Harold Von Schmidt was born in 1893 in Alameda California. One of five children, he was second to the youngest. Von Schmidt’s father was a sea captain and his mother was a ballet dancer. Both his parents were killed in an accident when Von Schmidt was only five. His sister who was the oldest child was sent to live with an aunt. The boys were sent to an orphanage in San Mateo where they were split up again because of their ages. Von Schmidt stayed with his younger brother Roland. Von Schmidt immediately had to learn to fight to protect himself and his brother. The fights continued when he entered elementary school where he was singled out for being from an orphanage.
Eventually Von Schmidt and his brothers went to live with their grandfather who was in his eighties. His grandfather had been an engineer and a surveyor in the Sierras. The stories his grandfather would tell about eastern California delighted the young Von Schmidt. He spent his time drawing cowboys and horses. His Grandfather gave him a set of watercolors and would encourage him to paint things. He studied at the California School of arts and Crafts for a year and a half starting in his last year of high school and later taught as an assistant at the Unviersity of California Berkeley.
Although he always wanted to be an artist, Von Schmidt had many rough jobs when he was young. He worked in a logging camp, helped build dams, and worked on the docks and in railroad yards as a lumper, loading and unloading freight. In high school and college he played football and rugby. In 1920 at age twenty seven Von Schmidt played rugby in the Olympics for the American team and they won the gold.
His first job as an artist was in San Francisco, working in advertising, he rented a space in a building with other artists of the time, Maynard Dixon, Armin Hansen and Gottardo Piazzoni. Von Schmidt worked as Dixons studio assistant for three years where he was introduced to Dixons friends Charlie Russell and Ed Borien.
In 1924 after a failed marriage to his high school sweetheart Von Schmidt moved to New York. His friend Joe Sinel, an illustrator he had worked with in San Francisco, convinced him to come east and there he began getting work in advertising. He remarried and he and his new wife had two children.
Von Schmidt still wanted to be an illustrator for the magazines, at thirty one he had been working as an artist for nine years. He knew he wanted to be a better artist. Von Schmidt enrolled in Harvey Dunn’s night classes and credits Dunn with changing the way he thought about illustration. Dunn taught him not just to illustrate the story he was assigned but to paint the epic so that the painting would stand as a picture in its own right.
Von Schmidt went on to illustrate for all of the major magazines of the time including Colliers Weekly, Liberty Magazine, Esquire, Cosmopolitan, and The Saturday Evening Post. He was president of the Society of Illustrators from 1938 to 1941, served as an artist war correspondent in World War II, and helped form the Famous Artist Course School in 1949.
Von Schmidt was elected to the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame in 1959, and was commissioned by the Postal Service in 1960 to create a stamp commemorating the Pony Express. He was the first artist awarded the Trustees Gold Medal from the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in 1968.
Harold Von Schmidt died in 1982 at the age of 89
Harold Von Schmidt Draws and Paints the Old West
Northland Press 1972
200 Years of American Illustration
Henry C. Pitz
Random House 1977
The Illustrator in America (3 Volumes)
The Society of Illustrators 1966, 1980, 2000
Famous American Illustrators
I draw and paint outdoors not to make easel pictures but to acquire experience and knowledge as reference for both the form and color of a locale and the people who live there or travel through it. This has helped me to handle a variety of subjects. It has further sustained my interest in illustration. The world exists as reference, and I try to use it. I constantly bring parts of it into my files in color and forms, through sketches and drawings. They are mine alone and have paid me well for the time, money and love expended on them. The beauty and value of field work is that though many have commented on nature, here is one place where each artist can work out their own approach to it.~ Harold Von Schmidt