“We Americans are the world’s best obeyers when it comes to obeying money and machinery. We stand in line, jump to attention, get out of bed, go to work, sit at table or generally obey any mechanical contrivance which immediately dictates to us, and not a person. But what power to place in the hand of the man who sets all this machinery in motion!” —from the essay “Obedience” (1936)
“The breakdown here in America is not due to a negative evil like sin, but to avoidance alike of all negative and positive things like the virtues and vices in the hope that, by postponing both heaven and hell long enough, a Utopia of science may be discovered. It is thought that if the good can be held off long enough, comfort will triumph.”
—from the essay “Room (with Bath) at the Inn” (October 5, 1941)
“The great weakness of us Americans as a people consists in the fact that we cannot quite accept maturity, old age, death, or, for that matter, birth, babyhood. They are not in our imaginative picture of life. We try to live apart from birth, old age, death. We die from ‘perpetual youth.’” (1939)
1926 was a momentous year for Carl Schmitt and his family.
The years since his marriage had been taken up in a seemingly endless series of exhibitions in Silvermine, New York, and at the major shows across the country. The artist’s star seemed to be rising. “It is not reasonable to suppose that a man can show the amazing endurance that Carl Schmitt has in persevering in his desire to paint and to achieve the profound without some day being ‘discovered,’” a critic wrote in 1923. Despite his hard work and the recognition of a few select critics, Schmitt had yet to be “discovered.”
Yet it seems the artist was content to labor in obscurity in the “solitudes of Silvermine,” “a colony of artists who love their work and want to get away from the stress and confusion of modern life. Mr. Schmidt [sic] lives in a house with his family and has his studio in another part of the wood where it has almost a medieval atmosphere, filled as it is with remarkable paintings that come from his brush.” With his growing family—his wife had given birth to six sons by the time Schmitt sketched her sitting in the kitchen in March 1926—his thoughts turned to their education and upbringing. More and more he was becoming dissatisfied with what life in America would mean for him and his family.
The Catholic activist Peter Maurin, a co-founder with Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker Movement, gives us some insight into Schmitt’s thinking at this time. “Carl Schmitt the artist does not want his ten children to be super salesmen, he wants them to be cultured peasants,” Maurin wrote in his characteristically proverbial prose in the early 1930s. “Carl Schmitt the artist is far from thinking that all America needs is a good five-cent cigar, as Vice President Marshall was in the habit of saying. Carl Schmitt the artist thinks that America needs to be revitalized with healthy peasant blood from those parts of Europe where the rugged individualism of bourgeois commercialism has not yet penetrated.”
In June, Schmitt decided to act on his convictions. On the invitation of his longtime patron Zell Hart Deming, he traveled to Europe to explore where he might settle with his family. He visited Dalmatia and Paris but decided on Chartres, France, bringing his wife and family over in September. His brother Robert handled his affairs at home, sending his latest painting, “A Gift of Fruit,” to the Carnegie International exhibition in October. As before, the critics were impressed, one foreseeing “a future in which he will be regarded as the logical heir of the great Americans such as Homer and Eakins.” And once again he was singled out as an artist “who commands admiration from his colleagues but is yet undiscovered by art patrons at large.”
Although the family’s foray to Europe was short-lived (he returned to Silvermine with his family in the spring of 1927), its effects would be long-lasting. According to Schmitt’s son Jacob, “From this experience he seemed to have developed a firmer grasp of the significance of the grace of place, remarking that Northern Europe seemed to bring ‘domestication and affection’ to the fine arts.” Indeed, one can see a certain domestication Schmitt’s own practice of painting, the art he called “characteristically domestic.” And more and more his unsold paintings hung “above where children played or where a family sat at a meal,” as his friend Padraic Colum put it. “In these surroundings they had seemed natural and right—they had enshrined the reality that was around.”
More on the Schmitt family’s stay in Chartres can be found in the Winter 2012 issue of the CSF News.
“Can our national virtues of Comfort, Wealth, and Success be reconciled with the Cardinal Virtues of Chastity, Poverty, and Humility? I am afraid that the answer must be honestly faced. And the answer is, No. The breakdown of civilization has probably been caused by the attempt to reconcile the two sets of ultimately contradictory, exclusive values. After listening to all the arguments against a ‘vicious and criminal poverty,’ ‘suffering brought about by ignorance and sin,’ and ‘failure due to lack of prudence,’ I must still repeat that Christ was uncomfortable and suffered. Christ was poor, and He was a Failure. There is still holy suffering, holy poverty, and holy failure, as we shall discover when we have failed.” (1943)