From the archives: A crazy man and his crazy wife

Catholic writer Donald Powell (1899-1985) published the following in the Catholic Worker newspaper in November 1934, not long after meeting Carl Schmitt and his wife and family in Silvermine.  The complete article, “The Forgotten Man—Carl Schmitt,” may be found on the Carl Schmitt Foundation website.

A few months after the article appeared, Powell wrote to Schmitt in his usual tongue-in-cheek manner, “Sorry I embarrassed you with the dope on the family.  I suppose it was a lousy trick to say publicly in America that a husband and wife are in love with each other.  Worse, it was probably downright immoral and how I’ve escaped the Inquisition for such heresy is more than I know.”  

It was easy to see that Schmitt and his family did not lead an easy life in the 1930s, and Powell, while focusing on the love and warmth of the Schmitt household, does not disguise the privations they suffered during those Depression years.  But with keen insight Powell recognizes the true hardship Schmitt endured was not so much the scarcity of material things as the lack of support and understanding from those who should have been the first to supply it: fellow Catholics.  In fact it was non-Catholics who would proved to be Schmitt’s principal financial supporters in the first part of his career, as Powell himself wryly observes in his article.

In an entry in his notebooks some twenty-five years after Powell’s visit, Schmitt noted that these patrons enabled him “to bring up a numerous family in circumstances of poverty and to make it possible to paint.”  Yet he acknowledges that it was his wife who was his true support in that difficult time.  “Whether this latter activity on my part was necessary under those circumstances was questionable to many, probably most, including many times myself, but not to Gertrude, my wife, who encouraged me in the illusion that I should in turn encourage my muse.”

Powell and Schmitt kept up a vigorous correspondence into the 1960s.  Schmitt’s letters to Powell form part of the Donald Powell Papers at Georgetown University in Washington, DC; Powell’s side of the conversation can be found in the Foundation’s archives in Silvermine.  

If, as James Joyce suggests, the supreme question about a work of art is out of how deep a life it has sprung, then Carl Schmitt is a great artist.  He may or may not be: but of this I am certain: he is a great man.

12002 - CROPPED

Carl and Gertrude outside the house of Carl’s brother Robert, Silvermine, 1926

The artist is, of course, a crazy fellow.  He seeks perfection even while his reason tells him that his powers are finite and that he cannot achieve it. Perhaps he realizes part of his vision, but he wants it all.  He is a mystic who never sees his God—Truth, Beauty and Goodness—whole.  The only reason that society does not segregate him in asylums, along with other anti-social humans, is that he is not immediately dangerous to life or property.

12003 - CROPPED

Carl and Gertrude Schmitt around the time Donald Powell met them in the early 1930s.

The crazy man is a fellow of medium height, with a shock of dark brown hair, light brown eyes (Pan’s eyes) and a deeply lined face.  He looks, and is, ill-nourished.  When painting he gets pains in the back of his neck and in his back and becomes so keyed up that he cannot eat.  But he still worries the canvas with his brushes and fingers until at least part of his vision is realized.  He is just that crazy.

Worse: he has a crazy wife.  Proof: she has ten children.  “Carlo,” I said, “you are not so much, the woods are full of artists, but your wife is a miracle.”  She is just that: a natural woman in an unnatural world, a woman of charm, unfailing tact and fine sensibilities.  Schmitt, of coarser mold, a man, must make great demands upon her, but I have never found her wanting.  The answer is, naturally, after sixteen years of married life and ten children, she is still in love with her husband.  She is a miracle all right, but perhaps her husband is a miracle worker.

Gutmann - Schmitt Family - CROPPED

Portrait of the Schmitt family in 1926 by friend and fellow Silvermine artist Bernhard Gutmann (1869-1936) (taken from a newspaper clipping).
Surrounding Gertrude (left to right) are Austin, David, Michael, Peter, baby Jacob, and the oldest, Robert.  Carl Schmitt can be seen painting in the background.

I have told several of my respectable friends about these children and have watched the expressions of wonder, amazement, and even horror come to their faces.  The more respectable they are, the more horrified they are.

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.  There is love within this family; it was built on love and survives through love.


Gertrude feeding her son Austin, September 9, 1921

6 thoughts on “From the archives: A crazy man and his crazy wife

  1. Loved these pictures and the story. Thank you for giving me a view of what their life was like. I so enjoy Wisdom on Wednesdays! I love the pencil sketch of Mamo feeding Austin.

  2. Thanks for these wonderful snippets of our family’s history. These a little treasures and how fortunate we are to have them.

  3. Pingback: “A masterpiece of God” | Carl Schmitt: The Vision of Beauty

  4. Pingback: Portrait of the Artist as a Family Man – Carl Schmitt: The Vision of Beauty

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