William Herman Schmedtgen- his art and work
“She came in from the east, wing-weary and badly crippled- a lone mallard hen- and widowed. So weary was she that barely could her wings carry her over the surface of Lake Michigan. And as she neared Chicago shore, every wing stroke seemingly her last. This egg-ladened Mallard spied the quiet waters of the old lagoon in Lincoln Park. No fear, no mallard weariness, no natural cautiousness possessed her now. She set her wings and flopped into the lagoon.

About the same time William Schmedtgen, cartoonist and newspaper artist, sat before his easel in the offices of the Chicago Daily News, a dejected figure in his white tunic and slippers, despair stamped upon his drawn features- discouraged. For, the man- born of temperament- had sensed a strange unformulated call at the door of his heart- a haunting voice telling him that another field of art lay open before him- a field that promised fame and fortune. Whether this strange sense pointed towards the portrait, or whether it favored the landscape, the artist did not know, so utterly obscure seemed this apprehension, despairingly haunting him with self dissatisfaction.

Stricken wit this foreboding, and unable to paint, he donned his street attire, and wended his way north along the Lake Shore. It was a balmy late May afternoon; a fresh wind off the lake fanned his face. With uncertain step he walked on, until he found himself at the old lagoon in Lincoln Park. Here was a beautiful spot he chose to while away a moment- beautiful in dense foliage and in the calm of the quiet waters. Along the shore a snipe scampered. At the water’s edge a frog crouched silently. The artist observed these little acts of natural life: They fascinated him.

But suddenly, arousing a fluttering in his heart, he saw a wild duck waddle from the near-by flower bed; jump on the wing; rise above the tree and out of sight. Standing there, non-plussed at the sight of a wild mallard in Lincoln Park, Schmedtgen caught a vision. So close had been the duck that the very features of the bird were stamped in his mind. And now, stirred with artistic gift, he drew a pencil and envelope from his pocket and, with marvelous accuracy, sketched a rising mallard. Instantly the wrinkled lines disappeared from his face; new force possessed him; new talents seemed to shower him with glorious promises- He had found his calling in the realm of Art!” - Fish Berg

This introduction for exhibition of paintings by William Schmedtgen at Young Art Galleries, Chicago, Illinois held in 1921 depicts a man many today could identify with. His occupation was filled with stress. His escape was to get out among nature, not as a hunter but as an artist who was able to lose himself in the beauty of the wildlife he found there. Born in Chicago on May 18, 1862, Schmedtgen studied at the Chicago Institute of Art. In 1883, he joined the art staff of the Old Chicago Mall newspaper. He left this position to pursue work as a commercial artist in St Louis and New York. When he returned to Chicago in 1886 Schmedtgen took the position as head of the art staff at the Chicago Record, which he held until 1901. His work with the Chicago Record placed him in the thick of the big news events. Most notably was his coverage of the infamous ‘frame-up’ trail of four men accused of inciting the Haymarket Square riots in Chicago on May 4, 1886. The men were eventually hung after months of high drama in the courts and newspaper reporting. Art Young, another reporter for The Chicago Record described Schmedtgen’s behavior on the day he was assigned to illustrate the hanging of the convicted ‘anarchists’. ”Next morning I saw Schmedtgen put a revolver in his hip pocket and noted that he was white and trembling. Outside in the streets an ominous prevailed. Business seemed to come to a halt. Pedestrians were comparatively few, and every face was tense. We who stayed in the office didn’t talk much and when we did our voices were subdued…Three hundred policemen had formed a cordon around the jail, a block away from it on all sides… only persons who could satisfy police that they had bona fide passports could get through. Once a newspaperman got into the jail, the Police would not let him out though he could send copy to his office by messenger. The hanging proceeded efficiently…when the four men had dropped from the scaffold and the doctors pronounced then all dead, the tension of the months was suddenly over…Schmedtgen’s sketch of the hanging had been rushed into print. I saw him that afternoon. He was ghastly pale and said nothing.
Schmedtgen was a master at the ‘chalk-plating’ process that revolutionized newspaper illustrating during the late 1880’s and he was instrumental in introducing this new form of printing to the newspaper market. Chalk-plate (koalatype) was an ingenious process: a sheet of perfectly smooth steel was coated with a preparation of kaolin (or china clay), and a picture was engraved through the coating down to the steel surface. This formed the matrix into which the molten metal was poured to make the stereotype plate, or die, for printing. A newspaper illustrator would redraw his sketches made in the field this way to prepare them for the press. During the Spanish American war of 1898, Schmedtgen used this process as he traveled with the American armed forces recording military operations of the war and transferring his sketches made in the field to the chalk-plates for the Chicago Record newspaper. The Chicago Institute of Art presented two exhibitions presenting the drawings of Schmedtgen, Frank Holme and John T. McCutcheon. The first, held January 16 to February 21, 1897, showed drawings made for newspaper reproduction almost exclusively. The purpose of the exhibit was to illustrate the range of newspaper coverage of the day by including drawings that influenced the politics and notable events of the time. The show also included “miscellaneous drawings, not expressly of a newspaper, but rather more suitable for such printing as can be afforded by magazine or book publication”. After the Spanish-American War in January of 1899, another exhibition was presented featuring the same group of artists. This was a collection of war pictures depicting the ‘important scenes, incidents and character’ of the war with Spain drawn many times under condition hardly conducive to the production of a work of art, ’hence many of them are mere notes, but valuable because of their historical accuracy”. Schmedtgen’s works represented “nearly all of the naval maneuvers before Havana at the beginning of the war, the rendezvousing of the fleet at Key West, and the picturing of some of the expeditions prior to the landing of the army at Santiago.” Schmedtgen also landed with the invading army at Baiquiri and continued to document the engagements and daily workings of the army until two days after San Juan Hill as taken.
It is no wonder that Schmedtgen needed an outlet for the stress of his job. While he continued to work as a newspaper illustrator, after the turn of the century and his marriage in 1900 to Clara Thureau, Schmedtgen turned to wildlife art more and more creating a reputation as a commercial artist. His artwork graced the covers of popular outdoor magazines, advertising calendars and posters, even jigsaw puzzles and sheet music. William would find respite at his resort in Ottawa County, Michigan. He was inspired by the fish exploding out of the clear blue waters on the end of his fishing line. Schmedtgen’s renditions of jumping bass and northern pike were published on covers of Outdoor life (June, 1929) and early Pfluger tackle catalogs.
Schmedtgen traveled to the Illinois River Valley near Hennepin, Illinois to paint many of his waterfowl scenes. The Princeton Game & Fish Club records show that he stayed at their clubhouse for a month in 1911. For years his oil on canvas painting of Canvasbacks flying over Rousseau Lake on the club grounds hung in their clubhouse. Hunters familiar with the Princeton Game & Fish grounds will recognize several of Schmedtgen’s oil paintings because of the distinct landscape of the grounds located on the west side of the Illinois River across from Hennepin. Aside from Goose Pond and Rousseau Lake the grounds are made up 2000 acres of timber and potholes on the Illinois River shoreline. This timberland is honeycombed with man-made channels, which connect numerous hunting holes. Before each season the timber is flooded creating an enticing loafing spot for the ducks that migrate through the Illinois Valley. What makes Schmedtgen’s painting so appealing is his ability to capture those special moment that make the sportsman catch his breath. Like the instant a duck hunter catches a glimpse of a flock of mallards flying down the boat ditch towards his blind in the first light of morning on a crisp fall day. Or when a large tom turkey freezes in its tracks as it is making its way through a timber in a kaleidoscope of autumn colors with his harem making their way behind him feeding along the way. The sportsman freezes too, wondering if the tom has caught sight of him hidden in the underbrush or if he has made a slight sound that gave his presence away
Schmedtgen artistic repertoire included pen & ink drawings, gouache watercolors, full color illustrations and fine art paintings. A fine example of his gouache is the illustration for the sheet music of Bernie Adler’s “Just as the Ship Went Down” circa 1912 which depicting the sinking of the Titanic. Many of his pen & inks were executed while Schmedtgen traveled in Mexico, Spain, Italy and Northern Africa after the Spanish- America War. As a rule the oil paintings he did as illustrations were painted on composition board while his fine art paintings are on stretched canvas. One can easily see the strong influence of the artists whose paintings were part of the Chicago Art Institute’s collection. Most notably the impressionist works that seem to have inspired Schmedtgen painting of will turkeys. The tom turkey’s luminous black feathering and bright red head are immersed within impressionist minute splashes of vivid color that make up the forest landscape.
After forty years in the newspaper and illustrating business, Schmedtgen retired to his home in Wilmette, Illinois. Although he continued to paint and draw political cartoons he was incapacitated by illness and in a wheelchair for several years before his death on December 31, 1936. His reputation as a newspaperman was such that even the New York Times published his obituary. Recently Guyette & Schmidt Auction Company sold a 14” X 20” oil on canvas painting entitled “Coming In” by Schmedtgen at their November annual decoy auction held during the Easton, Maryland Waterfowl Festival for $1825. Certainly as more of the 24 paintings exhibited by the Young’s Art Gallery in 1921 or the numerous illustrations he created are found, collectors will become aware of the quality of his work and Schmedtgen will take his part along side noted wildlife artists of his day like Edmond Osthaus and G Muss Arnolt.