“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.

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.”

Dad: A civilized man

This week we are honoring David T. Schmitt, Carl Schmitt’s fifth son, who died on March 22 at the age of 89.  Below is David’s portrait of his father, taken from a collection of memories he wrote down not long after his father’s death.

My father was born in 1889 in Warren, Ohio.  He was the second son of Jacob and Grace Schmitt, who had only two boys. His father Jacob taught music in Youngstown and donated his expertise as the choir director for St. Mary’s Church in Warren for over fifty years.  He also played the organ every Sunday for that period.

Jacob Schmitt with his sons Carl (left) and Robert, c. 1905.

From the beginning Dad could always draw, he had the talent of the discerning line.  He pursued this talent and made it his vocation, leaving high school to study art in New York, at the National Academy of Design.  He always knew what he wanted to do and he did it as far as art was concerned. He was given the gift and he knew it was his responsibility to develop it.  He further studied abroad in France and Italy before the First World War.

Later he returned home to marry Gertrude Lord and settle in Silvermine, near Norwalk, Connecticut.  Here he and other like-minded artists founded the Silvermine Guild of Artists, a colony where they could exchange ideas, paint and exhibit their skills.  This included drama, sculpture, painting, drawing, etching, water color, and some crafts such a pottery–they established a shop.

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Self-Portrait, charcoal and pencil on paper, December 1916

My father was what I call a civilized man: you could count on him to not only do the right thing at the right time but from the right motive, and he always knew why he should do things so.  He had good will and intelligence.  He was mature.  He not only nursed the gift of Faith, but he welcomed the gifts of the Holy Spirit, contemplated them, and tried to integrate them into his everyday life as much as possible.

He was civilized in the Christian tradition and he saw God’s creation as a magnificent manifestation of his love, because God is magnificent.  He wasn’t stilted in Puritan observations and taboos because Christ has redeemed creation to the extent that it wants or has cooperated in submission.  Consequently the Holy Spirit has informed nature to raise it above itself through grace.

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Self-Portrait, oil on hardboard, c. 1965, 15 x 12 in.

Mother always said Dad had an “artistic nature” or “temperament.”  In a word, he responded almost innately: dramatically, responsibly to any given situation.  He had instant commitment or involvement, with integrity.  To balance this innate tendency he was also extremely analytical to the point of being almost scientific about evaluating everything.

He was a true contemplative at times and even mystical at others in his deep understanding of the true nature of persons, places, things, situations—he would speak of the symbol and reality of the Trinity again and again in creation!

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Untitled, pastel on paper, 14 x 16 in.

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.

William Merritt Chase - Roland OP553 in catalog

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.

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“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.