Eric von Schmidt: Fondly (And Finally) Remembered

In my time in Westport, I’ve met tons of interesting and unique people. Movie stars, authors, CEOs — they’re all here, and often taken for granted.

But I can’t imagine a greater thrill — or honor — than getting to know Eric von Schmidt.

Eric was one of those bubbling-under-the-surface folks — someone who, for whatever set of reasons, never attained star status, but was far more talented than many super-celebrities.

And Eric did it in 2 very different fields.

Eric von Schmidt, in his folk days.

Eric von Schmidt, in his folk days.

He first earned renown as an artist. That’s natural — his father, Harold von Schmidt, was a celebrated illustrator. (And a Staples football coach. And a host known for wild parties at his Evergreen Avenue home.)

Eric was selling his artwork while still a Staples student. After a brief stint at the Arts Students League in New York, and service in the Army during the Korean War, he earned a Fulbright Scholarship to study art in Florence.

Back in the States, he ended up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He painted, and hung out in coffeehouses.

As a teenager — hearing Leadbelly sing “Goodnight Irene” on the Grand Ole Opry radio show — Eric had gotten into old blues and folk songs. His mother, Forest Gilmore, encouraged him to visit the Library of Congress, where he discovered archival blues music.

Eric’s timing was perfect. In the late ’50s Cambridge was filled with exciting young performers, like Joan Baez. Tom Rush called him a major influence.

Bob Dylan did more. In his 1962 debut album, Dylan — with whom he’d “traded harmonica licks, drank red wine and played croquet” — credited “Ric” with teaching him “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down.”

Eric wrote songs like “Joshua Gone Barbados.” He recorded 8 albums, with the likes of Richard Fariña. His “Folk Blues of Eric von Schmidt” sits atop of the records on the cover of Dylan’s “Bringing It All Back Home.” In 1965, when Dylan shocked his fans by going electric at the Newport Folk Festival, Eric played there too.

Eric von Schmidt created this cover art for his own 1977 album.

Eric von Schmidt created this cover art for his own 1977 album.

Meanwhile, he was painting and drawing. Eric created record covers, children’s books, and more.

His works got bigger and grander. In 1976 — the centennial of Little Bighorn — he completed 6 years of work on”Here Fell Custer.” An enormous acrylic work, and the product of prodigious research, it was chosen by the National Park Service as the official depiction of General George Custer’s infamous “last stand.” Action-packed, but filled with intricate details, it is now displayed at Last Stand Hill, and in the NPS brochure. Why it is not nationally well known is beyond me.

A few small details from Eric von Schmidt's "Here Fell Custer."

A few small details from Eric von Schmidt’s “Here Fell Custer.”

Eric went on to research and paint 2 more large historical works: “Osceola and the Treaty of Seminole Removal” and “The Storming of the Alamo.” Both are as stunning as “Custer.”

Then there is “Giants of the Blues.” The 7 large canvases portray the evolution of American music, from delta music through jazz, bluesmen like Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters, the Memphis influence and much more.

"Blues Piano Players" -- one of the 7 wonderful works that make up "Birth of the Blues."

“Blues Piano Players” — one of 7 wonderful works that make up “Giants of the Blues.”

It is truly spectacular. There was talk of donating it to the Smithsonian.

Instead it hangs in the Staples High School auditorium lobby. Students pass by every day; theatergoers see it on their way to shows. Hardly anyone realizes its significance — or thinks about the artist.

I think about Eric von Schmidt often. I was fortunate enough to know him, late in his life. He’d moved back to Westport in the mid-1980s, after his parents (“Reb” and “Von”) died.

Eric von Schmidt, with "Storming the Alamo." (Photo by George R. Janecek)

Eric von Schmidt, with “Storming the Alamo.” (Photo by George R. Janecek)

He spent most of his time in his Evergreen studio. It was a magical place. Canvases — completed, half-finished, mere sketches — hung in every nook and cranny. Brushes, palettes and every kind of art implement filled the rest of the space.

There was also a bed. Eric rented out “The Big House,” and lived in his studio.

He’d lost his vocal cords to throat cancer a few years earlier. No sadder fate could befall a musician.

Talking was very difficult. He communicated mostly by fax — Eric never liked computers — and he was in pain from a new nemesis: Lyme disease.

But he kept working. He was excited by a Lewis and Clark project. He was thrilled that “Custer” and “Alamo” were seen on the History Channel.

His daughter Caitlin moved into “The Big House,” and cared for Eric. He fell, broke a hip, had replacement surgery, then suffered a stroke in August 2006. He spent time in hospitals and rehab centers.

Eric von Schmidt

Eric von Schmidt

Word got out, in the art and music worlds, that Eric’s health was failing. When he died on February 2, 2007, the news was reported in the New York Times, by AP and on NPR.

Most of the stories focused on his music.

I never heard Eric von Schmidt sing live. I knew him best as an artist. Now, in Westport — at Staples — his art lives on. Even if hardly anyone recognizes it for the remarkable work it is.

Or recognizes the man who lovingly, painstakingly,  painted this masterpiece.

Finally, though, some long-overdue recognition comes from the Westport Library. An exhibit of his paintings will be displayed in the Great Hall from tomorrow (Friday, March 29) through June 26. A reception is set for next Friday (April 5), at 6 p.m.

Eric’s art is reason enough to go. But I’d love to hear his music, too.


14 responses to “Eric von Schmidt: Fondly (And Finally) Remembered

  1. Kerstin Warner

    Dan, your blog is fascinating to read each day. This piece is poignant – someone so talented who never quite got the recognition and career boost they deserved. I’ve always wondered about that painting in the auditorium in Staples – now I know. Thank you!

  2. Maggie Feczko

    Before Eric’s “Giants of the Blues” series found a home at Staples, they were the subject of an exhibit at The Westport Historical Society in 2002. The exhibit was organized by Mollie Donovan and Wally Woods and was viewed by thousands of people. A jazz benefit in conjunction with the Arts Center to honor Eric was held at Bedford Middle School and enjoyed by hundreds. I am happy that the library is recognizing Eric, but they are certainly not the first to do so. The paintings are extraordinary and I hope those who are not familiar with them will become enchanted with the artist and the subject.

  3. Dan: During my college years, when I returned home to Westwood, MA on school breaks, my friends and I often spent evenings in folk clubs in Cambridge and Kenmore Square, ( Café Barna & Club 47 were two I remember) where we saw Eric von Schmidt, Joan Baez, Tom Rush, The Jim Queskin Jug band with Geoff and Maria Muldar and many others play to small audiences of fewer than 80 people. I never knew until your piece here that Eric was 1. from Westport and 2. such a phenomenal artistic talent. One of my first albums bought was entitled “Folk singers around Harvard Square” which included cuts by Eric and the others. thanks for your piece!

  4. Sven Davidson

    And at another venue, Harold von Schmidt was Commodore of the Cedar Point Yacht Club 1945-46. The Club’s annual von Schmidt Barbecue was held for years thru the 70’s, with Eric at the helm. Not quite a polymath, but close.

  5. Kim Crowther Manning

    A number of years back when Mr. von Schmidt’s house on Evergreen was for sale, my sister, her husband, and I went to look at it. It was obvious, due to the hundreds of paintings and art supplies throughout the house, that the owner was a very talented painter, but we had no idea who he was, or why he wasn’t able to speak. We knew there had to be a rich and intriguing story behind him. My sister did some research and learned a few facts, but nothing nearly as detailed and informative as what you have given us here. In the years since we walked through his home, every time I drive down Evergreen I think about the mysterious artist who lived there and wish I knew more about him. Thank you Dan! Mystery solved!! And boy, the story is far more intriguing than I had ever imagined!

    • Art of Noise

      Thank you for a very nice tribute to Eric. I too didn’t know his rich history to the art and music world.
      We also looked at his home when it was for sale after he passsed away and was impressed with all of the art work scattered around and in boxes in his studio.
      I was concerned it would be thrown away since it didn’t seem anyone was taking care of it properly. These were mainly ink drawings, but I wasn’t sure if Eric had done them or his father. Hopefully they were taken care of.
      I admit I was tempted to take a piece, but didn’t.

  6. Jim Honeycutt

    Great piece Dan as always. It is wonderful but hard to believe that work as important as “Giants of the Blues” hangs on the walls of Staples High School for all the Staples and Westport community to enjoy. Great memories!

  7. I was introduced to Eric back in the late ’90s when we were part of a small group of people watching The Remains rehearse in Gail and Terry Coen’s basement studio–that weekend was The Remains’ first time playing together in decades. So everyone there was very excited to hear them perform.

    At that time, I only knew that he was a very talented artist–and I just figured he was there because he was an old friend who really liked their music.

    It was several years later when I read “Positively 4th Street” that I learned of Eric’s musical past. His name was prominent throughout the book and it talked about how he was there at the start of Joan Baez’s career, and Dylan’s, and the Farinas’–and the influence he had.

    And all I could think of was: I wish I had known that when I was sitting right by him at the Coens’ home. He was right in the middle of the great folk music era, and I would have loved to talk about that. He seemed like a very nice, humble person.

  8. Arthur "Two Sheds" Jackson

    His music is pretty well-represented on YouTube. Here’s “Joshua Gone Barbados”

  9. maxine bleiweis

    And, if you attend the art opening on Friday, April 5 at the Westport Library, his music will be playing in the background. Just as Dan wanted.

  10. As a child in the 80’s, I remember going to bocce ball parties at Rick’s house. His studio was amazing and overwhelmingly crammed with all kids of treasures. In particular, I remember he was working on a giant set of playing cards, I believe, featuring blues greats as the face cards.

    We also went to an annual party of a mutual friend on Cross Highway and Rick was always there. After everyone had finished eating, playing beer ball (don’t ask, it’s like stick ball, but with warm beers as the ball), and feeling relaxed, Eric would get out his old, beat-up guitar with chords written on the top in pencil. Everyone with an instrument was welcome to join in and there were always some tambourines and kazoos to play. Adults and kids, alike, would sing along to all the folk songs. My favorite was “Good Night, Irene”. I didn’t realize back them what a cool experience it was, but I looked forward to those parties every year.

    Eric VonSchmidt was a humble, funky, authentic guy. I feel really lucky to have known him just a little.

  11. Caitlin von Schmidt — Eric’s daughter — sent this along:

    Thanks for a lovely piece, Dan! I tried posting here this morning but for some reason, the interwebs ate my post.

    Maggie above is right; Mollie & Wally were wonderfully supportive of Papa’s work and mounted a great show at the WHS; Mollie was also instrumental in arranging for the Blues Giants paintings to hang at Staples. There were warm and generous and great friends to Papa.

    The library is also putting on an amazing show, and I have dug out a lot of things that have never been seen outside the family. It will be a real soup to nuts look at his lifetime of work. I hope I will see you all there!

    Art of Noise – what you saw in the studio were actually photocopies of drawings. He made many, many copies of drawings that he would then paint over; it was a method he used later in life, especially in his work for Cricket Magazine.

    And one more thing – here’s a link to an image, albeit a bit washed out, of Papa’s painting of Custer’s Last Stand:

    Thanks again for writing this, Dan. I hope I’ll see you at the opening!

  12. Tom Allen '66

    Great artist whose work I’ve admired for years. His historical work is painstakingly detailed and exhaustively researched. I saw The Storming of the Alamo in a museum in Austin about 10 years ago and was told that it had also been displayed in the Texas statehouse. The Custer URL provided by Caitlin, offering by far the best and most accurate depiction of Custer’s probable unglamorous end, was gleaned from documented Sioux and Cheyenne accounts of the battle rather than drawn from a fevered imagination infuenced by Libby Custer’s non-stop campaigning on her late husband’s behalf, which continued until her passing in the 1920s. The full body of Eric’s work is quite amazing. I’ve been aware of the Von Schmidt tradition in Westport since I was a little kid. My mother, a longtime Westport illustrator, often talked about the family’s artisitic legacy.

  13. Thanks Dan for sharing this wonderful glimpse into Eric Von Schmidt’s life. He’s a cultural icon, (like many others we grew up with) and I hope he gets the recognition posthumously that is deserving of his artwork.