Mead Schaeffer was born in Freedom Plains, New York, on July 15, 1898, the son of Charles R. and Minnie L. Schaeffer, and grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts. His father was a Presbyterian Evangelist preacher and Mead, like his father, displayed a dramatic flair – but his was to be for line and color. At the age of seven, during a visit to an artist’s studio with his mother, he “smelled the turpentine” and knew at once what he wanted most in the world.
Thirteen years later, he enrolled at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. There he became an outstanding member of the noted class of 1920, which produced more great illustrators than almost any other class in any other institution. This was in spite of the fact that the Institute offered no courses in illustration. Mead, completely on his own, traveled to Leonia, New Jersey, to meet and learn from two illustrators whose work he admired – Dean Cornwell and Harvey Dunn. He posed for them and refused any monetary fee; the payment he wanted was advice and criticism, which they gave freely.
On September 17, 1921, he married fellow student, Elizabeth Wilson Sawyers, and for 53 years, she assisted him as photographer, travel companion, business manager, and mentor. She was, as Schaeffer touchingly phrases it, “My workmate, playmate, my love.”
Thanks to his notable standing at Pratt and his own creative genius, Schaeffer quickly established himself in his chosen profession, and was sought out for many magazine and book illustrations. He illustrated 16 classics for Dodd, Mead Company including Moby Dick, Typee, Omoo, Les Miserables, The Cruise of the Cachalot, Tom Cringle’s Log, Sans Famille, and The Count of Monte Cristo. He also brought to colorful life in big periodicals such as McCall’s, Cosmopolitan, The Woman’s Home Companion, American Magazine, and of course, The Saturday Evening Post. For years he illustrated one or two books and approximately twenty magazine serials annually. Schaeffer found himself, in that golden age of illustration, the highest paid and most sought after illustrator in the world.
The artist’s life was almost as exciting as those he created on canvas, His assignments took him all over the world to capture the correct costumes and moods for his wonderful paintings. From the 1930’s until the 1940’s, Schaeffer decided to stop painting buccaneers, Captain Blood, and titled Europeans, and to focus on real people in real settings, saying “I suddenly realized I was sick of painting dudes and dandies…I longed to do honest work, based on real places, real people and real things."
At the outset of World War II, Mead Schaeffer and Rockwell, set out together from Arlington, Vermont, where they had their studios, to Washington, D.C. to see how they could contribute to the National effort. Rockwell brought some sketches for the proposed Four Freedoms, and Schaeffer had a handful of sketches of our fighting men in action. No funds were available for the projects in Washington so they stopped in Philadelphia, en route home, to see Ben Hibbs of the Post. He liked their ideas and commissioned them to develop the paintings for magazine covers. Schaeffer’s research and careful attention to detail, combined with his command of the medium, instinctive sense of balance, light, texture, and above all, the tension captured in the action combined to make an outstanding Armed Forces Commemorative series. Fourteen paintings in all, they all appeared as covers on The Saturday Evening Post and the originals were shown in over a hundred cities alongside Rockwell’s Four Freedoms to stimulate sales of War Bonds.
Schaeffer then travelled all over the United States, producing more covers for the Post capturing the unique qualities of each state. By the time Mead had done over five thousand paintings, the unremitting pressures took their toll. Elizabeth cancelled all commitments and took him off to St. John’s in the Virgin Islands for a well-deserved rest. They sold, or gave away, practically all their possessions from their “old life” and began living a completely new one. Mead spent his time fishing, which was his favorite pastime, and began, slowly, to paint again.
The idyll in the Caribbean finally gave way to the idyll on the Long Island Sound. Less than an hour from New York City, Sea Cliff was to be their new home, and Schaeffer made the most of his free time by continuing to paint and experiment with new subjects and treatments. “I’ve lived two complete lives,” he says, and one can see the many changes he has made in his “new life.” But the fine artist he is shows through in all his canvases. Sadly in 1980, at the age of 82, Mead passed away of a heart attack while having lunch at the Society of Illustrators on East 63rd Street in New York City.