Portrait of the Artist as a Family Man

A guest post by CSF Creative Director Andrew de Sa.

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The Schmitt family on the porch of their home, c. 1934. Left to right: John, Carl, Jr., Michael, Carl with Gertrude in his lap, David, Robert, Gertrude with Christopher in her lap, Austin, Peter, and Jacob (sitting).

One of the initial intriguing facts I learned about Carl Schmitt was that he and his wife Gertrude lovingly raised a family of ten children.  This seeming contradiction of being both a dedicated artist and dedicated family man fascinated me.  Soon after discovering Schmitt’s work I had the privilege of meeting three of the artist’s children, Carl Jr., Robert, and Gertrude, all of whom rounded out my understanding of Schmitt not only as a brilliant artist and original thinker but also as a devoted father.  All three children echoed the sentiment that their father’s commitment to his craft was a foundational element of the spirit of their family and in fact of each of their individual lives.  As the artist’s son Jacob beautifully recounts:

Just as Schmitt’s values, feelings, aesthetic temperament, and deep Faith were committed to painting, these same values, feelings, and commitments permeated all his activities – his marriage, his family and the relationships he had with his friends. If he offered few immediate material rewards, he offered what was the ‘better part.’ This was something each child learned from his father and something not one of them would trade for the entire world with its superficial and passing comforts.”

—Dr. Jacob  Schmitt, The Grandeur of Beauty

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Three Children with Toys, c. 1926, oil on canvas, 30 x 36 in.

Carl Schmitt understood that the sharing of this “better part” lay in his own attainment of virtue through the cooperation of his destiny as a painter, often at the expense of material prosperity.  Carl and Gertrude regularly welcomed artists, writers, and musicians into their home on Borglum Road.  These individuals, many of whom lacked tight-knit families of their own, were often greatly moved by the experience.  Describing one such visit to the artist’s home, journalist Donald Powell wrote:

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 . . . dirty faces, dirty diapers and all.  There is love within this family; it was built on love and survives through love.”  —D. Powell, The Catholic Worker, 1934

pen on paper, March 5, 1924

Carl Schmitt would describe his vocation as being that of the peasant, namely one who whose end in life is to raise a family.  Many, of course, share in this vocation; I myself just got married two months ago.  Schmitt’s life, especially understood through the lens of his children, has caused me to reflect on whether I might better prioritize the “better part.”

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Carl Schmitt with his daughter Gertrude on the porch of their home in Silvermine, c. 1935.

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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 coffe hour at St. Mary Church, Norwalk, Connecticut.)

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.

Wisdom on Wednesdays—Society will destroy us

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Tagliocozzo, 1939, pastel on paper

“We are in the condition today of being reduced by the tyranny of society and require that check and balance which can only be provided by the agrarian outlook: the family as a unit on the land.  Unless the family (and person) once more assume importance, society will destroy us.”  (1941)

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)