Gertrude Catherine Schmitt passed away peacefully at the home of her niece just past midnight on Wednesday, September 26, 2018. Gertrude was born August 24, 1932, in Norwalk Hospital, the tenth child and only daughter of artist Carl Schmitt and his wife Gertrude. Hers was the only birth recorded in her Father’s extensive journals, which after nine boys, struck the artist as a humorous turn of events. “With the arrival of a daughter! The world is a desert of petty literalness. One should contribute some tragedy, some romance, and some heroism, but best of all, some comic relief.”
A fine artist in her own right, Gertrude was always content to live in her father’s shadow. “I wanted to be an artist from babyhood because my father was an artist,” she remarked. Her dear friend Ray Kelly spoke about “Papa Schmitt” being especially amused that, although his nine sons picked up on his theories of art — one being that painting is historically a masculine skill — none of them took up fine art as their life’s work. Only his daughter devoted herself entirely to painting, and her father was delighted to find she was a true artist. “Gertrude is doing some beautiful painting,” her father wrote to a friend in the early 1960s, “she is very talented.” He said he was as proud of her as he could be of any son. “My Father and brothers painted with their heads,” she would later remark. “I paint with my eyes.”
Gertrude’s early memories of her childhood in Silvermine are full of her nine brothers. At the age of five, she was taken with her family to Italy to be near her Father who had been sent to take the air at a tuberculosis sanatorium in the Italian Alps. After a summer in Florence, the family moved to Rome for the school year 1938-39, where their father joined them. Gertrude remembered playing in the fountains of Rome while waiting for her Mother to walk her home from the school she attended just off St. Peter’s Square. Gertrude retained a vivid memory of Il Duce’s Blackshirts marching about the city.
In the summer of 1939, with war clouds gathering in Europe, the family had decided to return home. They booked passage for September 29, but war broke out the first of that month. Then, just days before leaving, her mother was taken seriously ill and had to be hospitalized. Gertrude’s Father stayed on in Rome with her Mother while the rest of the family set sail with 19-year-old Robert in charge of his younger siblings, overseeing their distribution among a number of families in Wilton and New Canaan until Gertrude and Carl could return around Thanksgiving.
Of the tense homeward voyage on the steamship Saturnia, she recalled the curious sound of the water as the ship idled at Gibraltar while it was briefly detained and boarded by some officers of a British destroyer. Safely home in Silvermine, she began school again in earnest, taking piano lessons and learning horsemanship with the New Canaan Mounted Troop. She attended the Country School in New Canaan, Georgetown School of the Arts, and New Canaan High School, finishing at Miss Thomas’s School in Rowayton.
Gertrude went on to the National Academy of Design in New York City, winning the prestigious Hallgarten Traveling Scholarship for three years’ study abroad. At the Academy of Fine Arts in Rome, she learned little from her professors but much from following her Father’s advice to study directly the work of the masters. She made the most of her time there, spending days studying the great masterpieces and many evenings at the opera.
Upon her return to the family home in Silvermine, Miss Schmitt taught sport and all subjects at the Country School in New Canaan. She also took up the violin, playing in the Norwalk Symphony Orchestra alongside her brother Robert, a flutist, for many years.
As her parents grew older, Gertrude, with the help of her brother Robert, dedicated herself entirely to caring for them both, and to painting. She set up her easel in the family’s living room where a large north-facing window offered the best light. In the fall of 1980, Gertrude and Carl staged a father-daughter exhibition at Waveny House in New Canaan. “Gertrude has been touched by her father’s artistic vision and influenced by his philosophy of art and religion,” an article on the event noted. “The spiritual and aesthetic permeate both of their works and their lives. Here religion and art are perfectly integrated. Their art is much like their lives, not rushed, but carefully and thoughtfully achieved.”
Gertrude continued to play music and paint, exhibiting at local shows. Prizes and commissions allowed her to travel abroad: a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with her brother Robert and several trips to Europe. Her keenly observant eye is reflected in the lovely sketches and pastels she made along the way. She took one last trip to fulfill a commission for the Benedictine Monks of Norcia in central Italy: an altar diptych of the life of St. Benedict.
Upon her Father’s death in 1989 at one hundred years of age, Gertrude received the family home and studio as a gift of thanks for her years of care. She in turn, gave the property to the Carl Schmitt Foundation after its founding in 1996. She cared for Robert until his death this past summer at the age of 98.
Known for her quick wit and her ability to see and to paint the transcendent beauty of the created world, Gertrude died as she lived, selfless to the last.
A retrospective exhibit of Gertrude Schmitt’s works will take place on Sunday, October 7, 2018, from 1:00 to 5:00 pm at the home of her niece and nephew, Margaret and William Skidd, 44 Fox Run Road, Norwalk, Connecticut. The show will feature works in oil, watercolor and pastel, some well-beloved, many newly discovered — the fruit of decades of work, collected and shown together for the first time. For tickets, please click here.