This is a detail of the painting, Chowdertown, from the new book about Charlotte. Now available on createspace and Amazon!
American, Americana, art history, Charlotte Joan Sternberg, Charlotte Sternberg, Daniel V. Thompson, Deane Keller, Egg Tempera, Eugene Francis Savage, Jean Day Zallinger, John Trumbull, Ken Davies, Leonard Everett Fisher, Painting, Realism, Richard Rathbone, Rudolph Zallinger, Yale, Yale Art School
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.
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.
Many times, Charlotte looked at antique photographs for inspiration. Although she was so practiced in drawing that she usually invented any figures, buildings, and settings, she found the old photos thought-provoking. Books such as American Album, edited by Oliver Jensen, and This was Connecticut, by Marvin W. Sandler, gave her ideas for new paintings.
I recently found some enjoyable photographs in the Library of Congress collections. What’s going on, we wonder. Who was in the doorway, with that nice top hat?
I added some details from a few paintings–of course, you could also look at Curve in the Square, Christmas Shopping Street, and many others!