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.
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.