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Norman Rockwell Museum hosts the works of Frank E. Schoonover

  • Frank E. Schoonover was adept in several mediums and even in his more somber paintings, he would add a dash of color referred to as “Schoonover red,” as seen in the 1916 illustration for “The Range Boss” by Charles Alden Seltzer. Contributed image/Private Collection

  • Frank E. Schoonover was obsessive in documenting every painting and illustration he’d made, including dates, models used, hours spent in painting and, to date, an unbreakable code indicating his fee. This illustration for a 1907 Henry van Dyke story in Scribner’s Magazine is called “She Took the Oars and Rowed Me Slowly Around the Shore.” Contributed image/Brandywine Museum Collection

  • The Wild West had vanished by the time Frank E. Schoonover had become an artist. Nevertheless, he traveled widely through the southwest and his research of clothing, gear and firearms from the era was impeccable. This illustration, “Holding the Claim” was done for a 1907 Clarence Mulford story in Outing Magazine. Contributed image/Private Collection

  • Greg Manchess’ book “Above the Timberline” takes place in the year 3,518, when the earth is covered in snow, as shown in this cover illustration, and formerly man-eating polar bears have become pack animals. Contributed image/Greg Manchess

  • Greg Manchess has won several awards and his illustrations range from being included in numerous children’s books and magazine articles, to becoming stamps for the U.S. Postal Service. Contributed photo



For the Recorder
Wednesday, December 05, 2018

Frank E. Schoonover (1877-1972) had such a mastery of painting that he could even make walls seem luminescent and visually arresting.

He studied art under the tutelage of “the father of American illustration” Howard Pyle, and among his fellow students were Maxfield Parrish and N.C. Wyeth. Though not as well known, he was as prolific and his artistic talents were boundless.

Through May 27 at Stockbridge’s Norman Rockwell Museum, you can view more than 80 original works by the New Jersey native as well as recent sci-fi paintings by New Yorker Greg Manchess.

Pyle implored his students to bring reality to their canvases, to paint outdoors, and to live and breathe their subject matter. Describing the dynamic essential for a battle scene, the artist said “You gotta smell the smoke. If the smoke isn’t in your studio, you have to find the smoke.”

Pyle also taught “mental projection,” challenging his students to find the “soul” of their paintings and to bring historical fidelity to their work.

A youthful Schoonover was energized by this teaching, at one point undertaking a 1,200-mile winter trek by dogsleds and snowshoes into the wilds of Canada. He was dependent upon two Ojibwa guides in a brutal region where temperatures crashed to 50 degrees below zero.

The artist also traveled to Alaska, living with Eskimos and camping with the Blackfeet Native Americans in the northern plains. He became familiar with the southwestern desert, Cuba and Jamaica, bringing camera, sketchpad and paints to document these environments, adding a rich realism to future projects.

Bringing back family memories

In early November, Schoonover’s three grandchildren attended the unveiling of the exhibition. Louise, an educator, collaborated with her brother, John, over a 10-year period to assemble a catalogue raisonné of their grandfather’s works. John operates the Schoonover Studios in Wilmington, Del., the original site of ateliers occupied by Pyle, Wyeth and his grandfather. Built in 1906, the studio features the accouterments of the Golden Age artist’s travels, and serves as a retail site for illustration originals.

John’s brother, Cortlandt, chose a career in business. He recalled that, as a child, his grandfather’s studio seemed to be “a magical place,” rich in the aromas of oils and turpentine.

“He was serious, but he had a playful side,” he said. “His life and his work were totally integrated. He was quite a raconteur and he loved children.”

Schoonover, who’d originally intended to become a minister, was fluent in Greek and Latin. An outdoorsman, as a youth he became skilled in the intricacies of fishing and canoeing.

John said that his grandfather should be remembered as “a great American illustrator and an incredible adventurer.”

Louise explained that the Native American guides kept the her grandfather alive during the winter of 1903 by hunting and trapping game. They were impressed with his endurance and anointed him as a blood brother, naming him “Miss-a-nog-a neegan” or “picture taking man.”

There’s a photograph of the young artist in the snow, alongside a heated vertical tent, the size of a phone booth. Here he would sketch the winterscape, as oils were useless. The images would later serve to illustrate a Jack London story “White Fang” for the magazine Outsider.

Schoonover illustrated more than 120 classic young adult novels, ranging from “Treasure Island” and “Kidnapped,” to “Heidi” and “Robinson Crusoe.” Many remain in print. He produced more than 2,000 illustrations, the majority for magazines, and painted images for the western writer Zane Grey and Edgar Rice Burroughs, the creator of the famed vine-swinger Tarzan. The artist was also well steeped in calligraphy, designing introductions and page headings for a multitude of hard cover books.

Stephanie Plunkett, the Norman Rockwell Museum’s chief curator, organized the exhibit, drawn from 16 different private and public collections.

“My surprise was the level at which Schoonover was willing to go as an artist,” she said on opening night.

When a magazine journalist was researching the harsh labor conditions of coal miners in Pennsylvania, the artist, as a collaborator, was comprehensive.

“He lived among the miners,” she said. “He drew and photographed for weeks, and created the very first illustrations” of the miners’ plight.

This social consciousness also led him to illustrate articles about the abuses of child labor in the domestic silk mills, as well as the exploitation of copper miners in Montana.

Beyond Schoonover’s talents in oil paints, charcoal and calligraphy, he also designed more than a dozen stained glass windows for a Wilmington church.

“Schoonover is able to navigate any subject that is thrown at him,” Plunkett said. “He was extremely versatile. ... He had no struggle, he loved being an illustrator.”

There’s a story that, one day at his Bushkill, Pa. home, the artist asked his gardener if he noticed the colorful “aura” among the gladiolas. The gardener did not. Perhaps Schoonover saw this quality of light in all creation.

The Manchess experience

Through Feb. 24, a full gallery contains virtually photographic paintings by the New York-based artist Greg Manchess. The images are a fractional representation of 124 oils he created for his futuristic novel “Above the Timberline.”

The story takes place 1,500 years beyond our existence on a frigid earth where ice leopards, furry white rhinos and fairly obedient polar bears are common. What drives the plot is a man’s search for his father. There’s a firefight between zeppelins as well as fantastic machines, snow monks, martial artists and dramatic arctic imagery. From the original concept to print took seven years.

“It was a real hard slog to get the book produced,” Manchess said on opening night. The opus sprung from a painting he’d simply designed as a filmed demonstration of technique.

Students asked him what the arctic image referred to.

“Instead of telling them ‘I don’t know,’ I made up a story,” the illustrator said. As the story unspooled, it was suggested that it should take book form.

Serendipitously, Joe Monti, who was running Saga, a division of Simon & Schuster, was “fired up” as to the story’s potential.

For 11 months Manchess lived off his savings while painting the epic.

As to why he chooses to paint in oils, he was succinct.

“They’re just luscious and you can layer them so easily,” he said. “You can also correct mistakes easily.”

Manchess noted that all the classical artists had used oils and that they “telegraph the attitude of the artist.”

He said that when viewing an oil painting, “You can feel the calligraphy of the artist. You can feel what they’re thinking when they put those strokes down.”

The career of the Kentucky native has spanned almost 40 years. He has painted 60 book covers for the western novelist Louis L’Amour and has designed stamps for the U.S. Postal Service. For more than 20 years, he’s been a contributor to Time, Smithsonian and National Geographic magazines. He’s known locally for his annual, one-week “boot camp” master class in painting held at Hampshire College.

Manchess said when he began in illustration, he was told “that it was going to die and that it had maybe 30 years left ... maybe 20. Well, I blew by that a long time ago.”

He said there will always be “a new generation that wants to express their thoughts and their vision. ... That’s not going to go away.”

“Frank E. Schoonover: American Visions” continues through May 27. (Companion catalogue; NRM; 120 pgs. $28) “Above the Timberline” continues through Feb. 24. The Norman Rockwell Museum is open weekdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and weekends from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $20 for adults, $10 for college students with valid ID, and free for children ages 18 and under.

Don Stewart is a freelance writer who lives in Plainfield. He has written for the Greenfield Recorder since 1994.