“Just look at it!”: Pumpkin with Iron Pot (1914)

A guest post by Jacob A. Schmitt

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Carl Schmitt, Pumpkin with Iron Pot, c. 1914, oil on canvas, 20 x 20 in.
Florence Griswold Museum, Old, Lyme Connecticut

Carl Schmitt’s earliest professional work was done from the time he graduated from the National Academy of Design in New York at the age of twenty-one, through to about 1914, when he left to finish his studies in Florence, Italy.  Here we see the influence of his teachers at the Academy, especially the Danish-born still life master Emil Carlsen (1853-1932), whom he admired perhaps more than any other instructor.

Emil Carlsen - The Copper Pot

Emil Carlsen, The Copper Pot, 1931, oil on canvas, 18 x 18 in.
Private collection.

The handling of light is the focus of this early stage. Although the quality of light appears throughout all of Schmitt’s work, here light contrasts with darkness in more traditional ways.  Unlike his other paintings, these early works do not reveal his usual characteristics where rhythmic forms, lyrical design, bright colors, spatial values, and dramatic focus are constructed out of layers of various modeled and glazed colors.  Instead, the painting strokes themselves create the form.

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Pumpkin with Iron Pot displays Carlsen’s simplicity of flat pattern design seen in the pot and backdrop differentiated by the brilliance of light in the cloth and pieces of pumpkin.  It has a quality of light similar to what Schmitt often spoke of as the genius of the eighteenth-century still-life painter Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, that of revealing the beauty of soft light falling on an object, especially bottles.

(c) Glasgow Museums; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Chardin, Still Life, c. 1730, oil on canvas, 11 x 14½ in.
The Burrell Collection, Glasgow
© Glasgow Museums; supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Perhaps this is where Schmitt learned to love the quality of old glass bottles seen in so many of his later still lifes.  He obtained specimens of this glass from various shops during his travels and from foundations of old ruined houses he came upon during his walks around Silvermine.  To enhance that quality of light on these bottles, he took care not to disturb the dust that would collect on them, especially after he had set them carefully in a still life arrangement.  These bottles may still be found in the studio in Silvermine.

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Pumpkin with Iron Pot was in the artist’s possession until the early 1980s, when it was acquired by the Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company as an addition to its collection of paintings and other works by Connecticut artists.  In 2001, the Company gave its entire collection to the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, Connecticut.  The museum included Schmitt’s painting in an exhibition of works from the Hartford Steam Boiler Collection the following year and featured it in its illustrated catalog, The American Artist in Connecticut.

From the archives: Schmitt and “the surrounding inanities” or, “Why didn’t someone tell me twenty years ago about these men that are selling at fabulous prices now?”

“There are five paintings by Carl Schmitt in the exhibition and it is to be regretted that there are not five collectors in Pittsburgh keen enough to ‘see’ and acquire them.”
—Penelope Redd, on the 1923 “Exhibition of Well-Known Artists,” held at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh

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Ancient Episode, oil on canvas, 24 x 30 in.
An oil painting with this title, but with larger dimensions, was shown at the 1923 Carnegie show, along with Annunciation (below) and two “lost” works in Hawthorne medium, The Holy Spirit and the Muse and Mosaic Marriage.

Schmitt had been exhibiting at the major exhibitions across the country for over a decade when he found a champion in the art critic for the Pittsburgh Post, Penelope Redd.  Redd hailed Schmitt as “the logical heir of the great Americans such as Homer and Eakins,” singling him out as “one of the few modern painters that promises to survive the flood of the competently commonplace and the falsely modish.”

The artist was receiving increasingly warm praise from other critics as well.  Reviewing an exhibition in Silvermine in July, 1923, the Christian Science Monitor noted that Schmitt “brings to his work a rare color sense, an instinct for rich design, a fine imagination, and sufficient inspiration to make his effects convincing.”

As Schmitt was being noticed by the critics, his schedule of exhibitions was becoming more crowded than ever.  The year 1923 was particularly busy, with no fewer than 35 of his works featured in a dozen exhibitions, including such prestigious venues as the Carnegie International, the National Academy of Design, the Chicago Art Institute, and the Corcoran Gallery.  His work was also shown at national exhibitions in Cincinnati, Omaha, and Detroit, as well as the usual round of shows in Silvermine.

Among the yellowed newsprint collected in our studio archives, Redd’s review of the 1923 “Exhibition of Well-Known Artists,” held at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, merits note for its keen appreciation of Schmitt’s art and its understanding of his plight as an outstanding young artist who has yet to be “discovered.” 

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A Gift of Fruit, 1926, oil on canvas (a contemporary black-and-white photograph).
“‘A Gift of Fruit'” Redd wrote in a review of the 1926 Carnegie International, “combines the fundamentals which make for the endurance of the older types of painting and the exciting interplay of form and color which marks the newer movements. Carl Schmitt turned away from the assurance of popularity as a pleasant painter to become one of our potentially great painters, although he works in more or less obscurity.”

The curious thing about Carl Schmitt is that one believes he has arrived at a point of crystallization only to discover that he has gone on to something else.  He has developed from the “best student that Emil Carlsen ever had” to one of the few original painters known to us through exhibitions.  At first he painted in a decorative manner that was not unlike the work of Puvis de Chavannes. Every time he changed he dug harder into the form of art—he became less and less satisfied with the delightful effects of his surface decorations and gladly met the dubious comments he encountered.

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The Well, oil on canvas, 1918.
This, one of Schmitt’s most widely exhibited and admired early paintings, was often compared to the work of the nineteenth-century French artist Puvis de Chavannes in its “quiet” and “serenity.”
(A black and white image taken from the catalog of the 32nd Annual Exhibition of American Paintings at the Art Institute of Chicago, where the painting was shown in the fall of 1919.)

The group in the Carnegie Institute is of the last two years and mark his greatest advance. Carl Schmitt is now definitely engaged in giving the significance of the idea although painting what is really “pure design.”  “The Holy Spirit and the Muse” arouses in one many queries as to the artist’s symbolism.  The “Pieta” is a modern primitive.  He has used colors that will disturb the realistic-eyed one but he must have had a deliberate intent in using a glorious yellow touched with red.  The composition with its incessant movement gives the sensation of living life—not the still life that most modern pictures are. Carl Schmitt has the uncanny power of imparting life to his work.  Not by the simulation of vigor through technic but through the ability to make his paintings creative. He is at a decided disadvantage at a large exhibition where the observer cannot isolate Schmitt’s canvases from the surrounding inanities.

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Pietà, c. 1923, oil on canvas, 33 x 41 in.

“The ‘Pieta’ is a modern primitive. . .  [Schmitt] has used colors that will disturb the realistic-eyed one but he must have had a deliberate intent in using a glorious yellow touched with red.  The composition with its incessant movement gives the sensation of living life—not the still life that most modern pictures are.”

A very rich man in this town once said: “But why didn’t someone tell me twenty years ago about these men that are selling at fabulous prices now?”  And the one who loved art answered: “But would you have listened?”

That is particularly true of Carl Schmitt.  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.”  The period of waiting is wearisome to those who like to see a young painter encouraged, and it is precarious for the painter himself.  There are five paintings by Carl Schmitt in the exhibition and it is to be regretted that there are not five collectors in Pittsburgh keen enough to “see” and acquire them.

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Annunciation, c. 1922, oil on canvas, 20 x 24 in.
Also shown at the 1923 exhibition in Pittsburgh.

Carl Schmitt in New York—”a most able serious and thoughtful student”

In what must have been a turbulent time, shortly before his sixteenth birthday, Carl Schmitt withdrew from school in his hometown of Warren, Ohio.  The student magazine of Warren High School, The Cauldron, reported that “the condition of Carl Schmitt, who has been suffering from nervous prostration, is much improved but he will probably not return to school until this fall.”  

Carl Schmitt 1906 watercolor

Carl Schmitt, watercolor of flowers, 1906, probably done outside his family home in Warren, Ohio.

In fact, Carl did not return.  In the fall of 1906, he set out for New York to attend art school under the patronage of Zell Hart Deming, editor of the Warren Tribune newspaper and a local patron of the arts.  Deming was one of the first to see Schmitt’s potential as an artist, and proved an indefatigable champion of his career in the years ahead, both in the patronage of his art and in the pages of her newspaper.

Schmitt first attended the New York School of Art, then a relatively new institution.  Founded by renowned artist and teacher William Merritt Chase in 1898 as the Chase School, it represented a clear alternative to the National Academy of Design.  The NAD, founded in 1825, firmly represented the established academic tradition in America.

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William Merritt Chase, Master Roland, 1914, from an early photograph.
Joseph G. Butler, Jr., founder of the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio, purchased this painting of the artist’s son for his personal collection from Chase’s widow in January, 1917.  Butler’s agent in New York was Carl Schmitt.  The paining was later destroyed in a fire which consumed Butler’s entire art collection in December of that year.

Chase (1849-1916), well-known for his “American impressionist” style, advocated a less formal course of instruction at his New York school as well as at his outdoor atelier on the idyllic beaches of Shinnecock, Long Island.

By the time Schmitt enrolled, the best-known instructor at the NYSA was not Chase, but the younger Robert Henri (1865-1929), a self-described dissident from academic painting and the most outspoken proponent of the new “realist” style of painting.  In 1908 Henri and seven fellow realist painters banded together as “The Eight,” and in their inaugural exhibition at New York’s Macbeth Gallery, set themselves in opposition both to the academic tradition of the NAD and the impressionism of Chase.  Detractors labeled the group’s gritty depictions of city life the “Ashcan” school.  George Bellows, celebrated for his vigorous sports scenes, was Henri’s most accomplished pupil and became the leading exponent of this tradition in the next generation.

Robert Henri - The Fisherman's Son, Thomas Cafferty 1925

Robert Henri, The Fisherman’s Son, Thomas Cafferty, oil on canvas, 1925, 24 x 20 in.
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.
The vivid contrast between the art of Chase and Henri is seen in the above portraits, both in their choice of subject and their style.

By 1907, Schmitt’s second year at the NYSA, the friction between Henri and Chase led to the Chase’s resignation from the school he had founded.  The school introduced courses in fashion design, interior design, and advertising, the first school in America to do so.  Schmitt, focused solely on fine art and attracted more and more to the academic tradition, looked for another place to study.

The National Academy offered rigorous instruction in life drawing and still life as well as a faculty of established artists.  Emil Carlsen (1853-1932), widely regarded as the leading still life painter in America and an eminent teacher, became Schmitt’s mentor at the school.  Carlsen later wrote to Schmitt, “I consider you a most able, serious, and thoughtful student.”

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Carl Schmitt, Ruth, oil on board, 1916, 25 x 30 in.
A commissioned portrait of the daughter of a doctor from Warren.

Carlsen’s direct teaching style as well as the influence he had on the young painter can be seen in the list of Carlsen’s classroom dicta Schmitt took down in his years at the Academy and which he kept for the rest of his life.  Many of the sayings became part of Schmitt’s own outlook and are echoed in his own studio notes: “You can do more by scraping off paint than you can by putting it on,” “Mind your edges,” and “In painting a portrait, half close your eyes when painting the hands.”  Others are bon mots summing up Carlsen’s cotemporaries:  “Henri—he is quite a nice fellow—but he says that it is not necessary to paint a head in relation to its background.”

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Carl Schmitt, Self-portrait, oil on wood, 11 x 14 in.
This early self-portrait shows that Schmitt was familiar with the freer brushstrokes associated with Henri’s technique as well as the more polished style of Chase and Carlsen seen in his portrait of Ruth (above).

Schmitt flourished at the Academy, capturing the bronze medal (second place) for the antique school in his first year.  The following year crowned his studies with the Suyden Medal, the top award in still life.

Schmitt’s professional life also blossomed at the National Academy, as we shall see in the second part of our article.

Carl Schmitt 1906 watercolor - signature - CROPPED

Wisdom on Wednesdays—”One must paint as he loves”

“One does not paint merely as one knows (‘Paint it as you know it.’ —Emil Carlsen).  One must paint as he loves, as he knows, as he understands, as he desires, as he imagines, as he sees.” (1933)

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Gertrude Reading, oil on canvas, 48 x 40 in.
It is said that as the artist’s wife sat for this painting, her pregnancy became more noticeable, and so the painting was left unfinished.

“Still life is the best way of experimenting”

In our last post, we saw how Carl Schmitt considered still life an ideal medium for exploring new avenues in his painting.  While Schmitt’s still lifes are grounded firmly in the grand tradition of the genre, he was also an “experimenter,” developing the classic model in imaginative and unexpected ways.

Seen in the works of the eighteenth-century master Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin (1699-1779). the classic still life exhibits a number of characteristic features: deliberate yet unstudied composition, hushed light often focused on a single object, a subdued, uncluttered background, a muted range of colors and quiet, careful brushwork resulting in a polished sheen.  A single prominent element in the composition (typically a bottle or bowl) is not uncommon.  Emil Carlsen, a teacher of Schmitt’s and a champion of Chardin’s style, took up many of these elements, which in turn made their way into the work of his most accomplished student.

Chardin - White Teapot

Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, White Teapot, 1764. Private collection.

Carlsen’s debt to Chardin can be seen most vividly in the very objects he depicts, offering a kind of homage to the elder master.  In addition to bottles and bowls, these include pieces of fruit, brass pots, ceramic jugs, a white cloth, dead game, flowers, and occasionally a small statue or other objet d’art.  Those familiar with Schmitt’s works will recognize many of these articles in his works, along with his beloved eggs and cups.

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Carl Schmitt, Orange Still Life, 1914.
One of the artist’s finest early works.

Schmitt’s early Orange Still Life (above) features the formal composition, soft light, and subdued palette of many of the works of Chardin and Carlsen.  While Schmitt adopts the customary features of Chardin’s style in its formal arrangement and prominent black bottle, he makes subtle changes as well.  Unlike the traditional model, not all the objects in the painting are equally distinct; in fact, it is difficult to make out exactly what objects are represented in the background of the painting.

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Carl Schmitt, Bottles on Their Sides. Like the Orange Still Life, this painting is permeated by a dominant hue, even though the objects in it are actually of various colors.

More significantly, Schmitt, taking his cue from the orange in the foreground, allows a single color to permeate the work, a theme that can be seen in many of his subsequent still lifes such as Bottles on their Sides (above), Pink Drapes, and One Black Bottle and Garlics (see bottom of the post). Perhaps his most remarkable work along these lines is his White Still Life. Here the artist presents an arrangement of white plates, eggs and other objects on a white tablecloth, the whole bathed in a cool white light, a tour de force of the use of color.

Schmitt used color in other new ways as well.  He expanded the customary palette to include deep primary colors, notably red and green, and used hitherto underused colors, such as purple.  In another outstanding still life from the 1920s (below), Schmitt imposes a color scheme of red and orange on the black bottles and blue jug and bowl in the picture, many of which appear in other paintings with their true colors.

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Carl Schmitt, Still Life, proabably early 1920s. The distinctive Italian apothecary jug can be seen in another guise in Schmitt’s Two Oranges, (below).

Schmitt also shifted the “viewpoint” of the still life, which traditionally was at eye level, often on a table top, and centered, making the composition fill the canvas.  In certain works he subtly brought the viewer into the painting by separating what he called the “picture plane” from the plane of the viewer.  His Two Oranges (below) includes the canvas of the painting itself within the composition, depicting the artist’s own “view” of the objects rather than the objects in themselves.

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Carl Schmitt, Two Oranges, c. 1950. The painting includes the canvas on which it is being painted within it (bottom right).

In other works Schmitt shifts the conventional perspective.  A series of remarkable still lifes from the 1930s depicts the same arrangement of objects from six different angles and distances.  This phenomenon can also be seen in the two different versions of Tanagra and Vase (below).  His Bottles on Their Sides (above) and Still Life with Book are painted from above, while others, such as Eggs, Salt Cellar, and Bowl, seem to present only a portion of a full picture, with objects cut off at the edge of the canvas. Alternatively, One Black Bottle and Garlics (below, with Eggs, Salt Cellar, and Bowl) presents the objects as if far away in a lonely landscape.

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Carl Schmitt, Tanagra and Vase, two versions, 1934.

Schmitt, like any good student, strove both to receive fully what his teacher had to offer and, finally, to go beyond it.  Not long after Carlsen’s death in 1932, Schmitt was still pondering what he had heard from his teacher many years before, and offering his own thoughts.  “One does not paint merely as one knows (“Paint it as you know it.” —Emil Carlsen),” he wrote in 1933.  “One must paint as he loves, as he knows, as he understands, as he desires, as he imagines, as he sees.”

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Carl Schmitt, Eggs, Salt Cellar, and Bowl (left) and One Black Bottle and Garlics, c. 1975.