On This Day—August 10, 1914

One hundred years ago, Carl Schmitt was in Italy, staying with the Grazzini family in their villa above the town of Fiesole in the northern region of Tuscany.  Since his arrival in Italy in the spring, the artist had been hard at work, sending a large shipment of paintings and pastels to his patron, Zell Hart Deming, in Warren, Ohio, before venturing on a series of scenes of Fiesole and the surrounding countryside.  Schmitt’s portrait of Dr. Grazzini’s lovely daughter Luisina  would be shown at an exhibition in Florence in the fall.  

In early August the artist’s seemingly idyllic life was shattered by the outbreak of war between the great powers, and before the week was out large numbers of refugees from Germany flooded the northern part of Italy.  In the face of the conflict Schmitt would move to Florence, then to Rome, and finally to Naples, whence he sailed back to the United States in early February, 1915.  Deming saw fit to publish Schmitt’s letter to his parents in his hometown newspaper, The Warren Tribune, on August 10.

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Luisina Grazzini at her father’s villa, summer 1914.

Carl Schmitt who is studying at Fiesole, on the hills above Florence, writes under the date of August 10 to his father, Prof. Jacob Schmitt:

The situation here is very serious and will very likely be worse as soon as prices are going up rapidly.  I am still living at Dr. Grazzini’s villa.  Many Americans are here and I have seen several hysterical women who have no money.  Many of them are school teachers and all are stranded.  But you probably know more about it than I do.  The papers have given hardly any victories to Germany but I fear they are making headway.

I wish I might get a letter from home.  I have no idea how long we shall be without mail for how long before this will reach you.  Meantime I am working as hard as the weather will permit.

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Self-portrait sketch, dated January 20, 1915, while Schmitt was in Naples awaiting his boat home to America.

We should be all right if anyone has any money.  The Italians can’t draw their money out of the banks, so they are nearly as hard up as the Americans and English here.

The northern cities are full of Italians, English and Americans who have been expelled from Germany and other countries at war.  All these refugees depend on the charity of the Italians.  The Grazzini Villa is filled to overflowing.

I have been having a gold crown put on a tooth I broke and my dentist had great difficulty in getting enough gold in Florence for it.  All Europe seems to be extremely hostile to the Prussians and the stories that come from the north are terrible.

from The Warren Tribune, August 10, 1914

The charming Luisina in the garden.

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“With pipe, solitude and puppy for company”: Hart Crane and Carl Schmitt—Part 1

Harold Hart Crane by Carl Schmitt

Harold Hart Crane, oil on metal support, 17½ x 14½ in. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC. Gift of The Carl Schmitt Foundation.
Painted by Schmitt in the late 1960s or early 1970s from a photograph.

Harold Hart Crane, known to the world as Hart Crane, has been called “unquestionably the major poetic talent of twentieth-century America” (Brom Weber). Though Carl Schmitt knew Crane for only a brief time in his early manhood, Schmitt’s influence on the young poet, according to one of Crane’s biographers, “cannot be over-estimated.”

Crane was born in Garretsville, Ohio, in 1899, but his family had deep roots in Schmitt’s hometown of Warren.  His mother Grace Hart was born in there, and it was there she returned with her husband Clarence, and their five-year-old son Harold.  Carl Schmitt’s father, Professor Jacob Schmitt, counted Grace’s Aunt Bess among his piano pupils at Dana’s Musical Institute in Warren.

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Prof. Jacob Schmitt (far left) with other faculty and students of the Dana Musical Institute, c. 1910.

Another Warren connection was Zell Hart Deming, publisher of the Warren Tribune newspaper. She was the widow of Grace’s brother Frank Hart and Harold’s godmother.  A generous patron of the arts, she had helped Carl with his education, first in New York and later in Europe.  Through the pages of her newspaper she did everything she could to further the career of the young painter through exhibition notices, flattering reviews and “local boy made good” chronicles of his triumphs in the art capitals of the country.

Carl Schmitt’s portrait of his patron Zell Hart Deming, publisher of the Warren Tribune, painted from a photograph after her death in 1936. The accompanying article from the Tribune 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.”

After Crane’s family moved from Warren to Cleveland in 1909, they maintained close ties with family in their former home.  Schmitt, ten years older than Hart Crane, probably did not get to know the shy teenager until the summer of 1915.  The artist was fresh from his studies in Italy, back in Warren fulfilling some portrait commissions.

By November 1916, Schmitt had returned to New York, taking a studio apartment in Stuyvesant Square.  Crane’s first letter to Schmitt around this time glows with a warm familiarity.  “Someday, perhaps next summer, I shall come to you and we will work together,” he wrote wistfully.  But the young poet was enduring one of the most trying periods of his short life.  His matter-of-fact report of the breakup of his parent’s marriage disguises both his bitterness towards his father and his overwhelming desire to get away from his boyhood home.

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Crane’s first letter to Schmitt, probably November, 1916, in the Carl Schmitt Foundation archives.
The date on the letter is in the hand of Crane’s first biographer, Philip Horton, to whom Schmitt lent his letters from Crane in the 1930s.

Dearest Carl: –
     With pipe, solitude and puppy for company, I am feeling resplendent. After a day’s work in a picture store, selling mezzotints and prints, you may not think it, yet there comes a great peaceful exaltation in merely reading, thinking and writing. For occasionally in this disturbing age of adolescence which I am now undergoing, there come minutes of calm happiness, satisfaction.
     I don’t know whether or not I informed you in my last letter, of the step mother and I have taken. Next week mother files her petition in court for her divorce from father. In this I am supporting her. So the first thing to do was to secure some employment. Your poet is now become a salesman, and (it might be worse) a job at selling pictures at Korner and Wood has been accepted.
     I have had tremendous struggles, but out of the travail, I think, must come advancement. Working evenings will give me a little time for composing. And even should it not, I have been christened, I think, and am more or less contented with anything. Carl, I feel a great peace; my inner life has balanced as I expected, the other side of the scale. Thank God, I am young! I have the confidence and will to make fate. Someday, perhaps next summer, I shall come to you and we will work together. You understand, I know.
                                                                                                                    Affectionately,
                                                                                                                                Harold


Zell filled Carl in on the details in letter the following month.  “Grace Crane has sued Clarence for a divorce, gross neglect and extreme cruelty.  Harold has quit school and isn’t at all well.”  She then makes a proposal to Carl.  “He wants to come east for a while. What do you think?  Would you tutor him an hour a day and sort of keep your eye on him for say $10 a week. . . . I think he is in a serious condition or will be if he doesn’t get away.”  Zell’s original plan called for Harold, then attending high school in Cleveland to “get a job and go to school next fall.”

A few weeks later things had taken a turn for the worse: “Harold a nervous wreck. He needs to get away.”  By the end of the month the decision had been made. Hart Crane was to live in New York, with Carl Schmitt as friend, tutor, and guardian.

(To be continued.)

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Self-Portrait, charcoal on paper, December 1916.
A work done around the time Schmitt met Crane in New York.

From the archives—Schmitt the “amacheur,” 1911

Today, May 6, marks the 125th anniversary of Carl Schmitt’s birth in Warren, Ohio, in 1889.  The following article from the CSF archives gives a reporter’s view of Schmitt sketching en plein air in Boston.  It was published on his 22nd birthday in 1911.

“Carl Schmidt, [sic] one of the most talented of our younger artists, was sketching on Washington St., Friday, where a crowd collected about him and constituted themselves art critics.  One youngster said to another. “Oh, come on, kid, don’t watch him; he’s only an amacheur.”  “Thanks,” said Schmidt, not looking up from his work, “that’s a real compliment. An amateur is one who works at art for love of it; a professional works for dollars.”  A girl, of the variety that grows up on the streets, looked at the sketch, then muttered, “Gawd, ain’t that rotten. You couldn’t get a match through that door.”  If the youngsters could enter certain studios in town they would hear very different criticisms of Schmidt’s work.”
Boston Evening Transcript, Saturday, May 6, 1911

This small vignette captures Schmitt better than the reporter knew.  We see the artist’s delight in the prophetic irony of the child and the innocent.  We see, too, his kindly wit in the face of bluster and ignorance, a wit that served him well during his long years of struggle as an artist and father of many sons.  In this instance, his response ennobles the youngster’s dismissive remark, turning it to a true praise of the amateurone who works for love, not money.  Schmitt’s early regard for the amateur spirit, as with his other central ideas, deepened but did not change fundamentally throughout his life.  

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Lewis Street, Boston, etching, 1915. (Private collection, Leominster, Mass.)
This early etching of a streetscape in Boston’s North End was probably based on a sketch done while the artist was living with his brother in nearby Beacon Hill neighborhood in 1911-12.

As is typical of early news accounts, the paper misspells Schmitt’s last name.  This would change as his work became better known and respected by artists, critics, and the public at large.  The story was picked up by Schmitt’s sometime patron back in Warren, Zell Hart Deming.  Ever eager to promote Schmitt’s career, she reprinted it in her newspaper, the Warren Tribune, under the headline “WARREN ARTIST IS MAKING GOOD IN WORK AT BOSTON.”   The spelling of Schmitt’s name, oddly enough, was not corrected.  This became a running joke with Schmitt, as he recounted in later years in his journal, “They spelled my name with a “D” on the back.  I must write it always thus: SchmiTT.”

On This Day: March 10, 1926

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The artist’s wife Gertrude sitting in the kitchen of their Silvermine home.
Pencil sketch, dated March 10, 1926.

1926 was a momentous year for Carl Schmitt and his family.

The years since his marriage had been taken up in a seemingly endless series of exhibitions in Silvermine, New York, and at the major shows across the country.  The artist’s star seemed to be rising.  “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,’” a critic wrote in 1923.  Despite his hard work and the recognition of a few select critics, Schmitt had yet to be “discovered.”

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The artist’s son Robert in front of the house at Silvermine, c. 1926

Yet it seems the artist was content to labor in obscurity in the “solitudes of Silvermine,”  “a colony of artists who love their work and want to get away from the stress and confusion of modern life. Mr. Schmidt [sic] lives in a house with his family and has his studio in another part of the wood where it has almost a medieval atmosphere, filled as it is with remarkable paintings that come from his brush.”  With his growing family—his wife had given birth to six sons by the time Schmitt sketched her sitting in the kitchen in March 1926—his thoughts turned to their education and upbringing.  More and more he was becoming dissatisfied with what life in America would mean for him and his family.

The Catholic activist Peter Maurin, a co-founder with Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker Movement, gives us some insight into Schmitt’s thinking at this time.  “Carl Schmitt the artist does not want his ten children to be super salesmen, he wants them to be cultured peasants,” Maurin wrote in his characteristically proverbial prose in the early 1930s.  “Carl Schmitt the artist is far from thinking that all America needs is a good five-cent cigar, as Vice President Marshall was in the habit of saying.  Carl Schmitt the artist thinks that America needs to be revitalized with healthy peasant blood from those parts of Europe where the rugged individualism of bourgeois commercialism has not yet penetrated.”

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Église Sainte-Pierre, Chartres, pastel on paper, dated August 9, 1926.
One of a group of 16 pastels done by Schmitt during his stay in Chartres 1926-27, and shown at the prestigious Macbeth Gallery in New York in March, 1927.

In June, Schmitt decided to act on his convictions.  On the invitation of his longtime patron Zell Hart Deming, he traveled to Europe to explore where he might settle with his family.  He visited Dalmatia and Paris but decided on Chartres, France, bringing his wife and family over in September.  His brother Robert handled his affairs at home, sending his latest painting, “A Gift of Fruit,” to the Carnegie International exhibition in October.  As before, the critics were impressed, one foreseeing “a future in which he will be regarded as the logical heir of the great Americans such as Homer and Eakins.”  And once again he was singled out as an artist “who commands admiration from his colleagues but is yet undiscovered by art patrons at large.”

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A Gift of Fruit, oil on canvas, 1926.

Although the family’s foray to Europe was short-lived (he returned to Silvermine with his family in the spring of 1927), its effects would be long-lasting.  According to Schmitt’s son Jacob, “From this experience he seemed to have developed a firmer grasp of the significance of the grace of place, remarking that Northern Europe seemed to bring ‘domestication and affection’ to the fine arts.”  Indeed, one can see a certain domestication Schmitt’s own practice of painting, the art he called “characteristically domestic.”  And more and more his unsold paintings hung “above where children played or where a family sat at a meal,” as his friend Padraic Colum put it.  “In these surroundings they had seemed natural and right—they had enshrined the reality that was around.”

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Three Children with Toys, oil on canvas, c. 1926, 30 x 36 in.
Another domestic scene drawn from the same spot as the pencil sketch of Gertrude above.

More on the Schmitt family’s stay in Chartres can be found in the Winter 2012 issue of the CSF News.

“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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.”