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.
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.
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.
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.