“Just look at it!”: Pumpkin with Iron Pot (1914)

A guest post by Jacob A. Schmitt

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Carl Schmitt, Pumpkin with Iron Pot, c. 1914, oil on canvas, 20 x 20 in.
Florence Griswold Museum, Old, Lyme Connecticut

Carl Schmitt’s earliest professional work was done from the time he graduated from the National Academy of Design in New York at the age of twenty-one, through to about 1914, when he left to finish his studies in Florence, Italy.  Here we see the influence of his teachers at the Academy, especially the Danish-born still life master Emil Carlsen (1853-1932), whom he admired perhaps more than any other instructor.

Emil Carlsen - The Copper Pot

Emil Carlsen, The Copper Pot, 1931, oil on canvas, 18 x 18 in.
Private collection.

The handling of light is the focus of this early stage. Although the quality of light appears throughout all of Schmitt’s work, here light contrasts with darkness in more traditional ways.  Unlike his other paintings, these early works do not reveal his usual characteristics where rhythmic forms, lyrical design, bright colors, spatial values, and dramatic focus are constructed out of layers of various modeled and glazed colors.  Instead, the painting strokes themselves create the form.

PUMPKIN WITH IRON POT - detail

Pumpkin with Iron Pot displays Carlsen’s simplicity of flat pattern design seen in the pot and backdrop differentiated by the brilliance of light in the cloth and pieces of pumpkin.  It has a quality of light similar to what Schmitt often spoke of as the genius of the eighteenth-century still-life painter Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, that of revealing the beauty of soft light falling on an object, especially bottles.

(c) Glasgow Museums; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Chardin, Still Life, c. 1730, oil on canvas, 11 x 14½ in.
The Burrell Collection, Glasgow
© Glasgow Museums; supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Perhaps this is where Schmitt learned to love the quality of old glass bottles seen in so many of his later still lifes.  He obtained specimens of this glass from various shops during his travels and from foundations of old ruined houses he came upon during his walks around Silvermine.  To enhance that quality of light on these bottles, he took care not to disturb the dust that would collect on them, especially after he had set them carefully in a still life arrangement.  These bottles may still be found in the studio in Silvermine.

bottle in the studio - cropped

Pumpkin with Iron Pot was in the artist’s possession until the early 1980s, when it was acquired by the Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company as an addition to its collection of paintings and other works by Connecticut artists.  In 2001, the Company gave its entire collection to the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, Connecticut.  The museum included Schmitt’s painting in an exhibition of works from the Hartford Steam Boiler Collection the following year and featured it in its illustrated catalog, The American Artist in Connecticut.

Wisdom on Wednesdays—The art of religions

“In comparatively aesthetic sterile periods, like that of today, when the science rather than art of religions flourishes, critics are tempted to see no connection between religion and beauty, mistaking as they do, the external shell, which today is prosperous generally, for religion in its fullness.”
—from the essay “The Value of the Fine Arts” (March 1943)

Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York, view of the apse under construction, c. 1908. Pencil and chalk on paper.
Schmitt passed by this view on his way to art school from his apartment at 400 Manhattan Avenue to the 110th street subway.

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.”

“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.”

Carl Schmitt in New York—”a most able serious and thoughtful student”

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.”  

Carl Schmitt 1906 watercolor

Carl Schmitt, watercolor of flowers, 1906, probably done outside his family home in Warren, Ohio.

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.

William Merritt Chase - Roland OP553 in catalog

William Merritt Chase, Master Roland, 1914, from an early photograph.
Joseph G. Butler, Jr., founder of the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio, purchased this painting of the artist’s son for his personal collection from Chase’s widow in January, 1917.  Butler’s agent in New York was Carl Schmitt.  The paining was later destroyed in a fire which consumed Butler’s entire art collection in December of that year.

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.

Robert Henri - The Fisherman's Son, Thomas Cafferty 1925

Robert Henri, The Fisherman’s Son, Thomas Cafferty, oil on canvas, 1925, 24 x 20 in.
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.
The vivid contrast between the art of Chase and Henri is seen in the above portraits, both in their choice of subject and their style.

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.”

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Carl Schmitt, Ruth, oil on board, 1916, 25 x 30 in.
A commissioned portrait of the daughter of a doctor from Warren.

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.”

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Carl Schmitt, Self-portrait, oil on wood, 11 x 14 in.
This early self-portrait shows that Schmitt was familiar with the freer brushstrokes associated with Henri’s technique as well as the more polished style of Chase and Carlsen seen in his portrait of Ruth (above).

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.

Carl Schmitt 1906 watercolor - signature - CROPPED