This was a village that was set up by one Ray Schmitt. My family visited there, and we enjoyed seeing the antiques and and period accoutrements. I hope that it can be restored and find a new life, now that it has a new owner.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”)
This is the whole painting, Backyards.