Swans and Still Lifes: Upcoming Talk by CSF Director Samuel Schmitt celebrates Silvermine

Swans—a symbol of Silvermine—on the millpond upstream from the Silvermine Tavern.

Discover the rich history of Silvermine during this celebratory presentation, “Silvermine: Celebrating Its Art, History, and Beauty,” by author and CSF Executive Director Samuel A. Schmitt on Wednesday, July 12, 2017 at 6:30 pm at the Norwalk Historical Society in Norwalk, Connecticut.

The building that became known as the Silvermine Tavern has stood at the crossroads of the community for over 200 years. Long thought of as an authentic colonial inn, it was originally around built 1810 as part of a complex of commercial buildings that included mills along the river, a blacksmith shop, and store. The building was transformed into a inn and restaurant less than a century ago, and has served as the community gathering place, landmark, and center of gracious hospitality ever since.

Silvermine, home to Carl Schmitt for over 70 years, is known today for its natural beauty, the Silvermine Guild Arts Center, and the Silvermine Tavern.  Few, however, are aware of its rich history.  Encompassing sections of New Canaan, Norwalk, and Wilton, Connecticut, Silvermine went from a small mill town during the 18th and 19th centuries to a vibrant artist colony in the early 20th century.  Numerous artists, including Carl Schmitt, attracted by the scenery and proximity to the art scene in New York, flocked to the area, using the old mills and barns for their studios.

Carl Schmitt stands proudly outside his new studio on Borglum Road in this photograph from 1919. Local contractor Bill Lyons completed the building at cost for his artist friend. It featured Flemish bond brickwork and a red tile roof outside, and handmade tiles on the floor inside. The single room and loft were heated by a potbelly stove which proved barely adequate when the artist worked late on chilly winter nights. Schmitt sold the building when he moved his family to Europe in the late 1930s. In 2004, after being used as a house and falling into disrepair, the studio was purchased by the Carl Schmitt Foundation, which restored it to its original condition. It now serves as one of the Foundation’s galleries.

These artists formed the Silvermine Group of Artists and later the Silvermine Guild, a haven for art of all kinds. The high quality of the work of the early Silvermine artists compares favorably with the members of the better known colonies in Old Lyme and Cos Cob.  On view in the 1835 Town House at Mill Hill, where the lecture will be presented, is a new salon-style art exhibit, “Preserving and Observing: Two Centuries of Norwalk Art,” featuring the works of many Silvermine Guild artists from the early to mid-20th century.

Through dozens of historic photographs the new book Silvermine tells the story of the bucolic hamlet Carl Schmitt called home for over 70 years. CSF director Samuel Schmitt recounts how the picturesque valley, once buzzing with sawmills, was transformed into a cultural hub with the coming of the artists, including Carl Schmitt, who formed the Silvermine Guild in 1922. It’s part of the well-known “Images of America” series from Arcadia Publishing. See a preview and order here from Amazon.com. Your purchase benefits the Carl Schmitt Foundation.

Join us Wednesday, July 12, 2017 at 6:30 pm at Mill Hill Historic Park, located at 2 East Wall Street in Norwalk, Connecticut.  Follow signs for parking.  Signed copies of Schmitt’s new book Silvermine, will be for sale during the presentation.  Admission is $5.00 and tickets can be purchased here or at the door.  Light refreshments will be served.  This event is sponsored in part by the Norwalk Association of Silvermine Homeowners and the Silvermine Community Association.

We look forward to seeing you there! (Light refreshments will be served.)

In this etching for the cover of a booklet for the Silvermine Guild of Artists, Carl Schmitt pokes gentle fun at the sometimes frenetic pace of social life in the artist colony during the summer season  Both artists and patrons relished any excuse for getting together at picnics and other gatherings.  At one time Silvermine was as well known for its calendar of theatrical productions and social events as for its art exhibits.

New book, Silvermine, now available at 50% off

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A new pictorial history of Silvermine, the place Carl Schmitt called home for 70 years, is now available for pre-order at 50% off. As part of their “Cyber Monday” sale, Arcadia Publishing is offering the discount today and tomorrow only (now through Wednesday, November 30, 2016).

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Through dozens of historic photographs the book tells the story of the picturesque valley from the time it buzzed with sawmills through the coming of the artists who transformed it into the artistic hub we know and love today.

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There’s something about Silvermine. When the Schmitt boys found arrowheads while playing along the rock ridges and the river, their father Carl would say, “Of course, the Indians know all the good places.” This view down Borglum Road toward the Silvermine River bridge with Carl Schmitt’s house on the right looks much the same today as it did when this photograph was taken almost a century ago.

The book highlights the families of the artists and the life they made together, especially Carl and Gertrude Schmitt and their extended family—her father Austin Lord and Carl’s brother Robert, who, along with Solon Borglum, were instrumental in the formation of the Silvermine Group of Artists in 1908. The group later became the Silvermine Guild of Artists, which endures to this day.

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Some of you may recognize this large boulder in front of the old Borglum place on Borglum Road, site of many birthday parties and other get-togethers in Silvermine over the years. Through fascinating images such as this, the new book captures Silvermine’s rich social, artistic, and cultural life during the heyday of the artists’ colony in the first half of the last century.

The stories of the Silvermine Tavern (where Spencer Tracy was a frequent guest and Lauren Bacall spent her ‘babymoon’ in 1949), the Buttery Mill (the oldest mill in the US when it closed in the 1950s), and the great flood of 1955 round out the narrative.silvermine-interior-page-spread-118-119

Part of the well-known “Images of America” series from Arcadia Publishing, many of the photographs come from the archives of the Carl Schmitt Foundation as well as historical societies and individuals in the area.

This offer is good today and tomorrow only (Tuesday and Wednesday, November 29 and 30, 2016).  You won’t see a better price.

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Samuel A. Schmittt

Silvermine

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Christmas in Silvermine

We continue our series of reminiscences by Carl Schmitt’s late son David, who died this past March at the age of 89.

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.

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.”