And before you ask, no, this isn’t the same man who made exquisite luxury pianos. This is a different Wilhelm Schimmel, with a more colorful backstory. Our Wilhem Schimmel had an unfortunate penchant for alcohol that oftentimes fueled fights and the occasional stint in jail. But he did have a softer side, often shown in his wood carvings.
While his name is relatively unknown in the general art and sculpture world, folk artists would recognize Wilhelm Schimmel’s wood carvings due to his particular style. Best known for his bird carvings, particularly eagles, his style had a sawtooth, crosshatched pattern, a dovetailed wing construction, which is very similar to toys from Germany in that time. These sculptures were then coated in a layer of gesso, then painted.
Not much is known about this German immigrant, but we do know he found his new home in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania, shortly after the Civil War ended.
Schimmel, or “Old Schimmel,” as many often called him, wandered the county looking for work at local farms, and would sell handmade carvings of animals to make a small living. He called himself an ‘image maker,’ in regard to his craft.
His carvings, as he would work, were often made for the farmers’ children. Of his many creations, it’s estimated that only 300 to 400 exist today. Of those only around 100 Schimmel eagles survive. Provenance is of significant importance in appraising Schimmel pieces since there are no known pieces with a recognizable signature in his hand.
He passed away Aug. 3, 1890, in a poor house at the age of 73. As he earned himself notoriety for his carvings, his obituary was published in many local papers, which was uncommon for the homeless at that time.
In the 1920s, the folk-art world started recognizing his work and it grew popular among collectors, like Abby Rockefeller and Maxim Karolil.
Today, Schimmel carvings have been featured in museums such as the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Shelburne Museum in Vermont. Presently, The Cumberland County Historical Society has one of the largest collections of Schimmel carvings in the country.
You can read more on Schimmel’s unique life through the Gardner Library’s archives.