“With pipe, solitude and puppy for company”: Hart Crane and Carl Schmitt—Part 1

Harold Hart Crane by Carl Schmitt

Harold Hart Crane, oil on metal support, 17½ x 14½ in. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC. Gift of The Carl Schmitt Foundation.
Painted by Schmitt in the late 1960s or early 1970s from a photograph.

Harold Hart Crane, known to the world as Hart Crane, has been called “unquestionably the major poetic talent of twentieth-century America” (Brom Weber). Though Carl Schmitt knew Crane for only a brief time in his early manhood, Schmitt’s influence on the young poet, according to one of Crane’s biographers, “cannot be over-estimated.”

Crane was born in Garretsville, Ohio, in 1899, but his family had deep roots in Schmitt’s hometown of Warren.  His mother Grace Hart was born in there, and it was there she returned with her husband Clarence, and their five-year-old son Harold.  Carl Schmitt’s father, Professor Jacob Schmitt, counted Grace’s Aunt Bess among his piano pupils at Dana’s Musical Institute in Warren.

JAS and others on steps outside DMI - resized

Prof. Jacob Schmitt (far left) with other faculty and students of the Dana Musical Institute, c. 1910.

Another Warren connection was Zell Hart Deming, publisher of the Warren Tribune newspaper. She was the widow of Grace’s brother Frank Hart and Harold’s godmother.  A generous patron of the arts, she had helped Carl with his education, first in New York and later in Europe.  Through the pages of her newspaper she did everything she could to further the career of the young painter through exhibition notices, flattering reviews and “local boy made good” chronicles of his triumphs in the art capitals of the country.

Carl Schmitt’s portrait of his patron Zell Hart Deming, publisher of the Warren Tribune, painted from a photograph after her death in 1936. The accompanying article from the Tribune reads much like earlier congratulatory pieces published by Deming herself:
“The painting is the work of Carl Schmitt of Silvermine, Conn. (son of Prof. and Mrs. Jacob Schmitt of this city) who was most fortunately adapted to the task by reason of his long acquaintance with Mrs. Deming, in addition to his outstanding qualities as a portraitist. From the time he embarked on his artistic career as a boy, here in Warren, Mrs. Deming recognized Mr. Schmitt’s talent and the possibilities inherent in it, and thruout her life she continued in a very real sense to be his patron.”

After Crane’s family moved from Warren to Cleveland in 1909, they maintained close ties with family in their former home.  Schmitt, ten years older than Hart Crane, probably did not get to know the shy teenager until the summer of 1915.  The artist was fresh from his studies in Italy, back in Warren fulfilling some portrait commissions.

By November 1916, Schmitt had returned to New York, taking a studio apartment in Stuyvesant Square.  Crane’s first letter to Schmitt around this time glows with a warm familiarity.  “Someday, perhaps next summer, I shall come to you and we will work together,” he wrote wistfully.  But the young poet was enduring one of the most trying periods of his short life.  His matter-of-fact report of the breakup of his parent’s marriage disguises both his bitterness towards his father and his overwhelming desire to get away from his boyhood home.

Hart Crane to Carl Schmitt 1916 Nov _ 1 of 2 - CROPPED

Crane’s first letter to Schmitt, probably November, 1916, in the Carl Schmitt Foundation archives.
The date on the letter is in the hand of Crane’s first biographer, Philip Horton, to whom Schmitt lent his letters from Crane in the 1930s.

Dearest Carl: –
     With pipe, solitude and puppy for company, I am feeling resplendent. After a day’s work in a picture store, selling mezzotints and prints, you may not think it, yet there comes a great peaceful exaltation in merely reading, thinking and writing. For occasionally in this disturbing age of adolescence which I am now undergoing, there come minutes of calm happiness, satisfaction.
     I don’t know whether or not I informed you in my last letter, of the step mother and I have taken. Next week mother files her petition in court for her divorce from father. In this I am supporting her. So the first thing to do was to secure some employment. Your poet is now become a salesman, and (it might be worse) a job at selling pictures at Korner and Wood has been accepted.
     I have had tremendous struggles, but out of the travail, I think, must come advancement. Working evenings will give me a little time for composing. And even should it not, I have been christened, I think, and am more or less contented with anything. Carl, I feel a great peace; my inner life has balanced as I expected, the other side of the scale. Thank God, I am young! I have the confidence and will to make fate. Someday, perhaps next summer, I shall come to you and we will work together. You understand, I know.
                                                                                                                    Affectionately,
                                                                                                                                Harold


Zell filled Carl in on the details in letter the following month.  “Grace Crane has sued Clarence for a divorce, gross neglect and extreme cruelty.  Harold has quit school and isn’t at all well.”  She then makes a proposal to Carl.  “He wants to come east for a while. What do you think?  Would you tutor him an hour a day and sort of keep your eye on him for say $10 a week. . . . I think he is in a serious condition or will be if he doesn’t get away.”  Zell’s original plan called for Harold, then attending high school in Cleveland to “get a job and go to school next fall.”

A few weeks later things had taken a turn for the worse: “Harold a nervous wreck. He needs to get away.”  By the end of the month the decision had been made. Hart Crane was to live in New York, with Carl Schmitt as friend, tutor, and guardian.

(To be continued.)

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Self-Portrait, charcoal on paper, December 1916.
A work done around the time Schmitt met Crane in New York.

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.”

11410 - Ruth (Portrait of Ruth Thomas) - CROPPED

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