Wisdom on Wednesdays—If you would know woman and man

“If you would know woman, study one woman, your wife!
If you would know man, study one man, yourself!
A lifetime is very short for this course.” (1932)


Gertrude, oil on canvas, unfinished, c. 1970


“Carlo, your wife is a miracle.”

“Carlo, you are not so much, the woods are full of artists, but your wife is a miracle.”  —Carl Schmitt’s friend Donald Powell, in the Catholic Worker, 1934


Gertrude Lord around the time of her marriage to Carl Schmitt

Gertrude Lord, the second child of Austin and Margaret (Gaige) Lord, was born in 1891.  Her father, Austin W. Lord, was a prominent New York architect who in his later years devoted himself to painting.  He was an original member of the “Knocker’s Club,” a group of painters and other artists who met at the studio of the sculptor Solon Borglum in Silvermine, Connecticut, a bucolic hamlet about an hour’s train ride from Manhattan. Lord bought a farmhouse just down the road from Borglum and began to spend his summers there with his family.


Painting of the back porch of Austin W. Lord’s summer home in Silvermine, by Carl Schmitt

In the fall of 1908, nineteen-year-old Carl Schmitt arrived in Silvermine, where he took up with the Knocker’s Club and began painting with Gertrude’s father.  Austin Lord held Carl’s talent and character in high esteem, and likely introduced Carl to his family at this time.  Gertrude, then sixteen, was a student at Mrs. Keller’s School in Manhattan, an accomplished pianist, and active in drama and dance.  Carl, first attracted to Gertrude’s livelier sister Margherita, was eventually taken by the quiet charm of her more thoughtful younger sister.

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Gertrude (center), her sister Margherita (right), and two friends, at Schmitt’s studio in New York. 1912

Later, Gertrude would say that Carl courted her for “seven long years,” suggesting that their relationship became serious in 1910, around the time Carl first became active with the Knocker’s Club.  By 1912, it is clear from friends’ letters that Carl is deeply in love but anxious about his future. Carl would first travel to Europe and be drafted into the Army before he and Gertrude were finally married on October 28, 1918 at the Catholic cathedral of St. Matthew in Washington, DC.  They could afford only a brief honeymoon at Mount Vernon before Carl returned to his work drawing maps for the Army command in the capital.  It would be over fifteen years before the couple would take an extended second honeymoon, this time to Carl’s beloved Dalmatia.

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Gertrude on her honeymoon at Mount Vernon, October, 1918

The measure of Gertrude’s devotion to her husband can be seen in her embrace of a life so unlike the one to which she was accustomed growing up. Gertrude had been given everything her successful architect-father could offer a daughter: a city and a summer home, servants, finishing schools, trips to Europe and Central America—even one of those exclusive contraptions, the automobile.

As one of her sons tells it, “New Canaanites were surprised to see this young lady perched high behind the wheel of a Franklin (or was it a Pierce Arrow?) speeding down the dirt highways.  Her car was not only one of the first seen in those parts, but she was one of the first women drivers and assuredly the first to receive a ticket for going thirty miles an hour!  Given her affluent youth, it is a wonder that her marriage to my father took place at all.”

Yet Gertrude was willing to forgo this life for herself and her children for Carl’s sake.  Doubtless, her own father’s impression of Carl as a young man molded her picture of the one to whom she would devote her life.  But her love grew to embrace ten children and a rich life with her husband.

A friend visiting in the 1930s described her as “a miracle—a natural woman in an unnatural world, a woman of charm, unfailing tact and fine sensibilities. Schmitt, of coarser mold, a man,” he continued, “must make great demands upon her, but I have never found her wanting.”  Gertrude, for her part, never regretted her choice.


Carl Schmitt’s portrait of a pensive Gertrude, based on photograph dating from c. 1915

Wisdom on Wednesdays—”One must paint as he loves”

“One does not paint merely as one knows (‘Paint it as you know it.’ —Emil Carlsen).  One must paint as he loves, as he knows, as he understands, as he desires, as he imagines, as he sees.” (1933)


Gertrude Reading, oil on canvas, 48 x 40 in.
It is said that as the artist’s wife sat for this painting, her pregnancy became more noticeable, and so the painting was left unfinished.

“Still life is the best way of experimenting”

In our last post, we saw how Carl Schmitt considered still life an ideal medium for exploring new avenues in his painting.  While Schmitt’s still lifes are grounded firmly in the grand tradition of the genre, he was also an “experimenter,” developing the classic model in imaginative and unexpected ways.

Seen in the works of the eighteenth-century master Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin (1699-1779). the classic still life exhibits a number of characteristic features: deliberate yet unstudied composition, hushed light often focused on a single object, a subdued, uncluttered background, a muted range of colors and quiet, careful brushwork resulting in a polished sheen.  A single prominent element in the composition (typically a bottle or bowl) is not uncommon.  Emil Carlsen, a teacher of Schmitt’s and a champion of Chardin’s style, took up many of these elements, which in turn made their way into the work of his most accomplished student.

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Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, White Teapot, 1764. Private collection.

Carlsen’s debt to Chardin can be seen most vividly in the very objects he depicts, offering a kind of homage to the elder master.  In addition to bottles and bowls, these include pieces of fruit, brass pots, ceramic jugs, a white cloth, dead game, flowers, and occasionally a small statue or other objet d’art.  Those familiar with Schmitt’s works will recognize many of these articles in his works, along with his beloved eggs and cups.

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Carl Schmitt, Orange Still Life, 1914.
One of the artist’s finest early works.

Schmitt’s early Orange Still Life (above) features the formal composition, soft light, and subdued palette of many of the works of Chardin and Carlsen.  While Schmitt adopts the customary features of Chardin’s style in its formal arrangement and prominent black bottle, he makes subtle changes as well.  Unlike the traditional model, not all the objects in the painting are equally distinct; in fact, it is difficult to make out exactly what objects are represented in the background of the painting.


Carl Schmitt, Bottles on Their Sides. Like the Orange Still Life, this painting is permeated by a dominant hue, even though the objects in it are actually of various colors.

More significantly, Schmitt, taking his cue from the orange in the foreground, allows a single color to permeate the work, a theme that can be seen in many of his subsequent still lifes such as Bottles on their Sides (above), Pink Drapes, and One Black Bottle and Garlics (see bottom of the post). Perhaps his most remarkable work along these lines is his White Still Life. Here the artist presents an arrangement of white plates, eggs and other objects on a white tablecloth, the whole bathed in a cool white light, a tour de force of the use of color.

Schmitt used color in other new ways as well.  He expanded the customary palette to include deep primary colors, notably red and green, and used hitherto underused colors, such as purple.  In another outstanding still life from the 1920s (below), Schmitt imposes a color scheme of red and orange on the black bottles and blue jug and bowl in the picture, many of which appear in other paintings with their true colors.


Carl Schmitt, Still Life, proabably early 1920s. The distinctive Italian apothecary jug can be seen in another guise in Schmitt’s Two Oranges, (below).

Schmitt also shifted the “viewpoint” of the still life, which traditionally was at eye level, often on a table top, and centered, making the composition fill the canvas.  In certain works he subtly brought the viewer into the painting by separating what he called the “picture plane” from the plane of the viewer.  His Two Oranges (below) includes the canvas of the painting itself within the composition, depicting the artist’s own “view” of the objects rather than the objects in themselves.


Carl Schmitt, Two Oranges, c. 1950. The painting includes the canvas on which it is being painted within it (bottom right).

In other works Schmitt shifts the conventional perspective.  A series of remarkable still lifes from the 1930s depicts the same arrangement of objects from six different angles and distances.  This phenomenon can also be seen in the two different versions of Tanagra and Vase (below).  His Bottles on Their Sides (above) and Still Life with Book are painted from above, while others, such as Eggs, Salt Cellar, and Bowl, seem to present only a portion of a full picture, with objects cut off at the edge of the canvas. Alternatively, One Black Bottle and Garlics (below, with Eggs, Salt Cellar, and Bowl) presents the objects as if far away in a lonely landscape.

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Carl Schmitt, Tanagra and Vase, two versions, 1934.

Schmitt, like any good student, strove both to receive fully what his teacher had to offer and, finally, to go beyond it.  Not long after Carlsen’s death in 1932, Schmitt was still pondering what he had heard from his teacher many years before, and offering his own thoughts.  “One does not paint merely as one knows (“Paint it as you know it.” —Emil Carlsen),” he wrote in 1933.  “One must paint as he loves, as he knows, as he understands, as he desires, as he imagines, as he sees.”

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Carl Schmitt, Eggs, Salt Cellar, and Bowl (left) and One Black Bottle and Garlics, c. 1975.

“I’ve always loved still life”

“I’ve always loved still life, ever since I was a kid,” Carl Schmitt remarked in a conversation with his son Jacob.  “I remember the first things I drew; a great many of them were still lifes.”  He recalled his earliest drawing, a pair of black patent leather shoes that had “caught his attention.”  In the course of his long career, Schmitt painted over fifty still lifes in oil, as well as a small number in pastel.

When asked why so many still lifes, he replied, “There’s no anxiety about the sitter, you have the article there waiting for you exactly the same as it was the day before; the only thing that’s changed is the light.  The article itself is there and you can study it at leisure.”  “Leisure” was particularly important for Schmitt, as his still lifes, by his own admission, could require as many as ninety “sittings.”


Carl Schmitt, Glass Platter. A fine example of Schmitt’s mature style.

Carl Schmitt’s early still lifes show the clear influence of his teacher at the National Academy of Design, the renowned still life painter Emil Carlsen (1853-1932).  Called by a contemporary critic “unquestionably the most accomplished master of still-life painting in America today,” Carlsen has been credited with bringing the genre back to respectability and even prominence at the turn of the twentieth century.

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Emil Carlsen, Still Life with a Brass Kettle and Shallots, 1904 (private collection)

Schmitt’s decision at age eighteen to transfer to the National Academy in 1907 was due in large part to Carlsen’s presence on the faculty there.  Schmitt proved to be one of Carlsen’s most accomplished students, winning the top prize in still life upon his graduation from the Academy in 1909.

In the ensuing years, Carlsen kept in touch with Schmitt, offering guidance and help with his career. “At any time you are more than welcome to my studio and to all the help I can give you; as I consider you a most able serious and thoughtful student,”  Carlsen offered in a friendly letter to Schmitt in 1916.  “Your work is sound, make it a little more solid, that is all you need,”  he wrote in another letter.  “You see I cannot stop being the teacher,” he continued, “but I am very fond of you and believe sincerely in your future.”

In the summer of 1916, Carlsen asked Schmitt to teach his courses at the Academy in the fall while Carlsen traveled to Europe.  But Schmitt, busy with commissions and exhibitions, never took up his offer.  He was, however, recognized by critics as Carlsen’s prize student and always acknowledged his debt to his teacher, keeping a set of notes and bon mots from Carlsen’s Academy classes for the rest of his life.

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Carl Schmitt and Emil Carlsen about the time both were at the National Academy of Design in New York, 1907-1909

To people familiar with Schmitt’s works, it is hardly surprising that the artist first attracted attention for his still lifes.  His first painting selected for a major national exhibition was a still life entitled “Opus Minor No. 1” (present location unknown), shown at the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts in 1912.  Later that same year, this painting was accepted at two other prominent shows, at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC and in Indianapolis.  Another early still life, “Study,” took a similar route, exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago before moving to the Philadelphia Academy and a circuit of major shows throughout the Midwest.


Carl Schmitt, Still Life, 1932, a rare example in pastel

When asked about the perennial appeal of the still life for the artist, Schmitt answered, “It’s largely a field of technical development, the still life is. . . . I suppose the thing standing there catches the eye more readily, and especially when I was starting out to paint I used to do one still life a day for training, to train myself.”


Carl Schmitt, pencil sketch for a still life. Note the jug on the left which also appears in Glass Platter, above.

Carlsen, too, considered the still life a vehicle for technical mastery, asking in an article from 1908, “Why should the earnest student overlook the simplest and most thorough way of acquiring all the knowledge of the craft of painting and drawing, the study of inanimate objects, still life painting, the very surest road to absolute mastery over all technical difficulties.”  Or as Carl Schmitt put it in an interview toward the end of his long career as a painter, “I’m a visionary, an experimenter. . . . Still life is the best way of experimenting.