On This Day: May 20, 1909—“Walked for art’s sake”

Carl Schmitt was an inveterate walker all his life.  He often took his sketch book and pastels with him, drawing whatever struck his fancy; trees, boulders, and his own home in Silvermine were favorite subjects.  These walks also provided inspiration for his more formal works of art.  As his daughter-in-law Hélène Schmitt remembers it, “each painting was an expression of months of work and hours of walking.  He guessed he walked about five miles a day, on average, with each work of art.”

One of the first of Carl Schmitt’s many artist friends shared his love of hiking and walking.  Hugo Robus, four years older than Schmitt, was already a graduate of the Cleveland School of Art when they met as students at the National Academy of Design in New York.  Robus was studying drawing and painting at the time and would later gain prominence as a sculptor.

from Tarbell Hugo Robus - Robus photo 1907 - CROPPED

Hugo Robus about the time he and Carl Schmitt trekked from New York to Washington.

Except for their common love of art, they seemed as different as two young men could be.  Robus came from an unhappy Jewish family in Cleveland, Ohio, a family which offered little encouragement in the arts or patience for his ambitions.  In contrast to Schmitt’s admiration for the Old Masters and the French academic painter Purvis de Chavannes, Robus took his early inspiration from Van Gogh.  He was galvanized by the early modernism he saw firsthand at the 1913 Armory Show in New York.

For all their differences, the two shared an unusual maturity and seriousness of purpose about their work as artists.   Their bond shows Schmitt’s great capacity for friendship, even with those who differed in their approach to art and life.

As their friendship progressed, Schmitt and Robus found they shared a great love for long-distance hiking.  In April 1908, at the end of Schmit’s junior year, the pair walked from the Academy in New York to Boston.  They wended their way up the Hudson River valley before turning east over the Berkshire Mountains and across Massachusetts, sketching the views along the way.

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A sketch probably done on one of Schmitt’s many walking trips through the countryside in New England and Ohio.

The following May, two days after Carl’s twentieth birthday, the two again made a long  trek, this time from New York to Washington, DC, a distance of some 230 miles, in twelve days.  They caught the attention of the local press as they paused to visit the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia:

“Attired in rough but substantial clothing, and each bearing a knapsack on his back, and carrying a stout wooden stick, the students presented the nomadic appearance of artists as they are portrayed in grand opera, wandering over Europe” (Philadelphia Evening Times, May 12, 1909).

1909-5-12 Philadephia Evening Times (Schmitt and Robus) - CROPPED

Carl Schmitt (left) and his friend Hugo Robus on their way to Washington, from the Philadelphia Evening Times, May 12, 1909.

The reporter in Philadelphia must have tipped off someone in Washington about their destination, because a week later the Washington Post picked up the story. The article was entitled “Walked for Art’s Sake” and summed of the trip thus:

“With 40-pound knapsacks slung over their shoulders and faces bronzed by sun, Carl Schmitt and Hugo E. Robus, two students at the National Academy of Design, New York city, arrived in Washington at 2 o’clock yesterday afternoon after a tramp from the former city. The boys are visiting Schmitt’s cousin, Richard McMahon, 1604 Fifteenth street northwest, where they will rest until Sunday [May 23] before going on to their homes in Warren, Ohio, and Cleveland, Ohio, respectively.

“The amateur knights of the road left New York Saturday afternoon, May 8.  They are robust specimens of manhood appear to have weathered the jaunt in excellent shape.  The weather, they said, was ‘better than made to order,’ and the roads, with the exception of the last leg between Baltimore and Washington, were in good shape for pedestrianism.  They averaged about 30 miles a day, walking about six or eight hours of the twenty-four. In their knapsacks, besides light cooking and eating utensils, they each carried half of the dog tent which served them as a shelter on cool nights.  Their longest stops were at Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore.  The trip cost them at a rate of about 50 cents a day, including one day that stopped at a hotel in Baltimore” (Washington Post, May 20, 1909).

In the years following their adventures on the road, Robus and Schmitt would pursue very different careers and eventually lost touch with one another.  Schmitt did not forget his friend, however, and continued to follow his work.  In a note at the end of his essay from 1922, “Of the Reappearance of the Gothic in the Twentieth Century,” Schmitt lists Robus among a select group of artists providing “esthetic leadership” in the new era.   After attending the famed artist retreat at Yaddo in 1928, Schmitt was asked to nominate an artist for the next summer session.  Without hesitation Schmitt passed over the artists he knew in the Silvermine Guild and recommended Robus, calling him “a thorough artist” and “an exceptional fellow too great for fame.”

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Schmitt heading out to sketch around the time of his marriage, 1918.

Schmitt never lost his love of walking and sketching.  In later years he continued to take long walks around Silvermine.  A favorite walk near his studio gave rise to a profound rumination on art and permanence:

“I have just returned from a walk, aside from my walk to the studio, the walk I love best in all the world.  I have awakened in the night when living in Europe filled with a terrible homesickness for an actual view of the road beyond Perkins around Sier Hill.

“And yet having returned from the Sier Hill walk, I am utterly dissatisfied because every time everything in the landscape lacks substance—it is hollow, without permanence, without a soul.  Am I alone in feeling this?   The landscape, the people are much more solid in Europe—all else around me, empty. When I paint I have only one aim: to give substance, essence to things.  In that way I may surround myself with something permanent.”  (1943)

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Untitled (Rock in the Silvermine Woods), pastel on paper, 13 x 17 in.
The solidity and stability of the boulders Schmitt often chose as subjects for his pastels expresses his desire to surround himself with “something permanent.”

One day during a visit to Silvermine. one of my uncles spied a lovely bronze rabbit weighing down some papers on his father Carl Schmitt’s old desk.  As he picked it up to take a closer look, my Uncle Bob, Schmitt’s eldest son, remarked, “Oh, that’s a Robus.”

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4 thoughts on “On This Day: May 20, 1909—“Walked for art’s sake”

  1. Sam, It is so interesting to learn about Granddad’s friends and see the pictures that you have found and the photos. I look forward to your weekly entries. Thank you! Love, Mum

    • So glad you’re enjoying the stories and photos, Mum. There is so much more to tell – I have many, many tales of Granddad’s travels around Europe. his running into famous people (including an episode with the humorist James Thurber), and, of course, everyday life with his wife and children.

      And if the stories themselves weren’t enough, his thoughts and reflections on these events reveal his fascinating character and offer rich food for thought. So there’s a lot to look forward to! Thanks for reading.

  2. What a treasure to hear about these two young students with such vigor and love of life, but having the ability to recreate what they saw through art! These vignettes of the artist Carl Schmitt never cease to amaze.

    • Thanks, John. I really enjoy digging into his early life – it’s fascinating to see where got some of his ideas and how he developed the seeds of his later thought.

      We’re very lucky to have such an extensive archives at the Foundation, but it’s the people who knew him and their memories which are the real treasures.

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