We still adore him. Here’s how the artist changed Wilmington.

Schoonover on the beach, c. 1906, Frank E. Schoonover Manuscript Collection, Helen Farr Sloan Library & Archives, Delaware Art MuseumOn a cool September day in 1900, a small group of cyclists pedaled their way from Chadds Ford into Wilmington. Several young men accompanied a middle-aged gentleman to participate in an event that established Wilmington as the center for American illustration.
The older man was the famous artist Howard Pyle. Among the younger ones was his protégé, Frank E. Schoonover. Together the group laid the cornerstone for Pyle’s Small School of Art, at 1305 N. Franklin St. in Wilmington.
Schoonover had studied with Pyle at Drexel Institute in Philadelphia and continued to revere his mentor as he followed him to Chadds Ford for the summers, then to Wilmington. He would live in Wilmington for the rest of his days, contribute to its quality of life, and establish his own reputation as a leader in American illustration.
Schoonover pursued his career as an artist, teacher and community leader for nearly 70 years, until a stroke curtailed his activities in 1968. His adventurous spirit took him on research trips to the sparsely settled western United States and its major cities, and to Jamaica and the Canadian wilderness, where he sketched, photographed, interviewed, and kept journals for the articles and books he and others wrote and he illustrated. From Pyle, he learned that experiencing the setting for a story and accuracy in detail were keys to success in his field.
Schoonover’s keen observation of nature, begun in his childhood summers in rural Bushkill, Pennsylvania, proved to be a valuable skill. His depictions of the Indians of Canada, pirates, cowboys, and subjects from classical literature made his reputation, distinguished his work, and led to commissions for more than 750 magazine articles and 150 books.
Inside Schoonover’s Rodney Street studio about 1910, at Delaware Art Museum Schoonover first occupied a studio at 11 E. Eighth St., but people often wonder about the unusual building—long and narrow with many gables and pebble-dash walls—on a hill at the corner of Rodney Street and Shallcross Avenue in Wilmington. The clue to its purpose is the many north-facing skylights that painters prefer to light their studios.
Built in early 1906 by mill owner and art patron Samuel Bancroft Jr. for Schoonover, Stanley Arthurs, N.C. Wyeth and two others, the structure, known as the Rodney Street Studios, still serves as artists’ work and gallery spaces.
On the wall of the studio he occupied for more 60 years, Schoonover scratched “moved in March 8 1906.” As a young schoolboy, Steve Gregg, who lived across the street, recalls visiting Schoonover’s studio. “It was like a museum. There were so many interesting things there.”
Around the room were snowshoes, a toboggan, a birch bark canoe, an antique sailing ship model, stuffed birds and other artifacts Schoonover had acquired on his travels. Many are still there. Until his marriage, Schoonover, like many single men, rented a room, mainly from widow Eva Swayne at 1300 W. Seventh St. Thus the studio was in essence his home, the place where he kept the things that mattered to him and where he entertained his friends.

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Among Schoonover’s collection of souvenirs was a pair of boots he had acquired on a trip to the West in 1905. He had painted a cowboy with one leg shorter than the other for Clarence Edward Mulford’s “Bar 20” stories. When the author was searching for a first name for the cowboy he called Cassidy, Schoonover suggested Hopalong. Thus was born the character made famous by films starring William Boyd.
But Schoonover was no solitary painter closeted away in a studio. He participated in the social life of Wilmington. He starred in “Jane,” a 1906 production of Plays by Amateurs, and as John Worthington in “The Importance of Being Earnest,” produced by the Greenroom Club in 1908. He acted in other performances by this group, organized by Christopher Ward, and designed some of the programs, such as “Raffles.” One of the most amusing plays was the musical “Oriental Fantasy: The Magician of Badgab,” written by Gertrude Brincklè and presented at the New Century Club in 1916. Schoonover played a snake charmer. As the cast lists show, his circle of friends included, but extended beyond, other artists.
Schoonover enjoyed many social activities. Wyeth’s letters to his mother note skiing on Penny Hill, walking in the moonlight and parties. Schoonover’s journal mentions going to concerts, the theater, the circus, and exhibitions in Philadelphia.
“Canadian Indian Family at Tea No. 1606,” 1927, at Glenbow Museum, Calgary, CanadaIn 1906 Schoonover began seeing Florence, a woman from Wilmington. His expense book indicates train fares and dinners in Philadelphia, movie tickets, visits to his family in Trenton. They planned to marry, but while he was in Europe on a three-month trip in late 1907, she broke the engagement. Florence’s last name and the reason for her change of heart remain unknown.
His parents seemed unhappy about the split, but he refused to go home. He continued his travels with his friend, automobile racing enthusiast Dick Sellers, and Dick’s widowed mother, Amelie (Mrs. William) Sellers. In Paris near the end of his trip, he met several American artists who urged him to stay and paint, but in writing to his mother, Schoonover stated that America had as much to offer him and that he would be returning home.
While traveling, he took hundreds of photos of the things and people he saw, but he never turned any of the photos from the European trip into paintings or illustrations for articles, as he did with images from trips to Canada in 1904 and 1911 and a visit to New Orleans.
“The Bend in The Delaware,” 1945, in a  private collection in Delaware.Schoonover loved the wilderness and fishing. His childhood summer vacations had been spent in Bushkill. He returned there often as a young man and bought property in 1914 for a family summer home. The landscape along the nearby Delaware and two Bushkill rivers became the subject for the landscape paintings he produced in profusion starting in the 1930s. His day books, where he recorded his art production from 1899 on, occasionally recorded the number of trout he caught, as well the pictures he created, the publication or commission for which they were done, and his expenses, such as fees for models.

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By 1909 Schoonover was seeing a young woman from Philadelphia whom he met in Bushkill. Martha Culbertson, a minor artist, was to become his wife in January 1911. In late 1910 he rented a twin house at 2003 Bayard Blvd. (now Bancroft Parkway), and the couple began to select furnishings for it—a refrigerator, beds, kitchen utensils, “a beautiful chair for the parlor.” His expense book and diary indicate shopping in Philadelphia’s Wanamaker’s store and antique shops.
Martha had fittings for her wedding gown at Schenitz shop in Philadelphia while he hung pictures and cleaned the silver. A gas range was installed the day before their nuptials at St. Stephens Episcopal Church on January 18, 1911. The maid of honor was Martha’s sister Margaret. Mrs. Harry Smith was matron of honor. Two friends were bridesmaids. Schoonover’s brother LaBarre was best man. The seven ushers included Dick Sellers, Stanley Arthurs and Joseph Bancroft.
“In the Pirogue,” 1911, at Biggs Museum of American Art  The bridal couple departed the next day on an extensive trip to Florida, Cuba and New Orleans. They returned to Philadelphia in late February and did more shopping for the house, selecting curtains, buying a pair of chairs at Bateman’s, purchasing a rug in one shop but finding one they liked better in another and canceling the first one.
The couple received many wedding presents, including a rug from Arthurs and a gift from Mrs. Bancroft. They at last enjoyed the first dinner in their new home on March 8. Schoonover recorded the menu of “raw oysters, chops, peas, potatoes and grapefruit. Very fine.” A buffet, sewing table and silver from Bailey’s arrived soon thereafter. The ability to furnish a house so well shows Schoonover’s success as a 33-year-old artist.
The busman’s honeymoon stop in New Orleans gave Schoonover time to explore areas once infested with the pirates of Jean Lafitte while Martha researched the subject in the city’s library. The resulting article Schoonover wrote and illustrated was “In the Haunts of Jean Lafitte” in the December 1911 issue of Harper’s Monthly Magazine.
“Tom Brown’s School Days,” 1921, at Wilmington Trust Greenville office A few months after the couple had settled into their new home, they went to Canada, visiting in Quebec City. Then he set off alone for his second visit to the wilderness to research his article published as “The Fur Harvesters” in Harper’s Monthly Magazine in October 1912. He took 180 photographs with only seven failures. The images inspired many works for the rest of his career.
Not long after his return to Wilmington, bad news arrived: Pyle had died in Florence, Italy, of kidney failure, on November 9. In his daybook, Schoonover drew a black band around his notation of the death of the man who had been the major influence on his life.
As a child, Schoonover copied Pyle’s published works from magazines and books. He went to Drexel to study formally with Pyle and moved to Wilmington to continue learning. Ever the outdoorsman, Schoonover maintained some of the formalities of his mentor. His students called him Mr. Schoonover, never Frank or “FE” as his wife did, and he wore a white shirt, coat and tie to work, which he protected from paint by wearing an initialed smock. Pyle believed that an artist was a professional who must appear professional to be respected. He must go to his studio every day and work, whether or not he felt inspired. Schoonover did just that, taking off an afternoon to drive Martha in his Buick to the market, but often spending Sunday afternoons in the studio.

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The Schoonovers had two children, son Cortlandt (called Pat), born 1914, and Elizabeth (nicknamed Biz), born 1918. His diary notes some of their activities, such as Pat’s first black-tie event, Biz’s attendance at her first ball and their graduations. Both posed for their father, sometimes in minor ways, to enable him to show shadows on a coat sleeve, but occasionally as a central character—Pat is in the cover illustration for Tom Brown’s School Days.
Both children graduated from Tower Hill School. Pat went to Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, and Biz to Syracuse University. Their father’s works were exhibited at the universities while they were students. Biz enjoyed painting but was discouraged by her father from trying to become a professional artist. She accompanied him on camping trips to the Mast Hope area north of Bushkill where both painted the scenery. In Wilmington and at Bushkill, Schoonover created gardens, both for vegetables and for flowers. His diary for 1931 notes planting ferns at the studio, making a rock garden at home, and attending the Philadelphia Flower Show.
In his leisure hours, Schoonover enjoyed reading. He once remarked that it had taken him nine years to read everything on Pyle’s list of essential books. He also read the text of the book or article he was to illustrate and made notes and sketches as aids in creating the final pictures. His granddaughter Louise recalls him sitting in his favorite armchair by the stairs in the living room in the evenings with a book and his drawing materials at hand. The five-bedroom house that he rented for his first home with his bride and later purchased was their only one. Only after the 1968 death of his “most helpful critic,” as he called Martha, and when a few years later he could no longer manage on his own, he moved to Ingleside Nursing Home.
Quiet evenings at home were rare. Guests came for dinner and stayed to play bridge. Schoonover belonged to several organizations and attended meetings faithfully. Some of these groups were social, such as the Quill and Grill Club, which met for dinner at members’ homes. Some were charitable, such as the Round Table, and others, like the Lincoln Club, were interest-focused.
“Lincoln and Grant in Front of the White House,” 1928, at Wilmington Savings Fund Society Greenville officeSchoonover had drawn and painted over 30 illustrations for a biography of Abraham Lincoln that won recognition as one of 1928’s best illustrated books. Because his father had known Lincoln, who had given him a black shawl, the subject was especially meaningful to Schoonover. Memberships in such organizations and others, such as the literary Franklin Inn Club in Philadelphia, broadened his circle of friends and acquaintances and provided him with leadership roles.
For more than 40 years he was the senior warden of Immanuel Church Highlands, where he designed the stained glass windows that still bring delight and wonder to the congregation. One of the largest is the Bancroft memorial, with elements that relate to the family’s mills on the Brandywine. He was fascinated by the process of producing these “paintings in glass” and learned it so well that he was deemed worthy of membership in the Stained Glass Association. Louise recalls that he pointed out to her how two adjacent different colored pieces of glass in red and blue interacted to give the effect of a third color, purple.
Schoonover is remembered for his contributions to the arts in Delaware, but not just as the famous illustrator. In 1912 he was a founding director of the Wilmington Society of the Fine Arts, now Delaware Art Museum, and a member of its board until 1965. He spearheaded the fundraising for the Kentmere Parkway building which opened in 1938. His works were exhibited there in the annual Delaware artists’ events. The museum honored him with one-person shows in 1931 and 1962 and celebrated his 95th birthday with another major exhibition in 1972, a few weeks before his death. Schoonover obtained commissions for younger artists, especially during the Depression, when he could recommend them for Public Works of Art projects, such as the Smyrna School murals.

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Beginning with classes for the Phoenix Art Institute in 1926 and continuing at the new Wilmington Academy of Art from 1928 until 1942, Schoonover taught aspects of painting and photography for more than 40 years to hundreds of people. In 1942 he began teaching both adults and children in his second studio, where Wyeth had once worked. Several of his students became successful professional artists. Charles Colombo, James McGlynn and Dana Pyle are still actively painting in Wilmington, and Richard Layton has only recently retired. Schoonover would occasionally give more help than a student wanted. Peggy Woodbridge Chadwick remarked that “he painted all over my picture,” but Layton was pleased that Schoonover corrected the perspective of a roadway in the youth’s first painting.
Schoonover believed that the visual arts were an essential part of education. He exhibited his works in numerous colleges and found homes for some of them in schools and public libraries. His pictures for Ivanhoe are at St. Andrew’s school in Middletown, where his son worked and his grandsons studied. In 1938 Schoonover received a commission from H. Fletcher Brown for “The Artisan,” a large mural for the H. Fletcher Brown Vocational Technical School in Wilmington, which is now installed in the New Castle County Courthouse.
“Hopalong Takes Command,” 1905, at Delaware Art Museum.Schoonover was a frequent lecturer for many organizations. He illustrated many of his talks with the lantern slides he had made. During Wilmington’s Art Weeks, begun in 1935, he gave demonstrations of stained glass-making and spoke about other art subjects in many venues. He talked about art and artists to Tower Hill students, who could see in its library the paintings he had created for Joan of Arc. An undated newspaper article reports on his reading to children at the People’s Settlement at Taylor and Church streets, “Mr. Schoonover, who is a prominent artist, is very popular with the little ones, and when they know he is to be at the settlement, they gather for some time before the hour at which he is scheduled to be there.”
Reading and teaching the elements of painting were not the only way Schoonover interacted with children. Steve Gregg recalls a time when he and his younger brother were playing with the stones and concrete from the rubble of a building next door to Schoonover studio. The artist joined them and smashed some of the stones to show the boys the interiors of the quartz and a small geode. “It was obvious that he loved natural beauty, and he conveyed that feeling to us,” Gregg says.

Schoonover is the subject of a two-volume Catalog Raisonnè to be published in November for the Frank E. Schoonover Fund by Oak Knoll Books of New Castle. Schoonover is also the subject of two documentaries, both made for public television. “Frank E. Schoonover: A Long Life in the Arts,” created by Serviam Media, is also available as a DVD.  “Frank E. Schoonover: An Authentic Artist” was produced by WVIA in Scranton, Pennsylvania. To celebrate the book, exhibitions of Schoonover work will be held at the Delaware Art Museum, opening November 22, at the Biggs Museum of American Art and Brandywine River Museum early in 2009.  


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