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.
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.
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.