By KATHRYN CANAVAN, Special to The News Journal
Louise Schoonover Smith usually chooses a pantsuit when she goes on her searches. She must look professional, but she never knows whether she’ll be slogging through an abandoned factory or rapping on every door on a well-manicured street.
Sometimes, she says, she’d love to just peek through the windows and see what’s inside, but she never does. Whether she’s in stately Morristown, N.J., or woodsy Bushkill Falls, Pa., she simply stands on the front porches, smiles and entreats total strangers to show her what’s hanging in their living rooms, tucked away in their attics, or, in one case, flaking and all but forgotten next to a furnace.
At 63, when most of her Tower Hill classmates are settling into comfortable retirement, Louise “Fibbie” Smith is compiling a catalog of the 2,507 works of her famous grandfather Frank E. Schoonover – 2,100 down, 407 to go. It helps that she inherited her grandfather’s charm.
Frank E. Schoonover, a student of Howard Pyle and a contemporary of N.C. Wyeth, was a leading American illustrator. His images of valiant knights and frontiersmen helped form the template for the imagination of American children in the early 20th century.
Schoonover’s cutthroat pirates and dashing adventurers landed him commissions to paint covers for “Treasure Island,” “Robin Hood” and “The Last of the Mohicans.” In 1921 alone, he illustrated 19 magazines and 15 books.
Smith and her brother John Schoonover know they won’t find all of their grandfather’s works. Some were burned in a fire, a few were lost in a flood, and the artist and his wife, Martha, had an odd habit of cutting the faces out of the larger pieces and placing them in modest black frames to give away as wedding gifts.
Schoonover used paintings to pay his insurance bills. He donated them to the Delaware Art Museum’s annual Clothesline Fairs. He bartered one to get a new roof on his home at 2003 N. Bancroft Parkway in Wilmington. And, after his death in 1972, his family learned he had used one as collateral on a loan at Wilmington Trust.
One of the artist’s former students told the grandchildren she has an original Schoonover – buried underneath one of her own works. The artist gave the woman one of his own canvases to practice on.
Schoonover’s “A Northern Mist” sold at auction for $281,000 four years ago but, for most of the artist’s 70-year career, the art market for original illustrations was lackluster.
Walter Reed, who sparked the market turnaround with his “The Illustrator in America” in 1964, said, “Most people didn’t know that there was such a thing as an original painting for the book covers that they were looking at. The usual fate when the publishers were through with things is that they eventually threw them out.”
A detailed businessman
Schoonover, who somehow convinced publishers to ship his art back to his Wilmington studio, was selling his own work decades before the pioneering Illustration House gallery opened in Manhattan in 1974. Locals would visit Schoonover at his studio, tell him what kind of scene they wanted and wait while the artist rummaged through his returned canvases to find something suitable. When one buyer fancied a large landscape but disliked the hunter in the foreground, Schoonover picked up his palette and turned the hunter into a boulder.
Schoonover’s sunlit studio, architecturally restored in 1986, is located at 1616 N. Rodney St. in Wilmington and looks much as it did when it was the end unit on an artist’s row occupied by Schoonover, N.C. Wyeth, Harvey Dunn and Henry Peck. Schoonover’s sharkskin camping suit is still folded in a chest. The walls are dotted with his original props. The distinctive knee-high boots from “Hopalong Takes Command” rest on a shelf almost 100 years after they took center stage in the painting.
Schoonover created a tool there that makes his grandchildren’s detective work much easier – palm-size “day books” that hold a record of the artist’s commissions for seven decades.
The books, which start with his first commission in 1899, aren’t perfect records. Some entries are sketchy; some were destroyed after a near-miss with Hurricane Agnes in 1972. And Schoonover wrote the prices in a code no one’s ever cracked.
But, with the day books as road maps and John Schoonover’s deep contacts in the art world, the Schoonover Fund has repotted a small piece found deteriorating in a barn hayloft and restored an ailing canvas stashed at an Ohio bike shop.
The grandchildren have identified more than 300 owners of Schoonover works, including one who has 34 paintings at his home on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. They have documented or photographed 900 of the artist’s 2,507 works. Keen on finding more, Smith delivers PowerPoint presentations at retirement homes, where, she says, she usually gets a lead.
Finding work is not always easy, though. Smith remembers standing on a New Jersey porch while the homeowner asked a litany of questions about exactly what would happen if she did have a Schoonover original. After Smith answered every question, the woman said, “Oh, well, I don’t have one,” and closed the door.
The grandchildren believe an uncharacteristically large 9-foot painting of a pirate and a smaller work are still at Xanadu, the Spanish-style mansion Irenee du Pont built in Cuba. The paintings’ whereabouts went sketchy after Fidel Castro began confiscating American-owned properties in 1959.
Although a 1976 book reported the two paintings were at the Kremlin, Smith said the late Richard C. “Kippy” du Pont Jr. saw the paintings when he visited Cuba before his 1986 death and the late Sewell Biggs, an art collector, took snapshots of them at Xanadu, now a resort.
Filling the catalog
Finding the lesser Schoonover works, even those that remain in Wilmington, is a real long shot because they do not always carry the full Frank E. Schoonover signature. Some bore his three initials; others just a solitary “S.” These works, often vignettes covering just part of the canvas, were nicknamed “potboilers” because artists polished them off in a day just to keep the pot on the family stove boiling.
“They are the kind of thing that, if somebody didn’t know the value of it, it went to a flea market, or, if the paint flaked, maybe it went into the garbage, and that’s the saddest thing,” John Schoonover said.
Murray Tinkleman, who lectures nationally on American illustrators, calls Schoonover “an incredibly desirable artist.”
Walter Reed says Schoonover illustrations that would have fetched only a few hundred dollars at the end of the artist’s life are hard to find now for less than $20,000 to $30,000.
Many of the large local collections were acquired during Schoonover’s lifetime, when spectacular portraits could be had for less than $4,000 – Wilmington Savings Fund Society’s Lincoln portraits, Tower Hill School’s Joan of Arc paintings, the nine World War I paintings owned by the Delaware National Guard, and the “Ivanhoe” paintings that had a cameo role in “Dead Poets Society.”
The pressure is on to find the 407 missing pieces, as Schoonover’s catalogue raisonne, the large, illustrated book of all of an artist’s works used to authenticate paintings, is due to be published in 2007.
Lee Ann Dean, research director for the Schoonover Fund, says each of the grandchildren has a talent that moves the treasure hunt forward.
“John has an extraordinary amount of knowledge about where paintings are. We joke that we wish we could download his brain,” Dean said. “Fibbie has the ability to make people really like her, and that is how we’ve gotten the cooperation of so many owners and so many other people. I’ve met few people in my life who have the gift of making people feel very comfortable and very loved, and she’s one of them.”
Although the catalog is still three years off, Schoonover’s sinister pirates are already turning up on covers of other people’s books, thanks to iffy copyright interpretations.
“I walked into Borders … and there was a brand new pirate novel with a Schoonover cover,” John Schoonover said. “That’s interesting because he hasn’t been painting book covers for 70 years.”