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.
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!