From the archives—Schmitt the “amacheur,” 1911

Today, May 6, marks the 125th anniversary of Carl Schmitt’s birth in Warren, Ohio, in 1889.  The following article from the CSF archives gives a reporter’s view of Schmitt sketching en plein air in Boston.  It was published on his 22nd birthday in 1911.

“Carl Schmidt, [sic] one of the most talented of our younger artists, was sketching on Washington St., Friday, where a crowd collected about him and constituted themselves art critics.  One youngster said to another. “Oh, come on, kid, don’t watch him; he’s only an amacheur.”  “Thanks,” said Schmidt, not looking up from his work, “that’s a real compliment. An amateur is one who works at art for love of it; a professional works for dollars.”  A girl, of the variety that grows up on the streets, looked at the sketch, then muttered, “Gawd, ain’t that rotten. You couldn’t get a match through that door.”  If the youngsters could enter certain studios in town they would hear very different criticisms of Schmidt’s work.”
Boston Evening Transcript, Saturday, May 6, 1911

This small vignette captures Schmitt better than the reporter knew.  We see the artist’s delight in the prophetic irony of the child and the innocent.  We see, too, his kindly wit in the face of bluster and ignorance, a wit that served him well during his long years of struggle as an artist and father of many sons.  In this instance, his response ennobles the youngster’s dismissive remark, turning it to a true praise of the amateurone who works for love, not money.  Schmitt’s early regard for the amateur spirit, as with his other central ideas, deepened but did not change fundamentally throughout his life.  

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Lewis Street, Boston, etching, 1915. (Private collection, Leominster, Mass.)
This early etching of a streetscape in Boston’s North End was probably based on a sketch done while the artist was living with his brother in nearby Beacon Hill neighborhood in 1911-12.

As is typical of early news accounts, the paper misspells Schmitt’s last name.  This would change as his work became better known and respected by artists, critics, and the public at large.  The story was picked up by Schmitt’s sometime patron back in Warren, Zell Hart Deming.  Ever eager to promote Schmitt’s career, she reprinted it in her newspaper, the Warren Tribune, under the headline “WARREN ARTIST IS MAKING GOOD IN WORK AT BOSTON.”   The spelling of Schmitt’s name, oddly enough, was not corrected.  This became a running joke with Schmitt, as he recounted in later years in his journal, “They spelled my name with a “D” on the back.  I must write it always thus: SchmiTT.”

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Wisdom on Wednesdays—“Love ahead of rationalism”

“The essential balance is between the professional and the amateur.  This means professionalism includes all specialists—those persons who by limiting themselves arbitrarily to the smallest field have disintegrated life.  And it means that the amateur includes all those who, while not making techniques their aim, and on the other hand, not neglecting technique, place love ahead of rationalism.”  (1946)

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Gertrude Sleeping, pen and ink on paper, May 1917

Wisdom on Wednesdays—“A new spirit will inform the machine”

The conclusion of last week’s quotation on professionalism.

“Is there no good, then, in the present professionalism?  I think that there is.  Living, as we do now, in the breakdown of both Religion and art, the performance of both rituals must be carried on if only that the machinery should not rust through disuse of a protracted period.  Granted that the machine is being run for its own sake (technology).  The time will come soon when a new spirit will inform the machine.  And in the meantime the old machine has been repaired, replaced, and improved in many ways and will be in readiness for the new surge of creative religion and beauty.”  (1961)

Austin W Lord seated

Austin Lord Seated, pastel on paper, dated October 21, 1920, 16 x 13¼ in.
In his later years, Austin W. Lord, the father of Carl Schmitt’s wife Gertrude, laid aside his architectural practice and devoted more of his time to sketching and painting with his son-in-law in Silvermine.  At the time he sat for this pastel, Lord, then sixty years of age, was already suffering acutely from the illness that would lead to his death less than two years later.  Schmitt presented this pastel to his father-in-law as a gift.

“Please paint the necktie a dark subdued blue”: Schmitt’s early career as a portraitist

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Schmitt during his student days, a photograph taken by his friend James W. Porter.  Porter, a professional portrait photographer, was one of the most dedicated supporters of Schmitt’s early career as an artist.

The first part of this article saw Carl Schmitt’s transition from high school dropout to most favored student at the National Academy of Design, studying under the illustrious Emil Carlsen and winning the top prize in still life.  His successes there pointed to a career of great promise, and a comfortable life as a painter for the great men of business and industry in the early 1900’s.

Schmitt began his professional career even before he graduated from art school.  His earliest recorded commission comes from 1906, when he was paid the handsome sum of $50 for a portrait of one Salvini Guarnieri, a businessman from Schmitt’s hometown of Warren, Ohio.  A friend of Schmitt’s reported from Warren that “the portrait gave unqualified pleasure.”  Other commissions and sales followed from well-to-do residents of Warren and nearly Youngstown.  In 1909, Ohio state senator Benjamin Wirt of Youngstown paid $10 for a still life painting of an “egg, onion, cloth, and ginger jar.”

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James W. Porter, oil on canvas, 1909, 4 7/8 x 4 5/8 in.
Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio; Gift of Marian Roller Chilson, 1988.
Schmitt’s small portrait captures at once Porter’s thoughtful nature and his quick manner.

That same year Schmitt painted a portrait of his long-time friend and benefactor, James W. Porter.  Known to his friends as “Jimmy,” Porter was a professional portrait photographer, connoisseur of American art, and a leading art dealer in the Youngstown area.  He worked closely with Joseph G. Butler, Jr., a leading industrialist and one of the richest men in the region, in the development of Butler’s art collection.   In 1917 Butler made this collection, along with a gallery and a generous endowment, the nucleus of the first museum devoted to the art of the United States, the Butler Institute of American Art.   Ironically, it was success of portrait photographers like Porter which hastened the decline of portraits in oil such as those being done by Schmitt.

Porter, along with Zell Hart Deming, publisher of the Warren Tribune and an early patron of Schmitt, would prove the most fervent supporters of the young artist in the early years of his career.  As his correspondence with Schmitt and the artist’s own records reveal, Porter was tireless in his promotion of Schmitt’s works through exhibitions and sales at his gallery, as well as commissions from some of the area’s wealthiest and most prominent citizens.

Schmitt’s account books record the sales of over seventy works to residents of northeast Ohio, secured mostly through Porter’s efforts.  These sales would prove to be Schmitt’s most reliable source—and often his only source—of income through the 1920s.

Profile of a Monk - Butler Institute

Profile of a Monk, watercolor, 1906, 7 x 5 in.
Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio; Gift of the Estate of Lorena Coale, 1986.
This work may have been among the watercolors lent by Mrs. William Coale for the Schmitt exhibition at the Warren public library in 1912.

Guarnieri’s portrait was among the thirty works shown at Schmitt’s first one-man show, held at Warren’s public library over Memorial Day weekend in 1912.  Organized by Deming and Porter, the show featured paintings, pastels and watercolors lent by prominent people in Warren and Youngstown, most of whom were Deming’s personal friends.  Her Tribune featured a glowing review (most likely written by Porter) praising Schmitt’s pastels as “wonderfully soft and beautiful in coloring.”  Deming wrote excitedly to Schmitt that the brief exhibition had attracted over 1500 people.  The success of the show testified both to the talent of the young painter and the marketing skills of his promoters.

Dawn Sketch Mills No. 2 [Republic Mills]

Dawn Sketch Mills No. 2, oil on prepared artist’s board, 1909, 7 x 9 in.
A similar work entitled Opus I was shown at the 1912 exhibit.  According to an unsigned review (probably penned by Jimmy Porter): “One of the most striking pictures in the exhibit is a large canvas of a rolling mill at Youngstown by night. This picture breathes the mystery of smoke and flame and industry and is typical of the iron industry of Youngstown.”  It was offered for sale for $350.

By 1918 Schmitt was receiving $600 for a commissioned portrait, generous at a time when the average annual income in the United States was around $1500.  As lucrative as these jobs could be, it was clear that by this time Schmitt was growing weary of pleasing fastidious sitters, as well as the travel these commissions involved.

Schmitt’s commission for the portrait of Mr. H. K. Wick, completed in 1917, may have been a turning point for the young portrait painter.  Mrs. Wick asked Schmitt to paint her husband’s portrait shortly after his death in 1916.  While she was pleased with Schmitt’s first painting (shown below), Schmitt’s copy of the work, requested by Mrs. Wick for the office of the Republic Rubber Company (where Mr. Wick was a director), proved a trial for both artist and patron.  In a series of letters over many months, Mrs. Wick gave detailed instructions as to the color scheme and other details.  A letter from May, 1917 reads in part:

“Please paint the necktie a dark subdued blue, without much highlight. Also hope that the background is dark, almost black, shaded to a grey blue and without any effect of tapestry.  I like a vague suggestion of blue and sky if this treatment is permissible . . . the eyes are to be a decided blue, which I think you already know.”

Mrs. Wick’s most serious complaint came in a letter after the portrait was finished.  “I can not agree with you in regard to it being a likeness.”  As a friend wrote to Schmitt, “Evidently Mrs. Wick is no longer sure of herself as to how her husband looked and, worse still, (for you) seems unable to settle how she wants him to look.”  In the end, an exasperated Schmitt politely refused to acquiesce to all of his patron’s demands, Wick refused to accept the finished painting, and the artist returned half of the agreed $200 fee to the wealthy widow.  In the midst of all this, it is no surprise that Schmitt declined Mrs. Wick’s request to paint her own portrait.

Portrait of H. K. Wick [11410]

Portrait of H. K. Wick, oil on canvas, 1917, 28 x 23 in.
Butler Institute of American Art; Gift of Mrs. H.K. Wick, 1934.

Although he could have had a secure career as a portrait painter, Schmitt gradually distanced himself from commissioned work, concentrating instead on gaining recognition through national and international exhibitions.  It would prove a hard road.

Schmitt’s decision was not simply a matter of preference or convenience on his part.  “Art is no better than the patron,” he would reflect many years later.  Many artists, even supremely successful ones such as John Singer Sargent, have expressed a fundamental dissatisfaction with creative work done for the money.

At a deeper level, however, Schmitt came to the realization that the pursuit of painting as a fine art demanded a freedom that was hindered by anything extrinsic to the purpose of art itself, particularly commercial considerations.  “There is art and there is commerce,” his friend Hilaire Belloc was fond of saying.  Practically all of Schmitt’s subsequent portraits are of members of his family and those he knew personally.  As he himself expressed in more positive terms: “All creation in the Fine Arts is done in privacy and in love.”