“When will we learn that childhood is in a great sense not simply a preparation for adult life but a thing unique and complete in itself—a masterpiece of God.” —Carl Schmitt, January 14, 1925
Carl Schmitt saw art as play firsthand in his own children. With delight, he watched his nine sons and one daughter paint and sculpt, sing and rhyme, tell stories, act, dance and build. He observed that all children practice all seven fine arts when their imagination “is allowed to express itself naturally (and consequently authentically).”
As they grew older, the children studied a wide range of arts, from music and drama to painting and architecture. No doubt the children, who recall being regaled by their father’s poems and rhymes after supper and lulled to sleep by the sound of their mother playing the piano, had much beauty to imitate. They were constantly surrounded by their father’s paintings and pastels, and often saw him sketching indoors and out.
In 1932 the children’s work was recognized at a local art show. According to a newspaper account, “the seven sons of Carl Schmitt” ranging in age from 5 to 13, showed “an arresting group of varied work.” Schmitt himself kept a large cache of his children’s drawings and other artwork in his studio (where it still fills a huge box) as a reminder that, in his words, “the truest art of a painter is done up to the age of fourteen.”
Carl Schmitt went further: “We must remember that the masterpieces of painting are done by children under fourteen. Why is this?” he asked. “I think it is because purity of heart is especially necessary to quality, and after fourteen it is only maintained by struggle. Before that it is a sweet and natural and unconscious offering to God.”
In his studio notes, Schmitt often emphasized that the first virtue to be cultivated by the artist is precisely this purity of heart, corresponding to the lyric stage of the imagination. It is clarity of intention which will enable him to “contribute to beauty-offerings of great value to the few people who actually enjoy and love beauty.”
While recognizing the purity of young children, Schmitt did not romanticize them. With nine boys and a young girl, the atmosphere in his home was far from the hushed calm of an art class. Many were the days when, as Carl wrote to his brother Robert, the “children howl and fight most of the time—it is rare to have a moment during the day when one is not coughing or crying.”
A writer from the Catholic Worker, Donald Powell, visited the Schmitts in 1934 and offered a colorful picture of their home life in the mid 1930s. “I have eaten with the Schmitts and seen the youngsters in their bunks, one on top of the other, shipwise. I have seen them at play. I envy and love the whole flock of them: Carlo, Gertrude, the boys and the girl, dirty faces, dirty diapers and all.” Many of Schmitt’s works graced the walls of their modest home, and indeed, depicted life within those walls.
Another visitor in the 1930s was a personal friend of Schmitt’s, the well-known writer Padraic Colum. “I had seen some of these pictures before and in a place that had a different atmosphere from that of a picture gallery,” Colum related in an article for Commonweal magazine. “I had seen them in the painter’s house, on rough walls, hanging above where children played or where a family sat at a meal. In these surroundings they had seemed natural and right—they had enshrined the reality that was around.”
“There is love within this family; it was built on love and survives through love,” Donald Powell wrote of Schmitt and his remarkable family he visited that day in Silvermine. He was of course speaking of the mutual love of parents and children, and their shared love of God. But one can also perceive a deep love of beauty, that the members of his own family were, in his mind, the first of those “people who actually enjoy and love beauty,” the “simple and intelligent [who] are not of this world.”
In the words of his son Jacob, this love is revealed in his dedication to “those natural cultural values that made supernatural values possible and toward those supernatural values that fulfilled the natural.” This was at the heart of the “reality that was around”—the buoyant purity and constant creative energy of his many children, whom Schmitt naturally “enshrined” in his work.