Favorite Places, 6–World War Two and Yale

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Kolinsky sable brushes, well used.

Kolinsky sable brushes and Sceptres, well used.

Charlotte hung out with her Yale friends at the good old city restaurant, George and Harry’s, north of the New Haven green.  On a limited budget, she would often have an omelette for dinner or creamed mushrooms on toast. One day, while they were having lunch, a young man burst in and announced, “The Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor!” As Charlotte described it, everyone stood up and started yelling. Several young men raced down the street to enlist, only to be killed within a few weeks. At home in Meriden, Arthur Sternberg helped Eva to sew blackout shades.  Supply planes often droned overhead.  The war was tragic, and did color the experiences of the students.

On a positive note, one of the greatest discoveries of Charlotte’s schooling was egg tempera painting.  Egg tempera was then enjoying a small revival at Yale. Professors such as Louis York and Daniel V. Thompson (author of The Practice of Tempera Painting) had rediscovered ancient techniques that had not been widely used since the Renaissance. Egg tempera is very different from oil paint. Oils can be thinned for glazes, but in their heavy, or impasto form, they are more like mayonnaise in consistency. Oils also can take a week or so to dry.

Egg tempera, on the other hand, is a water-based medium, consisting only of pigment, water, and egg yolk. Artists commonly used it from medieval times up until the Renaissance, as did old masters, such as Fra Angelico, Botticelli, Michelangelo and Leonardo. These ancients used a cradled piece of seasoned wood (the panel) to paint on, covering this with a plaster surface (the gesso.) The dry gesso (secco gesso) of egg tempera painting must be distinguished from the wet plaster that was used for wall frescoes (buon fresco.) It is also very different from the modern acrylic gesso, which has a plastic binder. Because of the lack of other binders, such as watercolor’s gum arabic which holds the paint together, the paint seems to have a particular luminosity and purity. Today, most artists that work in egg tempera use untreated masonite to support the gesso and painting.

This is probably a class project from Charlotte's time at Yale. Flesh tones are underpainted with green "verdacchio" for the shadow tones and the crown is glded and tooled according to Renaissance practice.

This is probably a class project from Charlotte’s time at Yale. Flesh tones are underpainted with green “verdacchio” for the shadow tones and the crown is glided and tooled according to Renaissance practice.

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Favorite Places,5–Yale Art School, including Deane Keller

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A 1937 sketch of Charlotte's friend at Yale, Zoe Wilson.

A 1937 sketch of Charlotte’s friend at Yale, Zoe Willson.

Women were accepted at Yale Art School when Charlotte entered, but not in the main part of the university. Her parents were daunted at the financial prospect ($300 a semester!), but somehow managed to scrape the money together. Her future course was set. She arrived at the college on a sparkling autumn day that was unusually cold. Her rooms were in a separate house off the main campus with several other girls (today, the Department of Anthropology.) That evening, she looked out the window and was surprised to see what appeared to be veils of white moving across the sky. These were northern lights, making an unusual appearance in Connecticut. Everything seemed full of mystery and promise.

In 1937, the Yale Art School was highly traditional. Time-honored, indeed ancient methods of teaching dominated.  Drawing teachers such as the classic portraitist Deane Keller held sway, as well as muralist Eugene Francis Savage. The composition teacher Richard Rathbone, author of an excellent book on that subject, was also one of Charlotte’s great inspirations.  He enthralled his classes with analysis of the Renaissance masters, and Charlotte became as fond of Botticelli as her teacher was. Years later, she had an extended trip to Italy, and admired the masters first hand.

Students took drawing in the morning, painting in the afternoon. Beyond that, there was art history, history of architecture and of ornament. They started figure drawing with “cast” drawings: these were studies of plaster casts which were reproductions of famous sculptures. “Life drawing” was done from live models. Anatomy was an important part of these studies, and the students even visited the medical school to see the dissection of a cadaver. Still life and many painterly studies in oils rounded out the curriculum. Students did very few of the quick sketches or “gesture drawings” common today. Instead, they labored all week on a large charcoal figure drawing, only to have the dauntless Keller whack most of the vine charcoal off the paper with his chamois cloth, and correct their efforts.

The social atmosphere was intellectually charged, stimulating, and most enjoyable for Charlotte. She met students from Europe and China, students from all over America, students who’d been to Oxford, students who had been to the Sorbonne in Paris. One of her good friends in school was Nancy Trumbull, “Trummy,” who was a descendant of John Trumbull, painter of the American Revolution.  (Unfortunately, Nancy died quite young.) Other dear friends were Jean Day( later Zallinger), who became a renowned children’s book illustrator; her future husband, Rudolph Zallinger, famous painter of the Peabody museum dinosaur mural; and Thomas Wells, well-known painter of the tall ships he’d served on. Other Yale graduates Charlotte would know well included the superb still life painter, Ken Davies, later dean of Paier School of Art, and Leonard Everett Fisher, prolific and famed author and illustrator of children’s books.

Favorite places, 4–Learning to draw and art history

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Detail of her Yale notebook, showing Gothic ornaments.

Detail of her Yale notebook, showing Gothic ornaments.

As a child, Charlotte struggled with drawing, as most artists do. She labored for many hours trying to illustrate “Heidi.” Inspired by the N.C. Wyeth posters she’d seen in the library, she wanted desperately to put on paper what she could see so vividly in her mind. This was such a frustrating exercise that it often left her in tears.  Aggravated by her inability to draw Heidi’s face in profile, she would cover the face over with curly hair and turn the drawing into a back view. She returned to try, yet again…

The Sternbergs were well aware of Charlotte’s interest in art. Unlike many other parents, they encouraged her in every way. She always remembered a conversation she’d had with her father, when she was twelve or so.  She asked him if a woman could be an artist. He said, ”Of course.  A woman can do anything that she wants to do, and don’t let anyone tell you differently.” He gave her license to spread her wings and fly.  This was amazing.  Here, in a small city struggling with the start of the Depression, Charlotte’s father Arthur Sternberg gave her complete permission to be herself and risk being an artist, in a most stunning way.

It was a lesson she never forgot, and in turn, would pass down to her students. When she was about thirteen, her parents arranged for her to have art lessons at the trade school in Meriden, after her regular school day was finished. Charlotte took lessons from the same man who taught the young silversmiths the fundamentals of drawing (for Meriden was then the “Silver City,” well known for its silverware industries.) This was Ernst Lohrmann,  an immigrant from Germany. He was very exacting. “Observe carefully, Charlotte…”, he’d say.

One of the first lessons was a lemon placed on a white plate. How would you mix the shadow color? The mystery was revealed: small amounts of the complementary color, purple, would solve the problem. She studied classic ornamentation, along with the other students, who would be designing teapots, flatware, and so on. Mr. Lohrmann required them to make faithful “renderings;” these small paintings were done in transparent and opaque watercolors, and meant to illustrate exactly what a cyma-recta curve, corbel table, or egg-and-dart molding looked like.  In the old tradition of watercolor, transparent colors were used for darks and shadows, and opaque color was sometimes used to build up the lights and highlights.

In high school, she did illustrations for the yearbook, showing Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Roy Rogers, Wendell Wilkie, Joe Louis and other famous people of the time. She was already known as an artist in town. Charlotte then applied to Yale Art School, entering in 1937.

Favorite Places, 3–Early wildflowers, and more explorations

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leathermandetailWildflowers in the Leatherman: pink lady slippers, trout lilies, violets and anemones.

The outdoors and farm life would be part and parcel of Charlotte’s paintings, as well as a love for the American daily scene. Many fields stretched across her panels, marked by furrows, dotted by barns and farmers. The woods were never far away, nor the wildflowers.

The entire Leatherman painting.

The entire Leatherman painting.

In kindergarten, she drew a horse on the blackboard one day, which she humorously described as “extra long!” The teacher, Mrs. Griffin, was so delighted by it that she called the Sternbergs and had them come to school to see it. This, Charlotte later said, was the official beginning of her career as an artist.

A horse in Holiday Vistors, not extra long.

A horse, not extra long.

After that, she drew, and drew, and kept on drawing.

Her childhood was relaxed, and quite fearless. After school, she’d put her fox terrier, Tina, in the basket of her bike, and ride all over exploring. She’d go to the cider mill, or the fresh water spring, or the woods. Local rambles ever after fired Charlotte’s imagination. She went walking with her grandmother to see the early spring wildflowers, along the gravel-strewn slopes of Meriden’s Hanging Hills.  She particularly loved hepaticas, fuzzy-leaved little plants blooming in white, pink, purple, and blue on the second week in April. She also found trilliums, trailing arbutus, bloodroot, rue anemone, and other delights.  In the Leatherman, wildflowers grace the foreground, and are prominently featured in the Enchantment paintings.  Along the side of the rural road, she found wonder and surprise throughout her life. Others, then as now, drove by—but she stopped when she could—and looked at everything.

An hepatica plant, from Wikipedia.

An hepatica plant, from Wikipedia.

Deane Keller’s letter to Charlotte: “You belong to the artists”

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keller letter 1 sm keller letter 2Deane Keller was one of the “Monument Men,” who helped to rescue masterpieces of art from the rapacity and destruction of the Nazis. He was also a well-known portraitist, Yale professor, and Paier teacher. Charlotte had him as a teacher at Yale, and I had him at Paier School of Art.

The story of his World War II actions has been documented in The Rape of Europa, by Lynn Nicholas, on PBS, and more recently in The Monuments Men by Robert M. Edsel. Now, the Edsel book is going to be a movie, directed by George Clooney, and starring  such actors as Bill Murray and Matt Damon:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Monuments_Men.

Fans of Charlotte will be interested to know Mr. Keller was a fan and friend of hers, as seen in the letter above. My transcript follows:

Dear Charlotte:

I don’t know when I have had a better time at an exhibition of fine painting than I did this past Sunday–

One thing among others that pleased me so, and which I admire, is your outlook on life–It is gentle, pleasant, perfect taste. You don’t shock people, you make them happy and you recall for them the essential virtues in this life. We need this so badly. All the paintings are consistent from this point of view.

The paintings. What can one say? Carefully composed, beautifully drawn, masterly in the technical problems–there is what we call Tender Loving Care throughout the whole exhibition–They certainly are among the best of their kind in American painting.

I can’t help but state that I , among the rest, had a modest hand in your student development–Such painting as you do in maturity makes all the student study & teaching so very worthwhile. All of us who worked with you at Yale are indeed proud and happy in your great success.

I wanted to set these thoughts down on paper, as vis-a-vis talk disappears into thin air–There is much I could say about the enormous amount of work, the continued high standards. And, to repeat, and so important, the qualities of thought and imagination that separate the painters from the artists, a sharp distinction that I’ve had for half a century. You belong to the artists.

Best all around–Deane–

Favorite Places, 2–Charlotte plows a furrow

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-ivesfarm-blogAnimals again, in the painting Ives Farm.

At home in Meriden, Charlotte adored the fluffy, clucking chickens, the currant bushes laden with ruby strands of fruit, and the tiny flower garden. In childhood, she played near the ferns along the sidewalk, and imagined that fairies were hiding there. This was much like a nineteenth century painting by Winslow Homer come to life, where children ran and played in the fields, or rested under an orchard tree. All very different from today’s endless busywork. Charlotte was adamant that this way of life was good, important, and not to be forgotten. In her own paintings, such as Charlottesville, or Backyards, she showed children playing, laundry being hung, fruit being gathered—everyday life.

Meanwhile, her father Arthur worked downtown in the Meriden Savings Bank as a teller. He was known for his integrity. The family had a little iron bank advertising this Meriden bank that said, “Be sure, save in a savings bank.” He had gone to business school, as did Eva, his wife, and joined the many who were now living in cities and working at white-collar jobs. Every day, he rode his bike downtown to the bank, stood in his teller’s cage, and did meticulous figuring until the books balanced perfectly. There were many new immigrants then in Meriden, who barely spoke English and were afraid of being cheated. Charlotte’s father helped them, and made sure that they were not robbed. Helping your neighbor and being honest in your dealings were of paramount importance. In turn, Arthur acquired a taste for Italian opera from some of his new friends, which he whistled as he worked. Charlotte immortalized this old Meriden in “Circum Rosa.”

This was still an era when the milkman delivered the milk—every day—by horse and wagon. While cars were everywhere in a “modern” city such as Meriden, delivery people and peddlers still used wagons.  Arthur Sternberg was an early auto aficionado. Charlotte kept a little book of his, titled “Motor Car Operation.” Charlotte herself always loved horses, and looked forward to seeing them. She would go out and pet the milkman or iceman’s horse. Sometimes she would walk down to a nearby stable and visit the horses.

Occasionally, as a teenager, she got to go riding, even taking the horse up nearby Mount Lamentation and skirting the edge of the cliffs there. As a young adult, Charlotte stopped her car a few blocks away from home at an old farm, now the site of Maloney High School. The farmer was plowing the field with a horse and a steel plow. He saw her looking and said, “Come and try it!” She put the heavy reins around her neck, grabbed the wood handles of the plow, and started off down the furrow. It was very difficult going. Each stone diverted the plow blade aside, the wooden plow handles were slippery and it seemed impossible to keep the furrow perfectly straight. She handed the equipment back to the farmer, thanked him, and left, but never forgot how real old-fashioned plowing felt.  She also milked a cow by hand once, surprised by the heavy wringing and twisting that was necessary.

Farm life would be part and parcel of her paintings, as well as a love for the American daily scene. Many fields stretched across her panels, marked by furrows, dotted by cows and farmers; Favorite Places, and Ives Farm are good examples of this.

Favorite Places: The biography of Charlotte Joan Sternberg. Part 1

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backyards-blog det2At left is a detail from Backyards, showing a chicken coop.

It was January of 1920. An old-fashioned sleigh traveled down a snowy street in Meriden, Connecticut with Arthur and Eva Sternberg, and their infant daughter, Charlotte Joan Sternberg.  When she was born, a few days earlier on the 23rd, there was an enormous blizzard. The cars of that era were unable to drive in such heavy snow, and so Charlotte went home in a sleigh. Ever after, the family joked that this sleigh ride had “marked” her, made snow, sleighs, and winter a part of her psyche. She would be most famous in her lifetime for her snow scenes and Christmas cards.

Carter Avenue, where the family lived, was a working-class, small-city enclave. Neat rows of Victorian houses lined the streets. No one locked their doors. It was thought safe for children to play by themselves in the yard. At the very end of the dead end street lived Charlotte’s grandparents. They enjoyed a slightly larger lot, with a kitchen garden, fruit trees, and chickens. In that era, it was not unusual for families in cities to keep chickens. My father’s family kept a few in the backyard of their Brooklyn, New York brownstone.

Her grandparents, Franz Jacob and Paulina Johanna Hackbarth, left Germany as young children,around 1860. The Russian Cossacks had literally chased the family out of the small town there, and Charlotte remembered being told how the Cossacks swung their sabres before assaulting the people. Now, the Hackbarths had made a good life in America. Franz was a foreman at the iron foundry downtown, Bradley and Hubbard. The company made lamps, bric-a-brac, figurines, and other domestic goods. His work was grueling: six days a week, from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. When the elders did get some time off, they tended the garden, the tiny orchard, or the chickens. They were almost always at home. This way of life was a remnant of an earlier time in America when families had been more self-sufficient.

Paternal grandmother Paulina Sternberg, widow of Charles Sternberg and mother of eight, lived in another part of town. That family ran a grocery store, so that they’d never run out of food—later, it was owned by Elise Dittmer (of the painting, “Aunt Lee’s Store.”)

The painting Backyards.

This is the whole painting, Backyards.