Schimmel, Wilhelm – American Folk Carver

Wilhelm Schimmel

Wilhelm Schimmel, regarded today as one of America’s most famous folk carvers, was a colorful itinerant who roamed throughout the Cumberland Valley region of Pennsylvania in the latter half of the nineteenth century. He likely immigrated to America from the Hesse-Darmstadt region of Germany.

Over the course of at least 21 years, from 1869 to 1890 the year he died, Schimmel stayed with families mostly of German descent. He moved from farm to farm, seldom wandering far outside the Cumberland County seat of Carlisle. He would carve mostly animals, many for the children of his hosts, in exchange for room and board. Today, Schimmel’s work is highly recognized and revered folk art.

He exhibited an assortment of wood carvings and received recognition on the Premium List of awards at the 1888 Cumberland County Fair. As reported in The Sentinel, “A display of carved wood, by Mr. Schimmel, showed great skill and workmanship.”(1) His only reward was public recognition, as the committee had no cash premiums to award.

His death came two years later after a two-month stay in the poorhouse on Sunday, August 3, 1890 at the reported age of 73. Three days later he was buried in an unmarked grave in the potter’s field.(2)

His obituary was published in numerous local papers, an uncommon practice for a tramp. The fact that coverage was given to his passing gives credibility to Schimmel’s notoriety. One such obituary reads, “Old Schimmel, the German who for many years tramped through this and adjoining counties, making his headquarters in jails and almshouses, died at the almshouse on Sunday. His only occupation was carving heads of animals out of soft pine wood. These he would sell for a few pennies each. He was apparently a man of very surly disposition.”(3)

It would be another thirty years before the art world would give much attention to the carvings that are now Schimmel’s legacy. In the 1920′s, during a period coined “the flowering of American folk art,” Schimmel’s carvings were sought after by collectors who appreciated their naa¯ve artistic merits.

The list of museums with significant Schimmel holdings today include the Henry Francis Dupont Winterthur Museum, the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Shelburne Museum, the New York Historical Society, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Cumberland County Historical Society.

The first major exhibition of Schimmel’s work was held at the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center in Colonial Williamsburg, September 4 through October 31, 1965. The exhibit showcased eighty-three Schimmel carvings.

Schimmel’s main body of work was comprised of various bird and animal figures, notably his dramatic spread-wing eagles. His other bird and animal forms included roosters, dogs, squirrels and parrots. To a lesser degree he carved lions and tigers. Several carvings of a soldier exist, which are possibly self-representational figures since they do resemble Schimmel’s facial appearance. However, this is speculation since it is not known whether he ever served military duty.

Apart from these single forms, Schimmel carved several significant composite pieces. There are two known versions of the Garden of Eden complete with Adam and Eve, fig tree, apple and snake, all surrounded by a picket fence. Carved from pine, as was his other work, Schimmel eagles usually possess diamond-shaped, saw-tooth crosshatching on the chest body, wings and legs and dovetailed wing construction. They were first coated with a layer of gesso and then polychrome-painted. They are predominately colored red, black, yellow, and green. His painting as well as his carving was done with a crude, quick hand. A spontaneity and naa¯ve quality characterizes his work. They varied widely in size, ranging from pocket size to figures with wingspans of over two feet.

Nearly a hundred examples of Schimmel eagles survive today. Of his likely output of one thousand to twelve hundred carvings, around four hundred exist today, half of which are in museum collections.

Schimmel’s use of the eagle form mirrored local customs along with the social and political attitudes of the post-Civil War period. The eagle was a popular decorative motif, having been regarded as a patriotic symbol since its nomination as the national bird following the American Revolution.

Only a small handful of attributed carvings contain complete family histories directing back to Schimmel himself. Provenance is of critical important in assigning attribution since it is well known there are no known pieces signed by him. Schimmel carved casually to support his drinking and tramp lifestyle. Today, the proliferation of high quality copies, whether meant to deceive or not, makes attribution difficult. Many copies and fakes show unnatural distressed aging and through chemical analysis one can detect modern paint pigments.

The artistic context of these carvings has changed since they were created over a hundred years ago. What were simple gifts or objects of barter are now regarded as premier examples of American folk art. The carver’s purpose, influences, methods, lack of formal training, and naivete have combined to place Schimmel’s work in the category of true folk art. The high visual appeal of his work, filled with a robust spontaneity and character, and his personal story have placed Wilhelm Schimmel on the folk art map.

(1) Carlisle (Pennsylvania) The Sentinel, 2 October 1888, Microfilm, Cumberland County Historical Society.
(2) Cumberland County Almshouse Register, 1890, page 26, Microfilm, Cumberland County Historical Society.
(3) Carlisle (Pennsylvania) The Sentinel, 7 August 1890, Microfilm, Cumberland County Historical Society.

Reference note by Contributing Editor Karl Pass.

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