Wisdom on Wednesdays—“Is there anything more real than poverty with a family?”

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Shack where Schmitt stayed on his property in Silvermine before his marriage.
Pastel on paper, 14 x 11 in.

“Critics comfortably off and cosmopolite tell me that it is fatal for me to live alone in the woods and paint, that I must not separate myself from humanity, reality. . . . Humanity?  Is there anything more human than ones own children?  Reality?  Is there anything more real than poverty with a family? (except death, which is also tasted each day)?”  (1931)

Wisdom on Wednesdays—Making oodles of money

Portrait of H. K. Wick [11410]

Portrait of H. K. Wick, oil on canvas, 1917, 28 x 23 in.
Butler Institute of American Art; gift of Mrs. H.K. Wick, 1934.
Read the story of Carl Schmitt’s struggle to paint this portrait here.

“To be quite healthy the soul must be large enough to either (a) face the risk of poverty by concentrating on things more fitting to man’s nature and end, or (b) take the responsibility of making oodles of money and giving it away to the unworthy as fast as it is made.”   (1942)

Wisdom on Wednesdays—The Religion of Progress

“Can our national virtues of Comfort, Wealth, and Success be reconciled with the Cardinal Virtues of Chastity, Poverty, and Humility?  I am afraid that the answer must be honestly faced.  And the answer is, No.  The breakdown of civilization has probably been caused by the attempt to reconcile the two sets of ultimately contradictory, exclusive values.  After listening to all the arguments against a ‘vicious and criminal poverty,’ ‘suffering brought about by ignorance and sin,’ and ‘failure due to lack of prudence,’ I must still repeat that Christ was uncomfortable and suffered. Christ was poor, and He was a Failure.  There is still holy suffering, holy poverty, and holy failure, as we shall discover when we have failed.”  (1943)

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Carrying the Cross, etching, 1922, 7 x 13 in.

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