“Just look at it!”: Gertrude Reading

A guest post by Jacob A. Schmitt

CSF11101

Gertrude Reading, oil on canvas, 48 x 40 in.
According to family lore, Gertrude, over the months that she sat for this portrait, would alter this dress to accommodate her advancing pregnancy. Toward the end, the dress could not be let out any further, and the painting was left unfinished.

This is a wonderful portrait of the artist’s wife, Gertrude.  A gracious, lyrical femininity is seen in the dignified movement of the pose and the basic forms of the flowing dress, the upper body, arms, and head.  This is enhanced by the tilt of the head repeated in the poised wrist and contrasted by the repose of the right arm—a superb sense of a balance of rhythmic lyricism.

Gertrude Sitting and Reading - pen and ink sketch

A more informal picture of Gertrude reading, a pen and ink sketch from 1926.

At the same time—and this is Schmitt’s first picture that offers this technique—the whole picture is united by a conical-triangular shape formed from the flowing dress at the base, through the dignified rectangular form of the body capped by the dark hair. Hence, there is movement within solidity, but with delicacy, balance, and poise.

CSF11101 - detail of head

Compared to earlier portraits, one sees a refinement in the handling of light falling upon the upper face, shoulders, and arms.  The viewer’s eye is moved and focuses more clearly on the central aspect of Gertrude’s concentration by the technique of a more refined sculpting and modeling of the head and shoulders.  Along with this modeling, a solidity of form is achieved by the manner in which light is used in the background and how it falls on the figure.

This painting, seriously damaged in a fire in the summer of 2012, was recently restored to its original beauty and now graces the home of one of Carl Schmitt’s grandsons in Massachusetts.

Tracing Carl Schmitt’s “lost” paintings

Over the past few years, people from as far away as Hawaii have contacted me, eager to tell about the work of Carl Schmitt that they own.  Naturally, I am gratified to hear of those who appreciate Carl Schmitt and want to learn more about his work and further his legacy.  More importantly, those who contact the CSF in this way do a tremendous service to everyone interested in Schmitt.

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Study for “Reading,” 1936, pastel on paper, 23 x 19 in.
A pastel sketch of the artist’s wife Gertrude (sitting) and her close friend Margaret Ryan, later executed as an oil painting for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the mid-1930s. The location of the oil painting remains unknown. 

Although the Foundation makes every possible effort to locate Schmitt’s unknown works, many are effectively “lost,” or untraceable, and will remain so until the owners themselves contact the Foundation.  The photographic record, as well as details about Schmitt’s works (dimensions, signature, date and other markings) supplied by these individuals are invaluable in building up our catalog raisonné, revealing more of the artist’s stylistic development and his contribution to art in the twentieth century.  For this we are very grateful.

Schmitt’s “lost” works include paintings, pastels, etchings, and drawings; most date from the first half of his career (1906-1940).  The Foundation’s archives hold valuable clues that can help in the search, including exhibition history, critical reviews and other press reports, the last known owner, and in a few cases, photographs of the work.  We will explore this record in the next few weeks, highlighting his imaginative and religious paintings. We will also be looking works which have been “found” by those who have contacted the Foundation with information about their painting or pastel.

WPA 4 - Still Life (plate, bottle, onion , cloth) (from email) - NO BORDER

Still Life, oil on canvas, signed lower left: “S/1936”
One of three still life paintings done for the WPA in the mid-1930s.

In this post we focus on some of Schmitt’s early works, culminating in an important portrait commission from the 1930s.

Opus Minor No. 1, 1911 (15 x 18 in.) — An early still life, described as a “beautiful painting done in dark tones,” it was  Schmitt’s first work to be accepted by a major national exhibition.  The eminent still life master and Schmitt’s former teacher, Emil Carlsen, “highly praised” the work when it was shown at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in February and March of 1912. The painting was later shown at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Art Academy of Indianapolis before being bought by the Youngstown architect Charles F. Owsley.  (Owsley also commissioned a pastel portrait of his son from Schmitt, now unlocated.)

early still life (pot, egg, garlics) (faded)

One of Schmitt’s early still lifes, possibly Opus Minor No. 1 or another entitled Study (1912), from a photograph in the Carl Schmitt Foundation archives.

Aspiration – Symbolic Decoration, 1912 (oil over tempera) — This work was commissioned by W. D. Packard of Warren, Ohio, founder of the Packard Motor Car Company.  Packard was so pleased with the work that he commissioned a second painting the following year, Shadow Dance – Rondeau.  Packard also commissioned Schmitt to paint his own portrait, which was to hang in the office of the park he left to the city.  No trace of any of these paintings has been found.

Ruth, 1916 (oil on board, 25 x 30 in.) — One of several commissioned portraits Schmitt did for well-to-do citizens in his hometown of Warren, Ohio, and the surrounding area in the early years of his career. This painting, a portrait of the young daughter of a doctor from Youngstown, is his only known oval painting.

11410 - Ruth (Portrait of Ruth Thomas) - CROPPED

Ruth, 1916, oil on board, 25 x 30 in.
The frame is an early example of the work of Carl’s brother Robert, who had recently completed his apprenticeship with Herman Dudley Murphy at the famed Carrig-Rohane shop in Boston.

God’s Garden, 1916 — While no known photograph of the painting exists, a reviewer described it in the following terms: “outlined against a yellow ship’s sail and a gray sky is a group of three or four figures: they are on elevated ground, at the foot of which may be glimpsed a bit of deep blue ocean. In the dress of the figures and in other externals there is a suggestion of the Greek: the idea suggests the fortunate isles.”  Schmitt himself said of the painting, “In that land there is wonderful dawn without dark night to precede it–light is understood without shadow. It is the land in which the human heart finds a release from the puzzling paradox–life in the flesh.”

In 1920, the painting was bought by Samuel Prentiss of Winona, Minnesota, a former client of Schmitt’s father-in-law, the architect Austin W. Lord.  Lord had designed a handsome Georgian mansion for Prentiss in 1912, one of a pair built for him and his brother-in-law Frederick Bell.  The house was recently restored.

11107 - Gertrude_Holding_Jug - CROPPED

Dusting, c. 1934, oil on canvas
One of six paintings done for the Works Progress Administration.

Paintings and pastels done for the Works Progress Administration, 1934 — Schmitt executed six works in oil for the Depression-era program: three still lifes, one imaginative, one portrait and one religious painting. He also completed eight pastels.

The state of Connecticut distributed these works to various state institutions, including sanatoriums, hospitals, and colleges.  All of the institutions to which Schmitt’s paintings were dispersed have since closed or been transferred to different agencies, and the artwork has been lost long the way.  The Connecticut State Library’s WPA Art Inventory Project has been trying to track down and recover these works through a database with information on the artwork from WPA files, including the work of Carl Schmitt.

Tanagra Still Lifes pair

Tanagra and Vase, two versions, both oil on canvas, c. 1934.
The painting on the right (taken from a contemporary black-and-white photograph) was done for the WPA; its companion on the left, done around the same time, is owned by one of Schmitt’s grandsons.

Portrait of Zell Hart Deming, 1937 — Deming, owner and editor of Schmitt’s hometown newspaper, the Warren Tribune, was the first of Schmitt’s patrons and a life-long friend.  The first editor-owner of an American newspaper and the first woman to be a member of the Associated Press, Deming funded Schmitt’s study in New York at the National Academy and his trip to Italy a few years later.  Over the years she purchased or arranged the sales of over twenty of Schmitt’s oil paintings and dozens of his pastels, etchings, and drawings.  She also introduced Schmitt to her godson, the poet Hart Crane, and helped arrange Schmitt’s guardianship of Crane in New York in the early months of 1916.

Zell Hart Deming 1936, oil on canvas, signed “Carl Schmitt/1937” upper right 
A newspaper in nearby Youngstown wrote that the “portrait faithfully captures Mrs. Deming’s personality, which was characterized by her forceful yet kindly manner.  Schmitt knew her for many years and spent several months painting the portrait.”

The newspaper commissioned Schmitt to paint this portrait for its offices as a posthumous tribute.   The Tribune article announcing the hanging of the painting reads much like earlier congratulatory pieces published by Deming herself:

“The painting is the work of Carl Schmitt of Silvermine, Conn. (son of Prof. and Mrs. Jacob Schmitt of this city) who was most fortunately adapted to the task by reason of his long acquaintance with Mrs. Deming, in addition to his outstanding qualities as a portraitist. From the time he embarked on his artistic career as a boy, here in Warren, Mrs. Deming recognized Mr. Schmitt’s talent and the possibilities inherent in it, and thruout her life she continued in a very real sense to be his patron.”

An inquiry to the newspaper as to its whereabouts proved fruitless.  Schmitt produced two versions based on the same photograph, one shown here and another now in the Carl Schmitt Foundation studios.

Next week we look at several “imaginative” paintings from the 1920s whose locations remain unknown.

11421 - Zell Hart Deming [2] 1937 - signature

“Please paint the necktie a dark subdued blue”: Schmitt’s early career as a portraitist

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Schmitt during his student days, a photograph taken by his friend James W. Porter.  Porter, a professional portrait photographer, was one of the most dedicated supporters of Schmitt’s early career as an artist.

The first part of this article saw Carl Schmitt’s transition from high school dropout to most favored student at the National Academy of Design, studying under the illustrious Emil Carlsen and winning the top prize in still life.  His successes there pointed to a career of great promise, and a comfortable life as a painter for the great men of business and industry in the early 1900’s.

Schmitt began his professional career even before he graduated from art school.  His earliest recorded commission comes from 1906, when he was paid the handsome sum of $50 for a portrait of one Salvini Guarnieri, a businessman from Schmitt’s hometown of Warren, Ohio.  A friend of Schmitt’s reported from Warren that “the portrait gave unqualified pleasure.”  Other commissions and sales followed from well-to-do residents of Warren and nearly Youngstown.  In 1909, Ohio state senator Benjamin Wirt of Youngstown paid $10 for a still life painting of an “egg, onion, cloth, and ginger jar.”

CSF11409

James W. Porter, oil on canvas, 1909, 4 7/8 x 4 5/8 in.
Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio; Gift of Marian Roller Chilson, 1988.
Schmitt’s small portrait captures at once Porter’s thoughtful nature and his quick manner.

That same year Schmitt painted a portrait of his long-time friend and benefactor, James W. Porter.  Known to his friends as “Jimmy,” Porter was a professional portrait photographer, connoisseur of American art, and a leading art dealer in the Youngstown area.  He worked closely with Joseph G. Butler, Jr., a leading industrialist and one of the richest men in the region, in the development of Butler’s art collection.   In 1917 Butler made this collection, along with a gallery and a generous endowment, the nucleus of the first museum devoted to the art of the United States, the Butler Institute of American Art.   Ironically, it was success of portrait photographers like Porter which hastened the decline of portraits in oil such as those being done by Schmitt.

Porter, along with Zell Hart Deming, publisher of the Warren Tribune and an early patron of Schmitt, would prove the most fervent supporters of the young artist in the early years of his career.  As his correspondence with Schmitt and the artist’s own records reveal, Porter was tireless in his promotion of Schmitt’s works through exhibitions and sales at his gallery, as well as commissions from some of the area’s wealthiest and most prominent citizens.

Schmitt’s account books record the sales of over seventy works to residents of northeast Ohio, secured mostly through Porter’s efforts.  These sales would prove to be Schmitt’s most reliable source—and often his only source—of income through the 1920s.

Profile of a Monk - Butler Institute

Profile of a Monk, watercolor, 1906, 7 x 5 in.
Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio; Gift of the Estate of Lorena Coale, 1986.
This work may have been among the watercolors lent by Mrs. William Coale for the Schmitt exhibition at the Warren public library in 1912.

Guarnieri’s portrait was among the thirty works shown at Schmitt’s first one-man show, held at Warren’s public library over Memorial Day weekend in 1912.  Organized by Deming and Porter, the show featured paintings, pastels and watercolors lent by prominent people in Warren and Youngstown, most of whom were Deming’s personal friends.  Her Tribune featured a glowing review (most likely written by Porter) praising Schmitt’s pastels as “wonderfully soft and beautiful in coloring.”  Deming wrote excitedly to Schmitt that the brief exhibition had attracted over 1500 people.  The success of the show testified both to the talent of the young painter and the marketing skills of his promoters.

Dawn Sketch Mills No. 2 [Republic Mills]

Dawn Sketch Mills No. 2, oil on prepared artist’s board, 1909, 7 x 9 in.
A similar work entitled Opus I was shown at the 1912 exhibit.  According to an unsigned review (probably penned by Jimmy Porter): “One of the most striking pictures in the exhibit is a large canvas of a rolling mill at Youngstown by night. This picture breathes the mystery of smoke and flame and industry and is typical of the iron industry of Youngstown.”  It was offered for sale for $350.

By 1918 Schmitt was receiving $600 for a commissioned portrait, generous at a time when the average annual income in the United States was around $1500.  As lucrative as these jobs could be, it was clear that by this time Schmitt was growing weary of pleasing fastidious sitters, as well as the travel these commissions involved.

Schmitt’s commission for the portrait of Mr. H. K. Wick, completed in 1917, may have been a turning point for the young portrait painter.  Mrs. Wick asked Schmitt to paint her husband’s portrait shortly after his death in 1916.  While she was pleased with Schmitt’s first painting (shown below), Schmitt’s copy of the work, requested by Mrs. Wick for the office of the Republic Rubber Company (where Mr. Wick was a director), proved a trial for both artist and patron.  In a series of letters over many months, Mrs. Wick gave detailed instructions as to the color scheme and other details.  A letter from May, 1917 reads in part:

“Please paint the necktie a dark subdued blue, without much highlight. Also hope that the background is dark, almost black, shaded to a grey blue and without any effect of tapestry.  I like a vague suggestion of blue and sky if this treatment is permissible . . . the eyes are to be a decided blue, which I think you already know.”

Mrs. Wick’s most serious complaint came in a letter after the portrait was finished.  “I can not agree with you in regard to it being a likeness.”  As a friend wrote to Schmitt, “Evidently Mrs. Wick is no longer sure of herself as to how her husband looked and, worse still, (for you) seems unable to settle how she wants him to look.”  In the end, an exasperated Schmitt politely refused to acquiesce to all of his patron’s demands, Wick refused to accept the finished painting, and the artist returned half of the agreed $200 fee to the wealthy widow.  In the midst of all this, it is no surprise that Schmitt declined Mrs. Wick’s request to paint her own portrait.

Portrait of H. K. Wick [11410]

Portrait of H. K. Wick, oil on canvas, 1917, 28 x 23 in.
Butler Institute of American Art; Gift of Mrs. H.K. Wick, 1934.

Although he could have had a secure career as a portrait painter, Schmitt gradually distanced himself from commissioned work, concentrating instead on gaining recognition through national and international exhibitions.  It would prove a hard road.

Schmitt’s decision was not simply a matter of preference or convenience on his part.  “Art is no better than the patron,” he would reflect many years later.  Many artists, even supremely successful ones such as John Singer Sargent, have expressed a fundamental dissatisfaction with creative work done for the money.

At a deeper level, however, Schmitt came to the realization that the pursuit of painting as a fine art demanded a freedom that was hindered by anything extrinsic to the purpose of art itself, particularly commercial considerations.  “There is art and there is commerce,” his friend Hilaire Belloc was fond of saying.  Practically all of Schmitt’s subsequent portraits are of members of his family and those he knew personally.  As he himself expressed in more positive terms: “All creation in the Fine Arts is done in privacy and in love.”