Gertrude Catherine Schmitt, 1932-2018

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Gertrude Catherine Schmitt passed away peacefully at the home of her niece just past midnight on Wednesday, September 26, 2018.  Gertrude was born August 24, 1932, in Norwalk Hospital, the tenth child and only daughter of artist Carl Schmitt and his wife Gertrude.  Hers was the only birth recorded in her Father’s extensive journals, which after nine boys, struck the artist as a humorous turn of events.  “With the arrival of a daughter!  The world is a desert of petty literalness.  One should contribute some tragedy, some romance, and some heroism, but best of all, some comic relief.”

A fine artist in her own right, Gertrude was always content to live in her father’s shadow.  “I wanted to be an artist from babyhood because my father was an artist,” she remarked.  Her dear friend Ray Kelly spoke about “Papa Schmitt” being especially amused that, although his nine sons picked up on his theories of art — one being that painting is historically a masculine skill — none of them took up fine art as their life’s work.  Only his daughter devoted herself entirely to painting, and her father was delighted to find she was a true artist. “Gertrude is doing some beautiful painting,” her father wrote to a friend in the early 1960s, “she is very talented.” He said he was as proud of her as he could be of any son. “My Father and brothers painted with their heads,” she would later remark. “I paint with my eyes.”

Gertrude, c. 1940, oil on hardboard, 12 x 10 in.

Gertrude’s early memories of her childhood in Silvermine are full of her nine brothers.  At the age of five, she was taken with her family to Italy to be near her Father who had been sent to take the air at a tuberculosis sanatorium in the Italian Alps.  After a summer in Florence, the family moved to Rome for the school year 1938-39, where their father joined them.  Gertrude remembered playing in the fountains of Rome while waiting for her Mother to walk her home from the school she attended just off St. Peter’s Square.  Gertrude retained a vivid memory of Il Duce’s Blackshirts marching about the city.

Gertrude Schmitt, Nativity Triptych, oil on canvas, approx. 3 x 6 feet. Arnold Hall Conference Center, Pembroke, Massachusetts.

In the summer of 1939, with war clouds gathering in Europe, the family had decided to return home. They booked passage for September 29, but war broke out the first of that month. Then, just days before leaving, her mother was taken seriously ill and had to be hospitalized. Gertrude’s Father stayed on in Rome with her Mother while the rest of the family set sail with 19-year-old Robert in charge of his younger siblings, overseeing their distribution among a number of families in Wilton and New Canaan until Gertrude and Carl could return around Thanksgiving.

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Gertrude in Riding Uniform, 1942, oil on canvas, 32 x 19 in.
Ten-year-old Gertrude poses proudly in the uniform of the New Canaan Mounted Troop.

Of the tense homeward voyage on the steamship Saturnia, she recalled the curious sound of the water as the ship idled at Gibraltar while it was briefly detained and boarded by some officers of a British destroyer.  Safely home in Silvermine, she began school again in earnest, taking piano lessons and learning horsemanship with the New Canaan Mounted Troop.  She attended the Country School in New Canaan, Georgetown School of the Arts, and New Canaan High School, finishing at Miss Thomas’s School in Rowayton.

Gertrude, c.1945, oil on hardboard, 18 × 15 in.

Gertrude went on to the National Academy of Design in New York City, winning the prestigious Hallgarten Traveling Scholarship for three years’ study abroad.  At the Academy of Fine Arts in Rome, she learned little from her professors but much from following her Father’s advice to study directly the work of the masters.  She made the most of her time there, spending days studying the great masterpieces and many evenings at the opera.

Upon her return to the family home in Silvermine, Miss Schmitt taught sport and all subjects at the Country School in New Canaan.  She also took up the violin, playing in the Norwalk Symphony Orchestra alongside her brother Robert, a flutist, for many years.

Gertrude and her father at the exhibit at Waveny House, New Canaan, Connecticut, fall 1980.

As her parents grew older, Gertrude, with the help of her brother Robert, dedicated herself entirely to caring for them both, and to painting.  She set up her easel in the family’s living room where a large north-facing window offered the best light.  In the fall of 1980, Gertrude and Carl staged a father-daughter exhibition at Waveny House in New Canaan.  “Gertrude has been touched by her father’s artistic vision and influenced by his philosophy of art and religion,” an article on the event noted.  “The spiritual and aesthetic permeate both of their works and their lives. Here religion and art are perfectly integrated.  Their art is much like their lives, not rushed, but carefully and thoughtfully achieved.”

Gertrude Schmitt, Still Life with Apples, oil on canvas, 21 x 28 in.

Gertrude continued to play music and paint, exhibiting at local shows. Prizes and commissions allowed her to travel abroad: a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with her brother Robert and several trips to Europe.  Her keenly observant eye is reflected in the lovely sketches and pastels she made along the way.  She took one last trip to fulfill a commission for the Benedictine Monks of Norcia in central Italy: an altar diptych of the life of St. Benedict.

Gertrude Schmitt, Puente San Martin, Toledo, pastel on paper, 16 x 21 in.

Upon her Father’s death in 1989 at one hundred years of age, Gertrude received the family home and studio as a gift of thanks for her years of care.  She in turn, gave the property to the Carl Schmitt Foundation after its founding in 1996.  She cared for Robert until his death this past summer at the age of 98.

Known for her quick wit and her ability to see and to paint the transcendent beauty of the created world, Gertrude died as she lived, selfless to the last.

Girl with Necklace, c. 1945, oil on canvas, 15 x 18 in.
Gertrude is clasping a necklace of Mexican silver, a gift of her brother Robert. She often remarked that of all the portraits her father painter of her, this was her favorite.

A retrospective exhibit of Gertrude Schmitt’s works will take place on Sunday, October 7, 2018, from 1:00 to 5:00 pm at the home of her niece and nephew, Margaret and William Skidd, 44 Fox Run Road, Norwalk, Connecticut. The show will feature works in oil, watercolor and pastel, some well-beloved, many newly discovered — the fruit of decades of work, collected and shown together for the first time.  For tickets, please click here.

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Robert Wood Schmitt, 1919-2018

Robert W. Schmitt, Carl and Gertrude Schmitt’s eldest son, died peacefully Sunday, July 29, 2018, just months shy of his 99th birthday.  From his youth until his death surrounded by family in the home of his nephew in Orange, his encyclopedic memory held a trove of poems, songs, histories, and every word of the catechism his father taught him on Sundays when he was a boy.  (This photo was taken by Jill Chessman at the St. Mary Coffee Hour)

Robert was born on October 10, 1919, in Norwalk, Connecticut.  Aside from some years in Chartres and Rome, he grew up in Silvermine. Excelling in all subjects, he graduated from New Canaan High School and earned a BA in English from New York University, during which time he also worked to support the family as a draftsman at Sikorsky and Chance-Vought Aircraft in Stratford, Connecticut.  After a short stint designing aircraft with Chance-Vought in Texas, he returned to Silvermine to work in the Wilton offices of architects F. Nelson Breed, Lynedon Eaton, and Johnson Lee of New Canaan, respectively, as a draftsman specializing in colonial-style architecture.  He freelanced his own projects thereafter, notably the houses built for his brothers as they each left home to start their own families in the “Schmittville” section of Silvermine.

Robert with his favorite uncle, his father’s brother Robert, known to the family as “Uncle Hudda.” A founding member of the Silvermine Guild, and an artist in his own right, Hudda was a master carver of frames that now grace many paintings of his brother and other Silvermine artists.

Taught by his uncle Robert, he played the flute and piccolo for ensembles in the area including the Norwalk and Stamford symphony orchestras and the Greenwich Philharmonia. His sonorous baritone graced many local choirs, most recently those at St. Aloysius Church in New Canaan, and St. Mary Church in Norwalk, Connecticut, where he and his devoted sister Gertrude were seen without fail each Sunday.

An avid sailor, he enjoyed boating with his brothers, coin collecting, and making wine from his own vineyard. As a founding board member of the Carl Schmitt Foundation and “family mythologist,” Robert worked to preserve and advance the legacy of his father’s remarkable art and thought.

Robert’s unfailing kindness, solemn wit, and beautiful baritone voice will be greatly missed by his sister Gertrude of Silvermine, brothers Jacob of Delaware, Carl of Washington, D.C., the Rev. Christopher Schmitt of Texas, and several score nephews and nieces to the great and great-great generations. Grateful and peaceful to the last, he died as he lived, a gentleman through and through. He is preceded in death by brothers Peter, Austin, Michael, David, and John.

A Mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated Friday, August 3, at 10:00 am in St. Mary Church, 669 West Avenue, Norwalk. Connecticut.  Interment will follow in St. John Cemetery, Norwalk.

Robert, two months old, with his Mother Gertrude.

Friends may call Thursday, August 2, from 4:00 to 8:00 pm at Collins Funeral Home, 92 East Avenue, Norwalk.  Memorial contributions can be made to The Carl Schmitt Foundation, 30 Borglum Rd, Wilton, Connecticut.

 

This reminiscence by his late brother, David, pays tribute to his gentleness, intelligence, and courage, qualities evident to everyone who knew him.

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Bobby Schmitt, c. 1925

My oldest brother’s name is Bobby. He was born first and is the gentlest, most considerate and responsible of all the brothers. I suppose that has a lot to do with what has always been expected of him. Usually, the eldest in a big family is expected to look after and help care for all the rest of the little urchins that follow along; it’s his unwritten destiny and usually works out that way in most families.

Bobby is not only conscientious, but he is very smart and also an excellent teacher and applied psychologist through necessity. He is a genius at simplifying the problem and applying the common denominator. He excelled in mathematics, geometry, trigonometry, algebra and everything else for that matter. Every year he would win the ten dollar gold piece in grammar school. The only year he didn’t win was because the poor girl who always rated second was given the award because the school officials “wanted to be fair,” or political, about it.

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Robert (far left) and his siblings Michael, John, Jacob, Christopher, Gertrude, and Austin, in the garden at Silvermine, c. 1935.

Bobby was also courageous. Even though he was gentle and never fought, that didn’t stop him when he was called upon for leadership. Once when we were teenagers out on Long Island Sound in a sail boat, a big storm came up. We all but capsized when the first squall line hit us. I was five years younger than he and was scared stiff. But I was much impressed and very thankful when Bobby took charge and put us all to work: donning life jackets, stripping the sails, and heaving to into the fierce wind. We weathered the worst of it and when the Coast Guard asked us if we needed assistance, we thanked them and let them know “everything was under control,” thanks to our skipper.

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Norwalk Harbor, pastel on paper, 1910, 7 x 13 in.

Another time just the opposite happened. We were becalmed and spent a pleasant summer night drifting across Long Island Sound. I can still hear the slapping of the halyards against the mast as the boat rocked back and forth with each swell all night long. In the morning we were perilously close to the rocky shore of Long Island but were very thankful for a tow by the Coast Guard back to Norwalk Harbor and our mooring and some of the concerned parents I might add.

Bobby’s basic philosophy (per forsa) was: “Chi va piano, va sano et chi va sano ve lantorno”: “Who goes softly, goes sanely, and who goes sanely goes a long way.”

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Robert, oil on board, c. 1945, 12 x 10 in.
After working six full days as a draftsman for the war effort, Robert would would take the bus on Sundays to Winnipauk (northeast Norwalk), where his mother would pick him up. The exhaustion of his long hours at work shows in his face. Perhaps due to these circumstances, his father never finished the portrait.

Christmas in Silvermine

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A woodblock print by Carl Schmitt for a Christmas card commissioned in the 1920s.

Carl Schmitt’s late son David has left us a wonderful series of reminiscences about his growing up in Silvermine.  As David remembers it, Christmas can bring out the best (and worst) in children of a large family.

One Christmas when I was about seven dad and mother bought me a present much better than I anticipated. Dad called my name and I stepped forward and he handed me a large box attractively wrapped. “To David from Mother and Dad.” I tore it open and inside was a large pair of brown hunting boots with a jackknife in a leather pocket on the left side of the left boot. I was overwhelmed. I put the boots on and paraded around the house upstairs and down all the rest of Christmas day. I could see nothing but those two boots.

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Michael, pastel on paper, 1935

Unfortunately, my brother Mike had gotten a model airplane kit—the kind one puts together from balsa wood and covers with Japanese tissue paper, then paints to match the real airplane. It actually flew and took a lot of work to build. Late in the afternoon, just before supper, I was coming down the stairs, and of course Michael was assembling his plane right at the foot of the stairs. You guessed it, the inevitable happened; my big boot went “crunch” right in the middle of his plane and completely demolished it. It was a case of the inevitable force meeting the immovable object.

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Carl Schmitt sons ((left to right) Peter, Jacob, Michael, John, David, and Austin, c. 1932.

Mike wanted to take it out on my hide but he didn’t, remarkably, because I pointed out that after all that wasn’t the best place to put his plane together. Naturally, he didn’t relish hearing my defense. It was a case of arrogance vs. pride which most kids excel in. I still don’t remember how the situation was resolved short of parental arbitration and both of us eating a little crow.

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Christmas card (c. 1925) for John Kenneth Byard, a friend and patron of Schmitt in the 1920s who later became a well-known antiques dealer.

Brothers in arms: Peter and David Schmitt in Italy, 1945—Part 2

David, oil on canvas, 1942.
According to David’s daughter Cathy, Carl Schmitt painted this portrait of his son shortly before he left home in January, 1943, to remember him in case he never came back.

Carl Schmitt’s sons Peter and David served with the famed 10th Mountain Division of the 86th Infantry in the Italian Campaign of 1945.  In Part I we met the boys and their comrade Russell Hunt as they faced the challenges of life on the front lines.  In this installment we hear stories of the Italian Resistance against the German army and reaction to the death of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini in April, 1945.

The three New Canaan men landed at Naples on December 24, 1944, the 86th being the first of the 10th Division regiments to arrive in Italy.  On Christmas Day they were in box cars, headed for Leghorn, and they went right into the line at Pisa.  The Germans were starting a push in Sercio Valley, and the 92nd Division needed support. The Regiment then returned to Leghorn for further training (“We had to learn about mines,” Peter Schmitt explained), after which it was ordered to San Marcello.

“That was the first time we were actually fighting,” Hunt said. “I was always sending orders. A messenger would bring them up. They were anything that had to go to another battalion, orders to move or fall back, or about supplies . . . ” San Marcello, he called “just a mountain town — but it wasn’t touched by shells or bombs, because the people paid a ransom to the Germans.” Snow was on the heights and up there they were often on skis, while down below it was usually raining, and everywhere “the mountains were all shot up, the trees all blasted to pieces.”

Men of the 10th Mountain Division march across the snow with Mt. Belvedere n the background, late winter 1945.

They were at San Marcello throughout February. The Schmitts used to visit with the local peasants, and Peter did a lot of interpreting for the Army.  Northern Italy was terrifically anti-fascistic.  The partisans, who were very efficient, worked under U. S. Army orders and pay.  Dressed in civilian clothes and provided with the proper papers, they would go through the German lines at night and bring back information.  “I went up to a little town with the partisans,” David remem­bered, “and I saw their reports, pointing out machine gun nests, telling how many trucks the Germans were moving in — they were very complete.”

He nodded his head in affirmation. After the surrender of Italy, the Germans took out slave labor, the boys said.  They wanted to send the young men into Germany.  Naturally, the young men didn’t want to go, so they would hide.  The Germans usually killed some member of their family, a wife or a father or mother. Then there was the case of the man who wanted to side with Badoglio ; so he laid down his arms and deserted the Fascist Army.  The Germans, who had the Italian Army lists, would go to the homes of all such people and bum them down.  The Italians, against whom these reprisals were made, were possessed with one idea: they devoted their time to kicking out the Germans.

Peter (left) and David Schmitt as members of the 10th Mountain division training in Colorado, 1944.

On February 19th began the drive to take Mt. Belvedere.  By the 25th, this mountain, which had been taken and lost several times, was captured.  Successive peaks were taken the first two weeks in March, with the enemy entrenched in the high spots and the fighting severe.  The little terraced gardens that Italians make up the side of a mountain were German machine gun nests, overlooking the ap­proaches.  The big Allied push started on April 14th, English, Australians, Brazilians and Americans.  Coming down the last peaks of the Apennines into the Po Valley, the 10th Division cut the main highway into Bologna, thus enabling other units to capture the city.  Peter Schmitt said the valley was like a basin, and sketched a map in a broad oval shape divided by the main road running north and wt across on a shallow diagonal by the river flowing northeast.

‘The first day going up the valley, we covered a terrific distance,” Hunt said. “The Germans were moving back as fast as they could go, — they left everything they had behind them.  But the river crossing was very hard; they were ready for us there.”

Men of the 10th Mountain Division unload supplies after crossing the Po River near San Benedetto, Italy, April 1945.

The Po is about half a mile wide. Hunt crossed on a duck, a boat on wheels which carries two jeeps and twenty men.  Shells were coming over all the time, he said, and two men with him were hit.  Peter Schmitt said German AA guns were putting time bursts over the river.  “That’s what got most of the guys in boats,” he said.

Beyond the Po, there wasn’t much fighting.  “We went up to Verona and the big, snow-capped peaks of the Alps were all around us,” he went on.  “We were making a lunge toward Brenner Pass, and they decided to go by Lake Garda, pummeling the main road.”  On this Lake was located Mussolini’s villa, near which he was captured by partisans and taken to Milan to be executed.  In Verona, the boys heard church bells tolling, and got word of his death from the local people.

Peter in his full winter gear training in Colorado, 1944.

To be continued . . .

Brothers in arms: Peter and David Schmitt in Italy, 1945—Part 1

Peter (left) and David Schmitt as members of the 10th Mountain Division during training in Colorado for their deployment overseas, 1944.

Shortly after close of World War II, Peter Schmitt and his brother David were interviewed for a book, New Canaan War Veterans Speak, published by the New Canaan Historical Society, from which this excerpt is taken.  Both brothers were proud of their service in the Italian campaign of 1944-45 as members of the fabled 10th Mountain Division of the U. S. Army’s 86th Infantry.  Their account was combined with that of their buddy and fellow New Canaan resident Russell Hunt, who, with the Schmitt brothers, was a technical officer assigned to the headquarters of the 86th Infantry.  The interview shows the brothers’ unassuming bravery as well as their thoughtfulness and personal integrity in the face of the brutality of war.

T/ 5 Russell Woolston Hunt and T/ 4 Peter Carl Schmitt went into the Army in January, 1943, and were assigned to HQ Co., 86th Infantry, 10th Mountain Division. Peter Schmitt’s brother, T/4 David Tod Schmitt, joined the same outfit the following March. The three men were in the entire North Italy action when the Division spearheaded from San Marcello across the high peaks of the Apennines and up through Po River Valley to Lake Garda in the foothills of the Alps.

Peter and David Schmitt once lived in Italy, know the language, and used to talk to the peasants in the towns where they were stationed. David defined the plight of the people as “a question of fear and poverty. Unless you understand poverty . . . ” he said, and his voice trailed off, implying how difficult it is for us to picture the hard reality of life over there. Peter thought we had a terrific responsibility in Italy. “After all, we’ve left a trail of destruction behind us,” he said.

Peter Schmitt is twenty-three and David is twenty-one. Both have high cheek bones and rounded faces. Peter is the darker of the two, with almost black hair and deep-set eyes, while David is fair, with light brown hair and hazel eyes. They both give the impression of great vitality and good spirits. Their talk is quick and pointed.

Peter Schmitt in his technical officer’s field uniform.

Russell Hunt is twenty-two and is tall and slender. He has medium blond coloring, with level brows and regular features. He is full of fun, but reticent, too, abruptly disposing of anything particularly difficult with “You just had to”— and a little lift of his shoulders.

Peter and David Schmitt and Russell Hunt have the Combat Infantry Badge, ETO ribbon with two battle stars and a number of letters of commendation from commanding officers of the Army in Italy. [Peter later received the Bronze Star.]

All three were in Communications, Regimental HQ being in control of troop movements, Hunt explained, and David Schmitt called it ‘the nervous system.’ The CP might be a hundred yards from the front — or miles behind it. Sometimes they stayed a while in one place, but oftener they were on the move. “When we were really pushing,” Peter Schmitt said, “we’d have five or six command posts a day.” He was radio man, transmitting messages from the regiment to the division. Six men constituted his group. They moved by jeep, or on mules if their objective took them up a mountain trail. When the front was too fluid, they’d take turns. Half the group would be up spotting artillery fire while half stayed back.

Peter Schmitt (in dark trousers) in the filed as a radio operator, 1945.

Hunt had charge of one of the company’s three radio jeeps, driving the car and running the radio, sometimes alone, sometimes with other men. David Schmitt was a walkie-talkie man, going out with officers on reconnaissance trips.

“Our regiment was always out in front,” Hunt said. He said it was a lot of fun going back to Headquarters through the German lines. “We were surrounded on three side. You just had to go through their lines to get back.” (Peter Schmitt explained that when a division is pushing, they take key points, then fan out rapidly, leaving pockets of Germans on either side.) “My jeep was shot up,” Hunt said, “but I was never hit,” he added quickly.

Supply problems in the mountains were terrific and food was mostly K-rations, so that the men longed for such things as milk and green vegetables. For sleeping, they’d make a bunker, a big hole roofed with logs and sand bags, and they’d get lots of straw for bedding from a near-by farm. Staying several days in one place, they’d be billeted in a house or building. They’d feel quite secure if they were in a spot where the mortars fell short and the way-back fire was passing overhead.

Troops of the 10th Mountain Division marching in Italy, April, 1945.

And being under cover always gave a feeling of protection, even if the roof was fragile. Peter Schmitt remembered once when they were shelled and he, being on duty, had to leave the house and go out to his radio in the jeep . “I ran out there and as soon as I got in the jeep, I felt perfectly safe, just because it had a canvas top,” he observed smilingly. “It was pretty hot that night.”

“Yes,” said David Schmitt, “when we got up in the morning, a tree was on our house.”

To be continued . . .