“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’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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”