Born January 4, 1861, just a few months before the beginning of the Civil War, Charles Schreyvogel grew up in poverty on the East Side of New York City. The young boy was educated in public schools and sold newspapers on the city streets. When the family moved to Hoboken, New Jersey, he became a lithographer’s apprentice. Although largely self-taught, the young artist enrolled in the Newark Art League, until, thanks to his generous brothers, Charles traveled to Europe to study. He set sail for Munich in 1886, where he studied for three years at the Munich Art Academy under the tutelage of Karl von Marr and Frank Kirchbach.
Weak from violent seasickness during his voyage home to Hoboken, Charles received doctor’s orders to seek relief out in the dry, hot air of the West. Schreyvogel finally made the journey to the American frontier in 1893, after which time he continued to visit regularly, traveling to the Ute, Sioux, and Crow Reservations. While out West, the artist collected a large amount of American Indian and U.S. cavalry memorabilia, along with making several sketches of all he encountered, whether it be cowboys and Apaches or the horses they rode. Always adhering to detail and historical accuracy, Charles interviewed many veterans of the Plains wars, both Indian and military officers. Now the Hoboken artist was ready to embark on his career as the painter-historian of the Indian Fighting Army of the American West.
Schreyvogel painted profusely, but was unable to find buyers for his western scenes. By the end of the decade, the artist’s luck began to improve with his creation of a large canvas, My Bunkie. In 1899, he entered the painting in the annual exhibition of the National Academy of Design, where it won the Thomas B. Clarke Award for “the best American Figure Composition painted in the United Stated by an American citizen without limit of age.” The painting was a success, attracting large crowds and receiving acclaim in the local papers. Encouraged by the success and fame of My Bunkie, Schreyvogel began painting regularly in his “outdoor studio” atop the roof of his Hoboken home. Because the artist struggled with horse figures, he often worked from several clay models, which the artist had molded into all sorts of positions and expressions.
The press often compared Schreyvogel’s canvases to the work of Frederic Remington, often highlighting Remington’s role as illustrator versus Schreyvogel’s career as a painter. These remarks agitated Remington, who viewed Schreyvogel as a growing concern and competitor. Both men had an eye for detail and remained true to the facts when representing scenes and stories of the West, which was contested when a newspaper published Remington’s letter in which the artist attacked one of Schreyvogel’s most admired paintings, Custer’s Demand. In the 1903 New York Herald article, Remington takes the painting to task, listing the various historical flaws and inaccuracies in Schreyvogel’s composition, calling it “half-baked stuff” and “unhistorical.” Schreyvogel, however, had conducted extensive research to make sure every detail was correct, from the costumes of the men and their equipment to the horses and even the thickness of the stirrup leathers. Many people came to the artist’s defense, including General Custer’s wife, Libbie Custer, and Custer’s good friend, Colonel Schuyler Crosby. Schreyvogel, for his part, never responded to Remington’s criticisms and remained an admirer of the artist. The controversy increased Schreyvogel’s fame, and the artist quickly became known nationwide. After Remington’s death in 1909, Schreyvogel arose to position as the foremost painter of the American West. That same year, he agreed to publish a book of his work, called My Bunkie, which was well-received. Schreyvogel was celebrated for his scenes of conflict and struggle between the U.S. cavalry and Native Americans. These confrontations are often visually enhanced by Schreyvogel’s perspectival illusion wherein the protagonists appear ready to burst through the canvas. Known for their dynamic immediacy, the artist’s paintings are visually engaging and incite a sense of anticipation, making the viewer feel part of the unfolding drama. Schreyvogel died January 27, 1912 from blood poisoning, leaving behind a small, but impressive collection of work.