The oldest manual of egg tempera painting is the twelfth-century Manual for Painters by Cennino Cennini, available from Yale as a reprint. Now, we don’t have to scrape animal skins to make tracing paper, grind our own pigments from rocks, or set weasel tails in quills to make brushes…on the other hand, praying before starting to paint, couldn’t hurt! Robert Vickery, a twentieth-century American artist and fellow Yale graduate, wrote a fine book on egg tempera with a more modern approach. Thompson’s basic book on egg tempera, mentioned before, is available as a reprint.
One of the curious characteristics of egg tempera is its tendency to sink into the absorbent gesso and dry rapidly. The egg yolk binder can also be thinned too much, which may lead to poor adhesion and cracking. Therefore, flowing washes or very wet glazes are unsuccessful. Artists should use many, many individual, semi-dry strokes, ranging from the darkest to the lightest tone in any given passage. The paint appears to be blending, but doesn’t really blend. The overall look of a tempera is “high-key” and “blonde”, generally light and bright, rather than the darkness of many oil paintings.
As is traditional, Charlotte made many preliminary drawings, traced onto the gesso panel. Most paintings took an average of six full drawings before being transferred. She would then use pen, brush, and ink to make a black and white underpainting, which was a guide for her to follow, and finally she began the painstaking layering of tempera paint.
Although it is not a necessity, Charlotte always preferred to use round sable brushes.The excellent point and precise handling enables the artist to execute very fine detail. Of all the opaque paints, egg tempera is probably the best for such detail, because it is so thin.
Charlotte’s earliest temperas reveal her immediate ease with the medium. She hadn’t yet settled on the New England subject matter that she became known for, but she experimented with many subjects. She was generally unafraid of any subject, because her training was quite complete; however, the one thing she hadn’t learned well was perspective. This was something that she’d learn after Ken Davies directed her to Storey’s Theory and Practice of Perspective, prior to her teaching at Paier School of Art. After that, she taught perspective for many years, and became known for her ability to use it well.
antique, art history, Botticelli, Charlotte Joan Sternberg, Charlotte Sternberg, Daniel V. Thompson, Egg Tempera, Fra Angelico, illustration, Leonardo, Louis York, Michelangelo, Painting, Renaissance, World War II, Yale
Charlotte hung out with her Yale friends at the good old city restaurant, George and Harry’s, north of the New Haven green. On a limited budget, she would often have an omelette for dinner or creamed mushrooms on toast. One day, while they were having lunch, a young man burst in and announced, “The Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor!” As Charlotte described it, everyone stood up and started yelling. Several young men raced down the street to enlist, only to be killed within a few weeks. At home in Meriden, Arthur Sternberg helped Eva to sew blackout shades. Supply planes often droned overhead. The war was tragic, and did color the experiences of the students.
On a positive note, one of the greatest discoveries of Charlotte’s schooling was egg tempera painting. Egg tempera was then enjoying a small revival at Yale. Professors such as Louis York and Daniel V. Thompson (author of The Practice of Tempera Painting) had rediscovered ancient techniques that had not been widely used since the Renaissance. Egg tempera is very different from oil paint. Oils can be thinned for glazes, but in their heavy, or impasto form, they are more like mayonnaise in consistency. Oils also can take a week or so to dry.
Egg tempera, on the other hand, is a water-based medium, consisting only of pigment, water, and egg yolk. Artists commonly used it from medieval times up until the Renaissance, as did old masters, such as Fra Angelico, Botticelli, Michelangelo and Leonardo. These ancients used a cradled piece of seasoned wood (the panel) to paint on, covering this with a plaster surface (the gesso.) The dry gesso (secco gesso) of egg tempera painting must be distinguished from the wet plaster that was used for wall frescoes (buon fresco.) It is also very different from the modern acrylic gesso, which has a plastic binder. Because of the lack of other binders, such as watercolor’s gum arabic which holds the paint together, the paint seems to have a particular luminosity and purity. Today, most artists that work in egg tempera use untreated masonite to support the gesso and painting.
American, Americana, art history, Charlotte Joan Sternberg, Charlotte Sternberg, Daniel V. Thompson, Deane Keller, Egg Tempera, Eugene Francis Savage, Jean Day Zallinger, John Trumbull, Ken Davies, Leonard Everett Fisher, Painting, Realism, Richard Rathbone, Rudolph Zallinger, Yale, Yale Art School
Women were accepted at Yale Art School when Charlotte entered, but not in the main part of the university. Her parents were daunted at the financial prospect ($300 a semester!), but somehow managed to scrape the money together. Her future course was set. She arrived at the college on a sparkling autumn day that was unusually cold. Her rooms were in a separate house off the main campus with several other girls (today, the Department of Anthropology.) That evening, she looked out the window and was surprised to see what appeared to be veils of white moving across the sky. These were northern lights, making an unusual appearance in Connecticut. Everything seemed full of mystery and promise.
In 1937, the Yale Art School was highly traditional. Time-honored, indeed ancient methods of teaching dominated. Drawing teachers such as the classic portraitist Deane Keller held sway, as well as muralist Eugene Francis Savage. The composition teacher Richard Rathbone, author of an excellent book on that subject, was also one of Charlotte’s great inspirations. He enthralled his classes with analysis of the Renaissance masters, and Charlotte became as fond of Botticelli as her teacher was. Years later, she had an extended trip to Italy, and admired the masters first hand.
Students took drawing in the morning, painting in the afternoon. Beyond that, there was art history, history of architecture and of ornament. They started figure drawing with “cast” drawings: these were studies of plaster casts which were reproductions of famous sculptures. “Life drawing” was done from live models. Anatomy was an important part of these studies, and the students even visited the medical school to see the dissection of a cadaver. Still life and many painterly studies in oils rounded out the curriculum. Students did very few of the quick sketches or “gesture drawings” common today. Instead, they labored all week on a large charcoal figure drawing, only to have the dauntless Keller whack most of the vine charcoal off the paper with his chamois cloth, and correct their efforts.
The social atmosphere was intellectually charged, stimulating, and most enjoyable for Charlotte. She met students from Europe and China, students from all over America, students who’d been to Oxford, students who had been to the Sorbonne in Paris. One of her good friends in school was Nancy Trumbull, “Trummy,” who was a descendant of John Trumbull, painter of the American Revolution. (Unfortunately, Nancy died quite young.) Other dear friends were Jean Day( later Zallinger), who became a renowned children’s book illustrator; her future husband, Rudolph Zallinger, famous painter of the Peabody museum dinosaur mural; and Thomas Wells, well-known painter of the tall ships he’d served on. Other Yale graduates Charlotte would know well included the superb still life painter, Ken Davies, later dean of Paier School of Art, and Leonard Everett Fisher, prolific and famed author and illustrator of children’s books.
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.
Deane Keller was one of the “Monument Men,” who helped to rescue masterpieces of art from the rapacity and destruction of the Nazis. He was also a well-known portraitist, Yale professor, and Paier teacher. Charlotte had him as a teacher at Yale, and I had him at Paier School of Art.
The story of his World War II actions has been documented in The Rape of Europa, by Lynn Nicholas, on PBS, and more recently in The Monuments Men by Robert M. Edsel. Now, the Edsel book is going to be a movie, directed by George Clooney, and starring such actors as Bill Murray and Matt Damon: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Monuments_Men.
Fans of Charlotte will be interested to know Mr. Keller was a fan and friend of hers, as seen in the letter above. My transcript follows:
I don’t know when I have had a better time at an exhibition of fine painting than I did this past Sunday–
One thing among others that pleased me so, and which I admire, is your outlook on life–It is gentle, pleasant, perfect taste. You don’t shock people, you make them happy and you recall for them the essential virtues in this life. We need this so badly. All the paintings are consistent from this point of view.
The paintings. What can one say? Carefully composed, beautifully drawn, masterly in the technical problems–there is what we call Tender Loving Care throughout the whole exhibition–They certainly are among the best of their kind in American painting.
I can’t help but state that I , among the rest, had a modest hand in your student development–Such painting as you do in maturity makes all the student study & teaching so very worthwhile. All of us who worked with you at Yale are indeed proud and happy in your great success.
I wanted to set these thoughts down on paper, as vis-a-vis talk disappears into thin air–There is much I could say about the enormous amount of work, the continued high standards. And, to repeat, and so important, the qualities of thought and imagination that separate the painters from the artists, a sharp distinction that I’ve had for half a century. You belong to the artists.
Best all around–Deane–
This March 5, 1950 newspaper has a nice article about Charlotte…and here is the Collier’s Magazine cover that they are talking about: