Liberty magazine commissioned this heroic and intriguing depiction of a beautiful proletariat rabble rouser to accompany an excerpt from The Red Napoleon, a 1929 novel by Floyd Gibbons that presented a fear-mongering “future history” of a world in which the Soviet Union became the dominant power in the world. The story suggests that along with the Red Menace of Communism, the USSR would also usher in an era of racial equality, much to the chagrin of the author.
In this beautiful, large, and deeply captivating oil on canvas by Harold Von Schmidt, the artist seizes upon the love story and heroism of the Soviet female seen, while underplaying some of the more odious politics from the story. The Red Napoleon remains a historically important book today, in many ways considered the predecessor of jingoistic pop-culture propaganda like Red Dawn.
This original artwork holds its own cultural significance, since Von Schmidt from all accounts did not hold any of the racist attitudes of Gibbons, and instead of showing a fearsome view of the Mongolian soldiers in the background, depicts a deeply soulful face that elicits the viewer’s sympathy. This is an absolutely exquisite piece of art and a wonderful example of how a canny illustrator can bring his own sensibilities to a commission that doesn’t align with his perspective.
Harold Von Schmidt 1893-1982
Harold Von Schmidt was an American illustrator who specialized in magazine illustrations. Harold was born in Alameda, California in 1893, he was orphaned at the age of five and spent a year in an orphanage before going to live with his grandfather. As a youth Von Schmidt worked as a cowhand and a construction worker. Von Schmidt began his art studies at the California School of Arts and Crafts while he was still in high school and later, worked in advertising.
In 1924 he moved to New York City and entered the Grand Central School of Art and studied with teacher Harvey Dunn. Arthur Mitchell became close friends with Von Schmidt and often spent holidays with his family. Harold Von Schmidt’s work appeared primarily inside magazines like Collier’s Weekly, Cosmopolitan, Liberty, The Saturday Evening Post, and Sunset Magazine. Although he preferred magazine work and illustrated few books, he spent two years preparing sixty illustrations for a deluxe edition of Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop. Von Schmidt 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. His knowledge of a horse’s anatomy combined with the intense action in many of his paintings gives you the feeling of being run over.
In 1948 he was recruited by Albert Dorne to be one of the founding faculty for the Famous Artists School. He was awarded the first gold medal by the trustees of the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in 1968. Harold died on June 3, 1982 in Westport, Connecticut.