In what must have been a turbulent time, shortly before his sixteenth birthday, Carl Schmitt withdrew from school in his hometown of Warren, Ohio. The student magazine of Warren High School, The Cauldron, reported that “the condition of Carl Schmitt, who has been suffering from nervous prostration, is much improved but he will probably not return to school until this fall.”
In fact, Carl did not return. In the fall of 1906, he set out for New York to attend art school under the patronage of Zell Hart Deming, editor of the Warren Tribune newspaper and a local patron of the arts. Deming was one of the first to see Schmitt’s potential as an artist, and proved an indefatigable champion of his career in the years ahead, both in the patronage of his art and in the pages of her newspaper.
Schmitt first attended the New York School of Art, then a relatively new institution. Founded by renowned artist and teacher William Merritt Chase in 1898 as the Chase School, it represented a clear alternative to the National Academy of Design. The NAD, founded in 1825, firmly represented the established academic tradition in America.
Chase (1849-1916), well-known for his “American impressionist” style, advocated a less formal course of instruction at his New York school as well as at his outdoor atelier on the idyllic beaches of Shinnecock, Long Island.
By the time Schmitt enrolled, the best-known instructor at the NYSA was not Chase, but the younger Robert Henri (1865-1929), a self-described dissident from academic painting and the most outspoken proponent of the new “realist” style of painting. In 1908 Henri and seven fellow realist painters banded together as “The Eight,” and in their inaugural exhibition at New York’s Macbeth Gallery, set themselves in opposition both to the academic tradition of the NAD and the impressionism of Chase. Detractors labeled the group’s gritty depictions of city life the “Ashcan” school. George Bellows, celebrated for his vigorous sports scenes, was Henri’s most accomplished pupil and became the leading exponent of this tradition in the next generation.
By 1907, Schmitt’s second year at the NYSA, the friction between Henri and Chase led to the Chase’s resignation from the school he had founded. The school introduced courses in fashion design, interior design, and advertising, the first school in America to do so. Schmitt, focused solely on fine art and attracted more and more to the academic tradition, looked for another place to study.
The National Academy offered rigorous instruction in life drawing and still life as well as a faculty of established artists. Emil Carlsen (1853-1932), widely regarded as the leading still life painter in America and an eminent teacher, became Schmitt’s mentor at the school. Carlsen later wrote to Schmitt, “I consider you a most able, serious, and thoughtful student.”
Carlsen’s direct teaching style as well as the influence he had on the young painter can be seen in the list of Carlsen’s classroom dicta Schmitt took down in his years at the Academy and which he kept for the rest of his life. Many of the sayings became part of Schmitt’s own outlook and are echoed in his own studio notes: “You can do more by scraping off paint than you can by putting it on,” “Mind your edges,” and “In painting a portrait, half close your eyes when painting the hands.” Others are bon mots summing up Carlsen’s cotemporaries: “Henri—he is quite a nice fellow—but he says that it is not necessary to paint a head in relation to its background.”
Schmitt flourished at the Academy, capturing the bronze medal (second place) for the antique school in his first year. The following year crowned his studies with the Suyden Medal, the top award in still life.
Schmitt’s professional life also blossomed at the National Academy, as we shall see in the second part of our article.