On This Day: February 20, 1914—”A slender, athletic girl with shy brown almond-shaped eyes”

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Gertrude Lord (left) and Elizabeth Gardiner dancing, a photograph taken on the night of the Beaux-Arts ball.

The New York Times called it “by far the most brilliant and artistic event of the Winter social season,” the New York Press, “the most elaborate spectacle of its kind New York has ever seen.”  It was the first annual Ball of the Fine Arts, given by the Society of Beaux-Arts Architects and held at the glittering ballroom of the Hotel Astor in Times Square.

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The ballroom at the Hotel Astor, around the time of the Beaux-Arts ball.

The guests at the costume ball  included, in the words of one report, “some the most beautiful women and the undisputed social leaders of the city”: Mesdames Stuyvesant Fish, Peter Cooper Hewitt, Oliver Harriman, and Otto H. Kahn. Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt came to the ball only after being seen at the Metropolitan Opera where, according to the Herald, “that tragic tale of ‘Manon Lescaut’ in the musical setting of Mr. Puccini” was being performed with “Mr. Caruso in the title role.”

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Scenes from the ball captured in the New York Times, March 1, 1914.

The evening’s entertainment, “Venice Through the Ages,” was a three-part extravaganza illustrating the progression of Venetian civilization from the backwardness of the “Dark Ages” to the glory of the Renaissance.  Gertrude Lord, then 23, took part in the most elaborate portion of evening, the Dance of the Months, with her friend Elizabeth Gardiner.

An early suitor of Gertrude’s recalled his first meeting with her at a soiree in Silvermine in 1915: “A slender, athletic girl… with shy brown almond-shaped eyes in whose depths lay an affectionate smile.  As she turned to some other guests, he noticed her soft, chestnut hair, her straight, warm mouth and the gentle way she carried herself.”  Sitting next to her older sister Marguerite, he had watched her dancing the evening before, where “she wore the usual white chiffons, danced with the usual grace and was applauded with the customary courtesy.”

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Gertrude and her friends dancing in Silvermine.

Gertrude was instructed in dance during her summers in Silvermine  by Caroline Caffin, wife of New York art critic Charles Caffin. Caffin, a protege of modern dance pioneer Isadora Duncan, specialized in “interpretive dance” which sought to portray stories or music through the graceful movements of the dance.

Gertrude earned a place in the dance roster at the ball as her father, Austin W. Lord, was a charter member and past president of the Society.  The professional group had its origins in the busy social scene surrounding the famed Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where Lord had been a student twenty-five years earlier.

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Carl Schmitt, Gertrude Dancing, February 1917, pastel on paper, 13 x 10 in.

Though Gertrude’s days of glittering ballrooms, elaborate tableaux, and dances on the lawn ended upon marriage to Carl Schmitt, her calm grace continued to capture the artist’s eye for the next 65 years.

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Gertrude, c. 1970, oil on canvas, unfinished, 30 x 25 in.

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“Just look at it!”: Gertrude Reading

A guest post by Jacob A. Schmitt

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Gertrude Reading, oil on canvas, 48 x 40 in.
According to family lore, Gertrude, over the months that she sat for this portrait, would alter this dress to accommodate her advancing pregnancy. Toward the end, the dress could not be let out any further, and the painting was left unfinished.

This is a wonderful portrait of the artist’s wife, Gertrude.  A gracious, lyrical femininity is seen in the dignified movement of the pose and the basic forms of the flowing dress, the upper body, arms, and head.  This is enhanced by the tilt of the head repeated in the poised wrist and contrasted by the repose of the right arm—a superb sense of a balance of rhythmic lyricism.

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A more informal picture of Gertrude reading, a pen and ink sketch from 1926.

At the same time—and this is Schmitt’s first picture that offers this technique—the whole picture is united by a conical-triangular shape formed from the flowing dress at the base, through the dignified rectangular form of the body capped by the dark hair. Hence, there is movement within solidity, but with delicacy, balance, and poise.

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Compared to earlier portraits, one sees a refinement in the handling of light falling upon the upper face, shoulders, and arms.  The viewer’s eye is moved and focuses more clearly on the central aspect of Gertrude’s concentration by the technique of a more refined sculpting and modeling of the head and shoulders.  Along with this modeling, a solidity of form is achieved by the manner in which light is used in the background and how it falls on the figure.

This painting, seriously damaged in a fire in the summer of 2012, was recently restored to its original beauty and now graces the home of one of Carl Schmitt’s grandsons in Massachusetts.

Reminiscences: “Something of my grandfather’s real greatness”

The reminiscences of those who knew Carl Schmitt form an indispensable part of his legacy.  They show in a vivid way that his thoughts on art, life, childhood, and religion were not mere theories but the expression of a lived reality.  If you have memories of Carl Schmitt to share, I’d be delighted to hear from you.  Please contact me at the Foundation at samuel.schmitt@carlschmitt.org.

In this Reminiscence, Carl Schmitt’s granddaughter Margo Skidd shares some of her childhood memories of her grandfather.  She remembers in particular the gentle courtesy and respect he and his wife extended to everyone, especially children, whom they affectionately called “little people.”

Every Sunday afternoon for many years, my family and I would walk the short distance to my grandparent’s house for tea.  As a young child I was taken with the atmosphere of their home as a place of peace and cheerfulness, a place where things are well-ordered and “the way they should be.”

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The “great man” Carl Schmitt
Self-portrait, oil on hardboard, c. 1965, 18 x 15 in.

I can see now that this stemmed from my grandfather’s habitual focus on real things, from his profound connection with reality.  This was palpable in the respect with which he treated each guest and the deep affection he showed his beloved wife.  All this made a profound impression on me.

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Gertrude Knitting, oil on canvas, c. 1970, 25 x 30 in.

To me, my grandfather was a “great man,” with his deep conviction and calm self-possession.  Yet, although I was not old enough to enter into adult conversation, I was not just another “kid” to him.  He and my grandmother were personally attentive to us “little people,” providing each of us with our own small chairs and space in the main room.

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Carl Schmitt with his daughter Gertrude on the porch of their home in Silvermine, c. 1935.

This affection and courtesy embraced everyone no matter his age.  In this I sensed, even as a young person, something of my grandfather’s real greatness.

This Reminiscence was first published in the Spring 2010 issue of the CSF News.

From the archives: A crazy man and his crazy wife

Catholic writer Donald Powell (1899-1985) published the following in the Catholic Worker newspaper in November 1934, not long after meeting Carl Schmitt and his wife and family in Silvermine.  The complete article, “The Forgotten Man—Carl Schmitt,” may be found on the Carl Schmitt Foundation website.

A few months after the article appeared, Powell wrote to Schmitt in his usual tongue-in-cheek manner, “Sorry I embarrassed you with the dope on the family.  I suppose it was a lousy trick to say publicly in America that a husband and wife are in love with each other.  Worse, it was probably downright immoral and how I’ve escaped the Inquisition for such heresy is more than I know.”  

It was easy to see that Schmitt and his family did not lead an easy life in the 1930s, and Powell, while focusing on the love and warmth of the Schmitt household, does not disguise the privations they suffered during those Depression years.  But with keen insight Powell recognizes the true hardship Schmitt endured was not so much the scarcity of material things as the lack of support and understanding from those who should have been the first to supply it: fellow Catholics.  In fact it was non-Catholics who would proved to be Schmitt’s principal financial supporters in the first part of his career, as Powell himself wryly observes in his article.

In an entry in his notebooks some twenty-five years after Powell’s visit, Schmitt noted that these patrons enabled him “to bring up a numerous family in circumstances of poverty and to make it possible to paint.”  Yet he acknowledges that it was his wife who was his true support in that difficult time.  “Whether this latter activity on my part was necessary under those circumstances was questionable to many, probably most, including many times myself, but not to Gertrude, my wife, who encouraged me in the illusion that I should in turn encourage my muse.”

Powell and Schmitt kept up a vigorous correspondence into the 1960s.  Schmitt’s letters to Powell form part of the Donald Powell Papers at Georgetown University in Washington, DC; Powell’s side of the conversation can be found in the Foundation’s archives in Silvermine.  

If, as James Joyce suggests, the supreme question about a work of art is out of how deep a life it has sprung, then Carl Schmitt is a great artist.  He may or may not be: but of this I am certain: he is a great man.

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Carl and Gertrude outside the house of Carl’s brother Robert, Silvermine, 1926

The artist is, of course, a crazy fellow.  He seeks perfection even while his reason tells him that his powers are finite and that he cannot achieve it. Perhaps he realizes part of his vision, but he wants it all.  He is a mystic who never sees his God—Truth, Beauty and Goodness—whole.  The only reason that society does not segregate him in asylums, along with other anti-social humans, is that he is not immediately dangerous to life or property.

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Carl and Gertrude Schmitt around the time Donald Powell met them in the early 1930s.

The crazy man is a fellow of medium height, with a shock of dark brown hair, light brown eyes (Pan’s eyes) and a deeply lined face.  He looks, and is, ill-nourished.  When painting he gets pains in the back of his neck and in his back and becomes so keyed up that he cannot eat.  But he still worries the canvas with his brushes and fingers until at least part of his vision is realized.  He is just that crazy.

Worse: he has a crazy wife.  Proof: she has ten children.  “Carlo,” I said, “you are not so much, the woods are full of artists, but your wife is a miracle.”  She is just that: a natural woman in an unnatural world, a woman of charm, unfailing tact and fine sensibilities.  Schmitt, of coarser mold, a man, must make great demands upon her, but I have never found her wanting.  The answer is, naturally, after sixteen years of married life and ten children, she is still in love with her husband.  She is a miracle all right, but perhaps her husband is a miracle worker.

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Portrait of the Schmitt family in 1926 by friend and fellow Silvermine artist Bernhard Gutmann (1869-1936) (taken from a newspaper clipping).
Surrounding Gertrude (left to right) are Austin, David, Michael, Peter, baby Jacob, and the oldest, Robert.  Carl Schmitt can be seen painting in the background.

I have told several of my respectable friends about these children and have watched the expressions of wonder, amazement, and even horror come to their faces.  The more respectable they are, the more horrified they are.

I have eaten with the Schmitts and seen the youngsters in their bunks, one on top of the other, shipwise. I have seen them at play.  I envy and love the whole flock of them: Carlo, Gertrude, the boys and the girl, dirty faces, dirty diapers and all.  There is love within this family; it was built on love and survives through love.

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Gertrude feeding her son Austin, September 9, 1921