From the archives: “An artist with a distinctly individualistic manner of looking at things”

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Annunciation, c. 1922, oil on canvas, 20 x 24 in.

Carl Schmitt’s one-man show at the prestigious Philadelphia Art Alliance in March, 1930, came at a crossroads in his career.  At the time the artist was moving away from his signature “tapestry” style into more religious and “mystical” themes.  Many of the paintings display an experimental, even unsure hand, venturing into imaginative realms not explored by the artist before and rarely visited in later work.  This bold move, while attracting favorable critical attention, followed the old pattern and did not help his lackluster sales, but demonstrates once again Schmitt’s commitment to the demands of his art in the face of economic pressures.  Of course, the recent market crash made misers of even the wealthiest patrons, and the show failed to yield a single sale, although a few of the paintings would find buyers in the subsequent months.  (Some remain lost to this day.)

The following two reviews are typical of the ones Schmitt received in this period.  The critics are clearly fascinated with his work.  Here is a painter they can’t quite pin down: is he a realist or idealist?  Traditionalist or individualist?  His approach is decidedly contemporary, yet he seems impervious to any particular modern influence.  While many pointed to the old Italian masters as the main source of his inspiration, others identify Byzantine art or peasant and primitive influences.  The headline to one review neatly summed up the critics’ response: “Old but New.”

While noting his use of color, his unusual imagination, and the lively rhythm and patterns in his canvasses,  the critics fail to put their finger on Schmitt’s overall purpose and approach.  At a basic level, they confess confusion with Schmitt’s claim to be a “realist” when so many of his works strike the eye as purely imaginative, even fanciful.  One critic came near to Schmitt’s understanding when he described him as a painter who uses “the language of the inner eye.”  Schmitt explained himself to the critics: “Several people have complained that they cannot understand my pictures and have asked if I would explain them.  This lack of understanding never fails to surprise me, as I try to paint only what I see as exactly and clearly as possible.  I think pictures are meant to be looked at.  If there is a secret—the eye must comprehend it.”

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Madonna in White, 1929, oil on masonite, 48¼ x 40 in.
One of two madonnas shown at the Art Alliance, the other being the lost work  Madonna in Orange.

“In the members’ room of the Art Alliance hangs a small collection of paintings by Carl Schmitt, an artist with a distinctly individualistic manner of looking at things.  Mr. Schmitt’s own theory regarding his methods is: “I try to paint only what I see as exactly and as clearly as possible.” This sounds like the creed of a confirmed realist, but this artist is nothing of the sort.  He is an idealist with a peculiar sense of color, given to religious subjects and apparently influenced by early Italian art.

“His pictures at the Art Alliance are mostly religious in subject matter.  His ‘Trinity: Decorationwhy ‘Trinity’ when apparently it represents only the Second Person, on the cross surrounded by angelsis almost Byzantine in feeling and very ornamental.  In it the color scheme is restrained, harmonious and satisfactory.  In others of his sacred group he contrasts magenta and light green in a way to put one’s teeth on edge.

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A Picnic, 1927, oil on canvas, approx. 48 x 40 in.

“His ‘Picnic’ differs entirely from these other pictures. In it he shows a very modern group dining al fresco against a highly conventionalized landscape background, the general treatment reminding one of a modernized Botticelli.  The whole is very amusing and effective, a joyous little canvas.”

—”Individualism of Carl Schmitt,” Philadelphia Record, March 2, 1930

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Gethsemane Gold and Silver, c. 1930, oil on canvas, 30¼ x 25 in.
The unusual coloration of this work may offer some idea of look of the similar painting shown at the Art Alliance.  Critics often remarked on Schmitt’s powerful use of color in paintings of this period, particularly those of a “mystical” character.

“The art of Carl Schmitt, as seen in his one-man show at the Art Alliance, is the vivid expression of a highly individual and imaginative personality.

“Only one of the compositions, a small portrait sketch, is primarily realistic.  The emotional tempo of the artist seeks rather the realm of pure fancy, developing unusual color combinations and richly decorative compositions not unlike, in pigmental and design emphasis, the peasant art expressions of primitive peoples.

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Guardian Angel, c. 1929
 One of two angel paintings shown at the Art Alliance exhibition. A contemporary review described it as “an exquisitely simple portrait of a young girl,” which is “given its angelic quality by an unearthly light which plays about her features.”

“Schmitt covers every inch of space with color and design interest. He is especially sensitive to colors. In one composition which he titles ‘Gethsemane’ the moving folds of robes, of hills and sky are further intensified by the weird olive green and greenish-yellow pigmentation.

“Something of the design quality of peasant embroidery enters into the colors and pattern weaving of a highly imaginative Crucifixion, while, in the various imaginative compositions based upon the theme of the Annunciation, Schmitt combines the unusual in pigmentation with a certain basic purity of conception, lending to the figures portrayed the charm of the naïve.

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Angel of the Resurrection, c. 1930, oil on canvas, 42 x 35 in.

“Those who consider Carl Schmitt’s art from an unrealistic viewpoint will find it eccentric. His figures often give the impression of brownish jointed wooden dolls.  As figures they are disappointing, but when considered as part of a larger rhythm, part of a moving pattern, they achieve a fuller meaning.

“The charm of Schmitt’s art lies in the richness of his imagination, its design quality, and its individual choice of pigments.  Coupled with this is an emotional reaction that never sinks to the level of the decadent.”

—Christian Science Monitor, March 15, 1930

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From the archives: Schmitt and “the surrounding inanities” or, “Why didn’t someone tell me twenty years ago about these men that are selling at fabulous prices now?”

“There are five paintings by Carl Schmitt in the exhibition and it is to be regretted that there are not five collectors in Pittsburgh keen enough to ‘see’ and acquire them.”
—Penelope Redd, on the 1923 “Exhibition of Well-Known Artists,” held at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh

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Ancient Episode, oil on canvas, 24 x 30 in.
An oil painting with this title, but with larger dimensions, was shown at the 1923 Carnegie show, along with Annunciation (below) and two “lost” works in Hawthorne medium, The Holy Spirit and the Muse and Mosaic Marriage.

Schmitt had been exhibiting at the major exhibitions across the country for over a decade when he found a champion in the art critic for the Pittsburgh Post, Penelope Redd.  Redd hailed Schmitt as “the logical heir of the great Americans such as Homer and Eakins,” singling him out as “one of the few modern painters that promises to survive the flood of the competently commonplace and the falsely modish.”

The artist was receiving increasingly warm praise from other critics as well.  Reviewing an exhibition in Silvermine in July, 1923, the Christian Science Monitor noted that Schmitt “brings to his work a rare color sense, an instinct for rich design, a fine imagination, and sufficient inspiration to make his effects convincing.”

As Schmitt was being noticed by the critics, his schedule of exhibitions was becoming more crowded than ever.  The year 1923 was particularly busy, with no fewer than 35 of his works featured in a dozen exhibitions, including such prestigious venues as the Carnegie International, the National Academy of Design, the Chicago Art Institute, and the Corcoran Gallery.  His work was also shown at national exhibitions in Cincinnati, Omaha, and Detroit, as well as the usual round of shows in Silvermine.

Among the yellowed newsprint collected in our studio archives, Redd’s review of the 1923 “Exhibition of Well-Known Artists,” held at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, merits note for its keen appreciation of Schmitt’s art and its understanding of his plight as an outstanding young artist who has yet to be “discovered.” 

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A Gift of Fruit, 1926, oil on canvas (a contemporary black-and-white photograph).
“‘A Gift of Fruit'” Redd wrote in a review of the 1926 Carnegie International, “combines the fundamentals which make for the endurance of the older types of painting and the exciting interplay of form and color which marks the newer movements. Carl Schmitt turned away from the assurance of popularity as a pleasant painter to become one of our potentially great painters, although he works in more or less obscurity.”

The curious thing about Carl Schmitt is that one believes he has arrived at a point of crystallization only to discover that he has gone on to something else.  He has developed from the “best student that Emil Carlsen ever had” to one of the few original painters known to us through exhibitions.  At first he painted in a decorative manner that was not unlike the work of Puvis de Chavannes. Every time he changed he dug harder into the form of art—he became less and less satisfied with the delightful effects of his surface decorations and gladly met the dubious comments he encountered.

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The Well, oil on canvas, 1918.
This, one of Schmitt’s most widely exhibited and admired early paintings, was often compared to the work of the nineteenth-century French artist Puvis de Chavannes in its “quiet” and “serenity.”
(A black and white image taken from the catalog of the 32nd Annual Exhibition of American Paintings at the Art Institute of Chicago, where the painting was shown in the fall of 1919.)

The group in the Carnegie Institute is of the last two years and mark his greatest advance. Carl Schmitt is now definitely engaged in giving the significance of the idea although painting what is really “pure design.”  “The Holy Spirit and the Muse” arouses in one many queries as to the artist’s symbolism.  The “Pieta” is a modern primitive.  He has used colors that will disturb the realistic-eyed one but he must have had a deliberate intent in using a glorious yellow touched with red.  The composition with its incessant movement gives the sensation of living life—not the still life that most modern pictures are. Carl Schmitt has the uncanny power of imparting life to his work.  Not by the simulation of vigor through technic but through the ability to make his paintings creative. He is at a decided disadvantage at a large exhibition where the observer cannot isolate Schmitt’s canvases from the surrounding inanities.

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Pietà, c. 1923, oil on canvas, 33 x 41 in.

“The ‘Pieta’ is a modern primitive. . .  [Schmitt] has used colors that will disturb the realistic-eyed one but he must have had a deliberate intent in using a glorious yellow touched with red.  The composition with its incessant movement gives the sensation of living life—not the still life that most modern pictures are.”

A very rich man in this town once said: “But why didn’t someone tell me twenty years ago about these men that are selling at fabulous prices now?”  And the one who loved art answered: “But would you have listened?”

That is particularly true of Carl Schmitt.  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.”  The period of waiting is wearisome to those who like to see a young painter encouraged, and it is precarious for the painter himself.  There are five paintings by Carl Schmitt in the exhibition and it is to be regretted that there are not five collectors in Pittsburgh keen enough to “see” and acquire them.

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Annunciation, c. 1922, oil on canvas, 20 x 24 in.
Also shown at the 1923 exhibition in Pittsburgh.

On This Day: July 22, 1928—“Carl Schmitt is doing things that are unique in America today”

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Building a Boat, gum arabic print, 1929.
“With Korčula in the background—a white city shimmering in the subtropical sun.”
One of a series of prints Schmitt executed for his article “Korčula, On the Adriatic,” published in the February 1929 issue of Scribners Magazine. Another print in this series, The Chapel, is currently on the New Canaan Historical Society exhibit On Canvas, Paper & Board—Works by The Silvermine Group of Artists, now showing through August 5, 2014.

In the summer of 1928, Ada Rainey, art critic at the Washington Post, wrote a profile of the Silvermine colony, calling it “one of the most creative and unique among all the art colonies.”   This is due in large part, she notes, to the fact that “practically all the artist own their own homes, there being practically no transient artists…Consequently there is a stable population which is entirely different from many artist colonies where artists congregate to merely study or paint throughout the summer without any serious interest in the community.”

Rainey highlighted the work of a number of the better-known artists in the colony, including Carl Schmitt, Bernhard Gutmann, and the architect Alfred Mausolff.  (As if to show the closeness of the Silvermine community, Gutmann was a close friend of Schmitt’s, while Mausolff was the husband of his wife’s sister Margherita.)  

Rainey’s discussion of Schmitt’s art appears below.

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Holy Family—Gothic Decoration, oil on canvas, 1922 (a contemporary black-and-white photograph).
A companion to the artist’s his larger Nativity. A critic for the New York Times wrote of this pair of Schmitt paintings: “[they] are permeated with a tenderness and richness of devotional feeling only equaled in the work of Maurice Denis, and embodied in a less intricate design.”

Of the individual members [of the Silvermine colony], a great deal could be written, for they are producing artists who are truly original.

There is, for instance, Carl Schmitt, who is doing things that are unique in America today. There are few artists today in America who are painting canvasses of real spiritual import.  Religious is a term which means frequently theological dogma, which can by no stretch of the imagination be applied to the painting of Carl Schmitt.  Rather are his creations concerned with the universal feeling of man for his origins and the desire to understand this relationship.

Although the title of some of his paintings are, for instance, “Peter the Hermit,” “Holy Family,” “Celestial Thought of Motherhood,” yet there is no hint of the conventional treatment that we are familiar with in the old Italian paintings.  Rather we find a new approach through the imagination of the artist who is moved by universal themes and must express the surge of feeling that comes to man when he thinks of the infinite and the expression of this power in the lives of men and women.

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A Gift of Fruit, oil on canvas, 1926 (a contemporary black-and-white photograph).
Frank Jewett Mather, professor of art at Princeton University and a leading art critic of the day (and one of the few admired by Schmitt), wrote of the work, “It is a celestial thought of motherhood treated with a delightful levity and joyousness.”

This is the deepest feeling and the most universal that can be expressed through the brush of the painter and one which all art lends itself to express.  Seldom is the American artist bold enough to concern himself with these profound themes.  The plea has been that the public is not interested in such themes, but now there is a swing of the pendulum to the deep feelings.

Mr. Schmitt has a language which is tremendously interesting in itself and which is commanding greater and greater interest in art circles.  He has rich luminous color, which is in no way exaggerated, a fine sense of composition, his figures are woven into a pattern that has organic unity, the whole welded into a beauty and power through the strength of his imagination.

The artist is now coming into his own and his paintings are in great demand for exhibitions throughout the country.  “Muses in the Valley,” exhibited in the last exhibition of the Chicago Art Institute, has just been sold [this evidently refers to A Gift of Fruit, exhibited and sold in 1927], as has another painting of a “Madonna and Child,” with primitive treatment in pastel.

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Head in marble, c. 1924.
Regrettably, Carl Schmitt’s only finished work of sculpture.

Most of his paintings are in oil in which he does his best work.  However, he is not confined to this medium, as an exquisitely beautiful head has just been chiseled out of marble, which is rhythmically beautiful and significant. This is a new field in which the artist has begun to work, which if he continues to be as successful in as this first attempt he will go far toward becoming a sculptor of great plastic power.

Mr. Schmitt has a sense of form which is powerfully expressive.  He is now working on a series of illustrations for an article on the “Cities of Dalmatia.”  The significant element in his work is that fact that he is an artist who works exclusively from the vision of his inner nature and is in no way objective or external, but is profoundly introspective and is seeking to express his feeling directed by philosophical thought of the great realities of life and the universe.

A Vista of the Cathedral (Korčula, Dalmatia), gum arabic print,1929.
Another in the series published in Scribners, February 1929.

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.

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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).

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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.”

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.”