Frank Earle Schoonover as one of the notable students of the great American illustrator Howard Pyle.
Though not the equal of Pyle’s most accomplished student, N. C. Wyeth (who was?), Schoonover was nonetheless one of the most prominent and successful American illustrators from the “Golden Age” of American illustration; and left a legacy of more than 2,500 illustrations in over 100 books and many of the most popular magazines of his time.
Schoonover, who was born in New Jersey, grew up admiring Pyle’s dramatic illustrations, often copying them as he learned to draw and paint. When he found that Pyle was teaching classes at Drexel Institute in Philadelphia (primarily because the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, in a demonstration of the stupidity of artistic snobbery, had declined Pyle’s offer to teach there, not wanting to lower their standards to include a “mere illustrator”), Schoonover jumped at the chance so study with the man who had revolutionized American illustration and he abandoned his plans to become a minister.
Schoonover was largely self taught when he started among Pyle’s early students at Drexel, where his classmates included such eventual luminaries as Maxfield Parrish, Jessie Wilcox Smith, and Violet Oakley; but Pyle, with his keen eye for talent, picked Schoonover out as one of the ten extraordinary students awarded scholarships to Pyle’s Summer classes in nearby Chadds Ford in 1898 and 1899, and Pyle’s confidence in him resulted in assignments for the young artist soon after.
Pyle stressed “You must experience, you must put yourself into the painting, or it’s not believable.”; and, when one of Schoonover’s early commissions involved a setting in Canada’s Hudson Bay wilderness, Pyle encouraged Schoonover’s desire to travel there as part of his research.
Schoonover spent several months hiking and dogsledding through the wilderness, gathering experiences that would inform a lifetime of illustration, and sparking a lifelong love for the outdoors. He also came away with an abiding respect for Native American culture, and scenes of bark canoes were among his favorite themes.
Schoonover’s travels extended to other parts of Canada, the American West, the Louisiana Bayou and Europe.
He kept a studio at Pyle’s school in Wilmington, Delaware (my home town, perhaps one of the reasons I love the artists of the Brandywine School so much), where Pyle had set up classes near his own studio after leaving Drexel. Schoonover’s studio mates included Henry Jarvis Peck, Harvey Dunn and N. C. Wyeth.
Schoonover himself became a noted teacher, contributed by correspondence to a school of illustration in Indianapolis, Indiana, and eventually started his own school in his studios on North Rodney Street in Wilmington. Schoonover Studios are still working artist studios, as well as including an art gallery and a tribute to Schoonover, maintained by Schoonover’s grandson, John Schoonover.
Frank Schoonover was noted for his scenes of wilderness adventure, for which he certainly had accomplished Pyle’s maxim of putting his own experience into the work, as well as a wide range of other topics. His illlustrations for classics included Kidnapped, Robinson Crusoe, Swiss Family Robinson, and Ivanhoe and his western illustrations enlivened the covers of Zane Grey’s extremely popular novels and serials.
His work always showed the admiration he had for his mentor, though he developed his own style and notable characteristic techniques. Illustrators will often speak of “Schoonover red” a particular application of Cadmium red with careful varnishing to bring out the drama of the color.
In the later years of his long career (he lived to be 95), Schoonover devoted himself to landscape painting, focusing on the Brandywine and Delaware River areas. Schoonover was also a watercolorist, muralist, cartographer, photographer and designer of stained glass windows. Sixteen of his windows were created for Immanuel Church in Wilmington.
There is a new two volume, 840 page Frank E. Schoonover Catalogue Raissonné due to be released in March. The book set is $195 and can be ordered from the Delaware Art Museum or Oak Knoll Press. The Oak Knoll Press site includes a Flash slideshow of images from the set, as well as PDFs of the Table of Contents and an except.
There is a Raissonné database at www.schoonoverfund.org, which can be accessed by simply applying for a password.
If you want something more immediate and less costly than the full Catalogue Raissonné, try Visions of Adventure: N. C. Wyeth and the Brandywine Artists by Walt Reed, which features several pieces by Schoonover with biographical information, as well as art by and information on many of the most important Brandywine School illustrators. You may also have some luck finding other books about Schoonover from used book sources.
There is currently a show of Schoonover’s work at the Delaware Art Museum, Frank E. Schoonover: An Artist for All Seasons.
Though the show is intimate rather than grand, the 25 or so works, many of which are from private collections and not usually on display, give a nice cross section of his career, including some impressionistic landscapes from the Delaware River Valley and Bushkill, PA, where he spent time as a child and as an adult.
The exhibition runs until February 1, 2009.
It’s particularly nice to see his work in the context of the museum’s collection of Howard Pyle, which he was instrumental in in creating through his chairmanship of the fundraising committee. The collection, along with the Bancroft collection of Pre- Raphaelite Art (see my post on the Delaware Art Museum’s Pre-Raphaelite collection), formed the core of the Wilmington Society of the Fine Arts, which grew into the current Delaware Art Museum.