By Gustav Boehm
The story of Charles Schreyvogel's career from an apprentice in a lithographing establishment to the winner of the most sought for prize in the American art world is an interesting one. The son of parents in barely moderate circumstances, he has won his way, step by step, by pure force of talent and sincere work. He is the most talked of painter in the United States today, since he won the Thomas B. Clarke prize in January at the American Academy of Design, although a year ago he was well known only among a little coterie of artists.
Schreyvogel studied the technique of his art in this country and in Germany; his subjects are all American and all of the present day life on the frontier. He has observed this life in Colorado and Dakota, and has had many interesting experiences with his Indian models and with the troopers whom he delights to reproduce on canvas.
When the judges of the Clarke competition at the National Academy of Design, New York, awarded the great art prize of the year to Charles Schreyvogel's "My Bunkie," they did something interesting from two diverse points of view. In its broader significance, the choice of this picture, full of action, realistic, and yet thrilling in its realism as mere idealism never is, was a tribute to the spirit which is daily growing more dominant in American art in all its branches.
This is the spirit of the West—not merely the West of Bret Harte, of the miners and the gamblers, and the subtly simple daughters of rudely simple settlements, but the West of "all outdoors," of broad spaces, of air more exhilarating than wine, of colors burning through the mist less atmosphere more brilliantly than jewels; the West of Ernest Seton Thompson's "Wild Animals," and the equally vivid, wonderful West of Charles Schreyvogel's pictures.
|The Despatch Bearer|
It is the recognition of this new spirit which makes the award a deeply significant one. It is Mr. Schreyvogel's career up to the time when the committee awarded the prize that makes it a humanly interesting one. For Mr. Schreyvogel is not one of those geniuses whose way is made straight before them. He did not go from the common school to the art school, from the art school to the famous foreign studio. His story reads as romantically in these days of easy accomplishments, when even mediocre talents are apt to be coddled, as the stories of Dr. Johnson writing "Rasselas" to pay bills, or of his friend Goldsmith selling "The Vicar of Wakefield" for a song—or a month's lodging.
In the first place, this painter of the West, who knows the cavalryman sweeping the plains, and the thundering of the stage coach down mountain defiles, and the grim look of an Indian's head dress rising outside a stockade—this painter was born on the east side of New York, and never saw the West until he was thirty two years old, seven years ago.
Whether it was from the literature dear to the boyish heart—the clime novel of life upon the plains—or from some more dignified inspiration, Mr. Schreyvogel does not tell; but it is certain that even in his early youth he had an enthusiasm for Indians, cowboys, and soldiers, which New York was powerless to subdue. He had also a passion for drawing and painting, and the noble red man was the most frequent product of his pencil.
His parents decided in a practical fashion, like parents in a story, that art was not a profession for their son. "They thought," says Mr. Schreyvogel, with a reminiscent smile, "that all artists were bound to starve. Well, there is a good deal of truth in what they thought."
But they compromised between their practicality and his dominating artistic impulses. They apprenticed him to a die sinker, and later he went to work in a lithographer's shop. But he kept on painting his Indians and his vaqueros and his troopers. He was encouraged to persist with his ambitions by the advice of his friend August Schwab, to whom now in the time of his success he pays great tribute.
"Mr. Schwab," he says, "encouraged me from the first. He is himself a fine painter as well as a lithographer. He kept me constantly at it, advising, suggesting, and inspiriting.
Another friend of mine, Dr. Fisher, kept constantly buoying me up, and finally helped to send me to Germany, where I studied three years at Munich under Carl Marr and Franz Hirschbach. I came back in 1890, and in 1893 I went West for the first time."
Of course, during the years when he was dividing his time between his work at lithography and his more serious ambitions, Mr. Schreyvogel was not without Western models from whom to study his favorite types. The Wild West has been long within reach of the most effete and home staying Easterner, thanks to "Buffalo Bill." The soldier of the Indian frontier is transferred to less exciting stations, but brings his peculiarities with him. There are riding tournaments and military pageants often enough for even a New Yorker to gain an accurate knowledge of the horsemanship of the plains. And the smallest of these means for making himself familiar with the life for which he had always had a deep sympathy, Mr. Schreyvogel never neglected.
|Defending the Stockade|
In 1893 he went West, and it is evident that he returned a confirmed enthusiast—almost a fanatic—about the region. Speaking of it, his eyes deepen with delight. The intensity of color, the sweep of the prairies, the towering of the mountains, the amplitude, the freedom, are themes upon which he is unaffectedly eloquent.
He visited one of the Ute reservations and made studies, sketches, photographs, and even models. He is an infinitely painstaking artist, and in his studio there are bronze heads of savage chiefs and bronze horses in various states of quiescence and activity, which have been cast from models made by the artist in order that, in painting in his room, he might be able to see constantly the exact effect of light and shade on curves and hollows.
The Utes did not take kindly at first to the thought of being sketched. They have a pleasing superstition that whoever obtains a picture of them obtains by that simple process their souls. Not unnaturally, they are averse, in the circumstances, to having their pictures taken. The artist, however, quieted their alarms by returning to them prints of the sketches and photographs. This they regarded as equivalent to the return of their souls; and, finding that the artist was disposed to treat them thus handsomely in the matter, they made no more objections to being "taken."
Among the Sioux—who, thanks to the Wild West shows, largely recruited from them, have had experience of civilization—there is no such superstition to combat. All that the noble chief of that tribe demands is his dollar for a sitting.
One of them, a brave rejoicing in the name Pennyrich, from whom Mr. Schreyvogel was making a profile study, arose to note the progress made. He snorted with disgust as he beheld it.
"Ugh!" he said, and, having a working knowledge of English, he continued: " That no good; that got one eye ; me got two eye. Give me dollar and me go."
And, receiving his dollar, he went, refusing to be any longer a party to a transaction which deprived him of half his power of sight.
When the Indian will consent to pose, Mr. Schreyvogel says, he is an ideal model, assuming a position and keeping it, without so much as the flicker of an eyelash, for a period that would spell torture to the representative of a less stoical race.
But it is, after everything is said, the story of the winning of the Clarke prize which is the most interesting thing about Mr. Schreyvogel. The tale, as he tells it, is charming, for it shows the unaffected modesty and the utter lack of "pose" of the artist.
"I finished 'My Bunkie' some time ago," he tells you, smiling with pleasure at the thought of the work. "I got hard up—you know, artists sometimes do" (this with an air of simple explanation)—"so I tried to sell it to a firm of lithographers to use at the head of a calendar. They liked it, but it did not reduce to the right size. So they sent it back to me.
In Mr. Schreyvogel's studios there are mementos of his Western trips. There are firearms and there is beadwork. A waistcoat which belonged to no less a personage than Sitting Bull hangs between the rooms. It is closely woven of white beads, with the great chieftain's own mark, the eagle, wrought into it in glittering blue. There are head decorations and blankets and water jugs and what not. Most of Mr. Schreyvogel's work, however, is done, not in the studio proper, but on the roof, which is very large, being that of a whole block of evenly built houses in Hoboken. He likes the sensation of working in the open air, and, in addition, he gets there more of the effect he aims to produce
"Then, still being hard up, I sent it to a certain well known restaurant. I wanted them to hang it on their walls as they had some of my other pictures. But I heard after a while that they hadn't hung it at all, and that it was lying in a dark corner. I was put out by that, and I took it away.
"Then a man in Rochester who has bought some of my work saw it, and said he would buy it in November. November came, but he didn't. And so I kept on having providential escapes until, at the beginning of the year, I was persuaded to enter it for the Clarke prize. I think I was probably as much astonished as any one at receiving the prize."
The picture has been sent, at the request of the prize committee, to the Paris Exposition. Like many of Mr. Schreyvogel's works, it would seem to the uninitiated to be similar to Frederic Remington's. There is a similarity of subject. Both artists evidently love the West. But in their style of treatment there is a world of difference. The younger painter, who was practically introduced to the general public by the prize picture, speaks with enthusiasm of Remington.
"I think he is the greatest of us all," he says modestly.
His love for the West is evidently intense, as is his belief in the pictorial possibilities of the West. But his enthusiasm, while keen, is as simply and modestly expressed as his story of the winning of the prize. He is evidently a man too sincerely and thoroughly in love with his work to have the least affectation about anything connected with it.
Mr. Schreyvogel is preparing to spend the summer in the Dakotas making more studies of his favorite frontier life. He may be accompanied by Mrs. Schreyvogel, who shares his unaffected delight in his present good fortune as she has shared the arduous labors and the philosophic patience of the ups and downs that came before it.
|The Skirmish Line|
From Junior Munsey, December 1900.