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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On This Day—August 10, 1914

One hundred years ago, Carl Schmitt was in Italy, staying with the Grazzini family in their villa above the town of Fiesole in the northern region of Tuscany.  Since his arrival in Italy in the spring, the artist had been hard at work, sending a large shipment of paintings and pastels to his patron, Zell Hart Deming, in Warren, Ohio, before venturing on a series of scenes of Fiesole and the surrounding countryside.  Schmitt’s portrait of Dr. Grazzini’s lovely daughter Luisina  would be shown at an exhibition in Florence in the fall.  

In early August the artist’s seemingly idyllic life was shattered by the outbreak of war between the great powers, and before the week was out large numbers of refugees from Germany flooded the northern part of Italy.  In the face of the conflict Schmitt would move to Florence, then to Rome, and finally to Naples, whence he sailed back to the United States in early February, 1915.  Deming saw fit to publish Schmitt’s letter to his parents in his hometown newspaper, The Warren Tribune, on August 10.

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Luisina Grazzini at her father’s villa, summer 1914.

Carl Schmitt who is studying at Fiesole, on the hills above Florence, writes under the date of August 10 to his father, Prof. Jacob Schmitt:

The situation here is very serious and will very likely be worse as soon as prices are going up rapidly.  I am still living at Dr. Grazzini’s villa.  Many Americans are here and I have seen several hysterical women who have no money.  Many of them are school teachers and all are stranded.  But you probably know more about it than I do.  The papers have given hardly any victories to Germany but I fear they are making headway.

I wish I might get a letter from home.  I have no idea how long we shall be without mail for how long before this will reach you.  Meantime I am working as hard as the weather will permit.

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Self-portrait sketch, dated January 20, 1915, while Schmitt was in Naples awaiting his boat home to America.

We should be all right if anyone has any money.  The Italians can’t draw their money out of the banks, so they are nearly as hard up as the Americans and English here.

The northern cities are full of Italians, English and Americans who have been expelled from Germany and other countries at war.  All these refugees depend on the charity of the Italians.  The Grazzini Villa is filled to overflowing.

I have been having a gold crown put on a tooth I broke and my dentist had great difficulty in getting enough gold in Florence for it.  All Europe seems to be extremely hostile to the Prussians and the stories that come from the north are terrible.

from The Warren Tribune, August 10, 1914

The charming Luisina in the garden.

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.”

On This Day: March 10, 1926

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The artist’s wife Gertrude sitting in the kitchen of their Silvermine home.
Pencil sketch, dated March 10, 1926.

1926 was a momentous year for Carl Schmitt and his family.

The years since his marriage had been taken up in a seemingly endless series of exhibitions in Silvermine, New York, and at the major shows across the country.  The artist’s star seemed to be rising.  “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,’” a critic wrote in 1923.  Despite his hard work and the recognition of a few select critics, Schmitt had yet to be “discovered.”

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The artist’s son Robert in front of the house at Silvermine, c. 1926

Yet it seems the artist was content to labor in obscurity in the “solitudes of Silvermine,”  “a colony of artists who love their work and want to get away from the stress and confusion of modern life. Mr. Schmidt [sic] lives in a house with his family and has his studio in another part of the wood where it has almost a medieval atmosphere, filled as it is with remarkable paintings that come from his brush.”  With his growing family—his wife had given birth to six sons by the time Schmitt sketched her sitting in the kitchen in March 1926—his thoughts turned to their education and upbringing.  More and more he was becoming dissatisfied with what life in America would mean for him and his family.

The Catholic activist Peter Maurin, a co-founder with Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker Movement, gives us some insight into Schmitt’s thinking at this time.  “Carl Schmitt the artist does not want his ten children to be super salesmen, he wants them to be cultured peasants,” Maurin wrote in his characteristically proverbial prose in the early 1930s.  “Carl Schmitt the artist is far from thinking that all America needs is a good five-cent cigar, as Vice President Marshall was in the habit of saying.  Carl Schmitt the artist thinks that America needs to be revitalized with healthy peasant blood from those parts of Europe where the rugged individualism of bourgeois commercialism has not yet penetrated.”

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Église Sainte-Pierre, Chartres, pastel on paper, dated August 9, 1926.
One of a group of 16 pastels done by Schmitt during his stay in Chartres 1926-27, and shown at the prestigious Macbeth Gallery in New York in March, 1927.

In June, Schmitt decided to act on his convictions.  On the invitation of his longtime patron Zell Hart Deming, he traveled to Europe to explore where he might settle with his family.  He visited Dalmatia and Paris but decided on Chartres, France, bringing his wife and family over in September.  His brother Robert handled his affairs at home, sending his latest painting, “A Gift of Fruit,” to the Carnegie International exhibition in October.  As before, the critics were impressed, one foreseeing “a future in which he will be regarded as the logical heir of the great Americans such as Homer and Eakins.”  And once again he was singled out as an artist “who commands admiration from his colleagues but is yet undiscovered by art patrons at large.”

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A Gift of Fruit, oil on canvas, 1926.

Although the family’s foray to Europe was short-lived (he returned to Silvermine with his family in the spring of 1927), its effects would be long-lasting.  According to Schmitt’s son Jacob, “From this experience he seemed to have developed a firmer grasp of the significance of the grace of place, remarking that Northern Europe seemed to bring ‘domestication and affection’ to the fine arts.”  Indeed, one can see a certain domestication Schmitt’s own practice of painting, the art he called “characteristically domestic.”  And more and more his unsold paintings hung “above where children played or where a family sat at a meal,” as his friend Padraic Colum put it.  “In these surroundings they had seemed natural and right—they had enshrined the reality that was around.”

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Three Children with Toys, oil on canvas, c. 1926, 30 x 36 in.
Another domestic scene drawn from the same spot as the pencil sketch of Gertrude above.

More on the Schmitt family’s stay in Chartres can be found in the Winter 2012 issue of the CSF News.