STOCKBRIDGE -- Artist Frank E. Schoonover’s life was just as adventurous as the stories and scenes he illustrated, many of which will be on exhibit in “Frank E. Schoonover: American Visions” at the Norman Rockwell Museum this weekend.
The Golden Age artist grew up during the days of Westward expansion and captured everything from the frigid wilderness of Hudson Bay, Canada, to the ghastly child labor in the textile industry in Pennsylvania to epic literary science fiction battles.
At the end of his life, in 1972, Schoonover had completed over two thousand works. In his riveting and intense style, Schoonover made classic stories like Jack London’s “White Fang,” Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels” and Zane Grey’s “Open Range” come alive. He also captured humanity with an honesty that makes one feel like they know the subjects in his works.
Schoonover wasn’t solely an artist, he was also a traveler and, as his grandchild, John Schoonover puts it, “a bit of a raconteur.”
Over his lifetime, he made it a point to go to wherever he was commissioned to paint. If a book he’d been hired to illustrate was based in Montana he went there, true to the style of his teacher and mentor Howard Pyle. Pyle, one of the most famous illustrators at the end of the 19th century, taught many artists like Schoonover, N.C. Wyeth, Maxfield Parrish and others in Wilmington, Delaware. Pyle trained his students to make each piece as vivid and genuine as possible. It's in part why Schoonover traveled so far for his illustration research.
From 1903-04, Schoonover journeyed to the Canadian wilderness and along the Hudson Bay and James Bay, which he wrote about in his day books. On one journey, he traveled for over 1,000 miles with Inuit fur traders, via snowshoe and dogsled. During these trips, the temperatures dropped to 50 degrees below zero. His paints froze so he resorted to sketching and taking photographs most of the trip. “It was still very cold . . . for art’s sake and the maintenance of the mechanics of life, I carried to my sketching tent that afternoon with a pail of tea and a cup,” Schoonover wrote.
In one 1906 illustration for “White Fang, Part III - The Gods of the Wild,” by Jack London, Schoonover plays with proportion, as a towering figure (Gray Beaver) stands over a crouched White Fang. It’s a dramatic piece and it brings the cold fury of the scene to life.
Throughout the early 1900s, he also journeyed to Europe and Jamaica to various places in the United States for his work. In 1906, Schoonover moved into the Rodney Street studios in Wilmington, along with other Pyle students and fellow artists like Wyeth, Henry Jarvis Peck, Clifford Warren, and others. Schoonover worked there for over 60 years.
It’s where his grandchild, John Schoonover, went to visit him frequently. Schoonover was working at the studio into his 80s, but it was the stories and his joie de vivre that stuck with John.
After Schoonover passed away, John and several other local advocates worked to save the studios from possible demolition by an interested developer. In 1979, the studios were listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Schoonover’s original studio is still in the family, as are some of his works, though many are in collections and museums across the world. John keeps the studios open to visitors and collectors and runs a gallery of American illustration, focusing on artists of Howard Pyle’s school and Schoonover’s era.
“I don’t think he realized how big a role he played in that genre,” John said.
Louise Smith, a grandchild of Schoonover, remembers that her grandfather never boasted about his success.
“His life was his work,” Smith said. Not to say that he wasn’t involved in his family or his community; he was involved in local theater and in other community groups. Rather, he treated every commission, every illustration with the utmost seriousness and care. He frequently painted in a three-piece suit, detachable collar, and bow-tie. Illustration was more than a job to Schoonover, according to Smith.
But the artist also had a sense of humor, as shown by “First Typewriter,” an illustration he created for a calendar. In it, two men working away with a quill and ink, are turned around, distracted by a fellow writer who is trying out the first typewriter model. A proud, salesman-like figure stands just behind him, watching with an obvious bit of smugness.
It’s one of Smith’s favorite works in the exhibition. She wasn’t surprised when a viewer and typewriter expert reached out to her to tell her that the painting was remarkable because of how accurately it depicted the very first typewriter.
“Grandfather did a lot of research for every single painting,” Smith said.
In one instance, when Schoonover was working on illustrating the science fantasy classic “A Princess of Mars,” by Edgar Rice Burroughs, he was so determined to get each and every detail correct that he peppered Burroughs with questions.
“He wrote so many letters to ask about the author’s ideas about the clothing, the weapons, so he could illustrate that book that finally the author wrote back and said ‘Frank, just paint the pictures,’” Smith said.
Schoonover wanted to be able to live and feel the scenes so he could pass that on to viewers.
“He wasn’t afraid to attack anything artistically,” Smith said.
That bravery is on display in his piece “Leads an isolated life of conscious rectitude for about $5.00 a week (Girls in Knitting Mill),” in which children are hard at work in a knitting mill of some sort, with a tired woman looking down at a scrap of fabric. One girl carries a large roll of yarn and looks forlornly at the viewer. Schoonover painted it while he was working as an investigative journalist on an assignment for “McClure’s Magazine” in 1903.
The adventurous artist kept many daybooks throughout his life, where he documented his works and travels. A decade or two ago, Smith and John, along with a few experts, came together to form the Frank E. Schoonover Fund and create a catalogue raisonné of the artists’ life and work.
It’s currently hosted on the Norman Rockwell Museum’s website.
But growing up, the only reason they knew their grandfather was an important figure was from the way others talked about him.
“When I was in school, people would speak of him with a bit of reverence,” Smith said. Needless to say, his reputation and his works spoke for itself.
“Frank E. Schoonover: American Visions,” includes over 80 original works by Schoonover. It opens on November 10 and will run until May 27, 2019. For more information, visit nrm.org.