cheer. She talked to her father, who thought she should go to New York City and look for illustration work. Together, they got on the train in Meriden and headed to the city.
She didn’t have painting “samples” that showed traditional commercial themes, such as people posing with products. She showed art directors the detailed, original, distinctive paintings that she’d been doing on her own. Happily, she got work from an advertising agency the very first day. It was the J. Walter Thompson agency, then in the Graybar building near Grand Central Station, and the art director was the inimitable Arthur Blomquist. This was the so-called “Golden Age of American illustration.” She would work for some other people in the city, but J.Walter Thompson was her primary source of work at the time.
Mr. Blomquist had struggled terribly as a young artist in the city, and he was well-known for giving young artists a break. He did so in Charlotte’s case. When he was young and desperate, he had posed for other artists, and he is thus immortalized as Leyendecker’s “Arrow Shirt Collar man” of the twenties. He took Charlotte under his wing, showed her the ropes, and was always willing to give helpful advice. As a busy executive, he told her, “Sit on my doorstep, or I’ll forget you’re there.”…but he never did. Charlotte lost her father around this time, and ever after missed him terribly. She found Blomquist to be a most sympathetic friend in her life. Remarkably, he gave her a great deal of leeway; she often executed her own ideas, not always dependent on the “think tank.” Over time, she would do ads for many major accounts, in the era of postwar peace and prosperity. Esso Oil, (later Exxon), Lederle pharmaceuticals, and Textron fabrics and fashions were some of her clients. She did covers for magazines, such as Collier’s and Coronet. When working for Collier’s, she traveled to Michigan to paint the Holland, Michigan tulip festival, and to Syracuse, New York, to paint the New York State Fair.
The oldest manual of egg tempera painting is the twelfth-century Manual for Painters by Cennino Cennini, available from Yale as a reprint. Now, we don’t have to scrape animal skins to make tracing paper, grind our own pigments from rocks, or set weasel tails in quills to make brushes…on the other hand, praying before starting to paint, couldn’t hurt! Robert Vickery, a twentieth-century American artist and fellow Yale graduate, wrote a fine book on egg tempera with a more modern approach. Thompson’s basic book on egg tempera, mentioned before, is available as a reprint.
One of the curious characteristics of egg tempera is its tendency to sink into the absorbent gesso and dry rapidly. The egg yolk binder can also be thinned too much, which may lead to poor adhesion and cracking. Therefore, flowing washes or very wet glazes are unsuccessful. Artists should use many, many individual, semi-dry strokes, ranging from the darkest to the lightest tone in any given passage. The paint appears to be blending, but doesn’t really blend. The overall look of a tempera is “high-key” and “blonde”, generally light and bright, rather than the darkness of many oil paintings.
As is traditional, Charlotte made many preliminary drawings, traced onto the gesso panel. Most paintings took an average of six full drawings before being transferred. She would then use pen, brush, and ink to make a black and white underpainting, which was a guide for her to follow, and finally she began the painstaking layering of tempera paint.
Although it is not a necessity, Charlotte always preferred to use round sable brushes.The excellent point and precise handling enables the artist to execute very fine detail. Of all the opaque paints, egg tempera is probably the best for such detail, because it is so thin.
Charlotte’s earliest temperas reveal her immediate ease with the medium. She hadn’t yet settled on the New England subject matter that she became known for, but she experimented with many subjects. She was generally unafraid of any subject, because her training was quite complete; however, the one thing she hadn’t learned well was perspective. This was something that she’d learn after Ken Davies directed her to Storey’s Theory and Practice of Perspective, prior to her teaching at Paier School of Art. After that, she taught perspective for many years, and became known for her ability to use it well.