Illustrator Spotlight: Harold von Schmidt

This week we’re featuring the work of Harold von Schmidt, one of the most successful and important illustrators of the mid-twentieth century. The details of the illustrator’s early life read almost like fiction: Born in California in 1893, von Schmidt was orphaned at age 5. After a year in an orphanage, he was taken in by his grandfather, a forty-niner whose stories helped instill in the artist a lifelong fascination with the Old West. Rugged and athletic, von Schmidt worked as a cowhand and lumberjack as a young man, and participated in the 1920 and 1924 U.S. Olympics as member of the rugby team. He studied at the California College of the Arts and the San Francisco Art Institute, but it wasn’t until he moved to New York in 1924 to attend Grand Central Art School and studied with painter Harvey Dunn that his career began to take off.

His illustrations appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s, Cosmopolitan, and Sunset, most often accompanying Westerns or adventure stories. Although encouraged to do covers, Von Schmidt greatly preferred, and felt his work better suited to, interior illustrations that allowed him to create the kind of realistic action scenes for which he was known. In 1927 he relocated to Westport, Connecticut, where he lived the remainder of his life. In 1948 he became, along with Al Parker, one of the founding members Famous Artists School. (Von Schmidt’s 1949 Lesson Plan Book for the school is part of the Al Parker Collection.) During his lifetime, he received numerous awards, including induction into the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame in 1959 and the first gold medal from the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in 1968. Tear sheets of von Schmidt’s work can be found in the Charles Craver Collection.

If you’re interested in seeing more of von Schmidt’s work, check out Harold von Schmidt Draws and Paints the Old West or Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop (von Schmidt spent two years working on the illustrations for the novel).

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The Saturday Evening Post, April 30, 1938

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The Saturday Evening Post, January 14, 1939

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The Saturday Evening Post, June 18, 1938

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Collier‘s, November 5, 1932

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Illustration for mystery novel Dark Revenge which first appeared as an abridged version in The American, in June 1939, and then in book form as Mountain Cat the following month.

About the author

Andrea Degener is the Visual Materials Processing Archivist in the department of Special Collections at Washington University Libraries.