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No. 100 Frank J. Schmidt


Frank J. Schmidt, portrait painter, came to Chicago in 1932, on the illusion that distant pastures look greener. “The Depression had caught him in Detroit where his most notable sitter had been Judge Leo Schaefer. The automobile industry had caved in, and Detroit looked gray and sere. Across the fence to the southwest, Chicago’s stubble fields looked still alive with clover.


Since coming to Chicago, Mr. Schmidt5 has managed to get along. A recent portrait of Phillip R. Clarke, president of the City National Bank, was so lauded by the banker’s friends that other commissions have followed. Just now he is engaged in painting Mrs. Ruthven Moore of Hinsdale and her small son. Among other noted Chicagoans who have sat for him are the late Dr. Henry Schmitz, authority on cancer; Nathan Goldblatt of the merchant family; Joan Florsheim, daughter of Harold Florsheim; and a grandson of Gen. Wood.


Schmidt, of “Pennsylvania Dutch” stock, was trained in art by Frank Duveneck in Cincinnati and Leo Putz in Munich, where Duveneck spent so many happy years (about 40 of them) in the days before Hitler.


Schmidt’s father was Bavarian and his mother was of Austrian Tyrol stock. She was of a family named Weissgerber that gave more eminent musicians to the world. A brother of hers, Henry Weissgerber, is remembered by veteran orchestral musicians of Chicago. It is from the cultured Weissgerber’s that Schmidt believes he got his art impulses, and not because of his birth in sight of Valley Forge, scene of famous exploits of George Washington whose “Crossing the Delaware” was celebrated in paint by another German-American, Emanuel Leutze.

Birth was at Phoenixville, Pa., Aug. 26, 1893. When he was 12, his family took him to Philadelphia, and two years later to Cincinnati. When you ask Frank Schmidt “where he is from,” he replies “Cincinnati,” for it was there he began his adult education in his life pursuit in the Cincinnati Academy.


It was in 1914 that he was accepted by Duveneck, most notable American of the “Munich school,” as a pupil. Duveneck taught at the Academy without pay, and asserted the privilege of surrounding himself with only such students as he thought talented. Schmidt remained with him for nearly three years, studying figure and portrait painting.


“Duveneck was the greatest teacher I ever knew,” is Schmidt’s considered opinion today. “He was very free with his students, let their individuality run rampant, and yet very severe. He would accept no student without talent, and he would accept from them no sloppy work. He worked personally with every one of his pupils, never having a class of more than ten. Drawing, drawing, drawing, he insisted on.”


It was from Duveneck that Schmidt got the solidity that is in his portrait painting.


In 1919, shortly after Duveneck’s death, Schmidt went to Munich with a letter from his dead master to Leo Putz. He had money enough to last him, he figured, for a year. But living was cheap and he stretched his stay into nearly three years. He was one of four students Putz received in his private studio. His style was different from Duveneck’s, and Schmidt tried his new master’s broad, short dashes of color, but found that technique didn’t conform with his own inspiration. So he continued to go his old way under Putz’s sympathetic direction.


In Munich, he came in contact with the work of other distinguished artists, and developed an intense admiration for Von Stuck, one of the greatest draftsmen of modern times in the drawing of the human figure. Duveneck, Von Stuck, Zorn, and Philip Laszio (the Hungarian) are high gods in his pantheon.


After Munich and before returning to America, Schmidt made an intensive art tour along the Danube, visiting and studying in Passau, Vienna, and Budapest. His Bavarian and Austrian blood responded vigorously to what he saw in the museums.


Back to America in 1922, he came first to Chicago but remained for only two months, finding little hospitality for his art, and then went back to Cincinnati where he struggled along as a portrait painter for three years.


Next he went to Philadelphia, his boyhood home, to enjoy four of the most prosperous years of his life.


To portrait painting he added here the painting of flowers on panels in association with an interior decorator.


This association came about because of a portrait he painted of this decorator. The maker of panels noted the accuracy of Schmidt’s work and suggested that he undertake the decorating of the panels. Schmidt readily fell in with the idea.


BY 1929, the business had become so prosperous that Schmidt succeeded in selling out to his partner for $5,000 in cash. He had wanted to go traveling all over America. So he bought an automobile, and he and his wife set out for the Pacific Cost.


But they had not reckoned with fate. “Prosperity,” in 1929, was a gilded hussy. First, the Schmidt’s were called back from Montana by illness of a relative in Chicago. They settled down temporarily in Rhinelander, Wis., to be near Chicago, and after a few weeks went on, in reverse, to Detroit, and it was there that the crashing of banks sprinkled them with debris.


The three years in Detroit (1929-1932) were as difficult for them as for many another couple with an even more substantial calling, that of portrait painting. The rich were too preoccupied with salvaging remains of belongings from the financial wreckage to think of sitting for an artist. Neither, as Schmidt found, were people interested in having painted panels installed in their homes, like the Philadelphians of yesterday.


At one time so meager was the family exchequer, Schmidt made a house-to-house canvass for portrait jobs, doing grandfathers and grandmothers in oil from old photographs for as little as $10.


Also, a trick he had learned in youth in Cincinnati came in handy. He and another young man, also an art student, had occupied an apartment so large and rambling that they decided to cut it in two and let out the other half. A barber and his wife took it. The rental they paid more than met the landlord’s toll for the whole apartment, and the young art students were making money.


Presently, the barber and his wife split up. The barber gave up his shop and departed, leaving the boys a complete outfit three-fourths paid for. The young artists, being canny, took over the shop and began cutting hair, so prospering that they paid the rest on the furnishings. Then they sold the shop at a profit and retired form the “barber business.”


In Detroit, that early training was recalled and for a time Schmidt added to his meager earnings with paint brush considerably larger earnings with shaving brush.


Detroit, as has been related, grew more and more relentless as the Depression deepened, and in 1932 the Schmidt’s left, with no regrets, for Chicago where life as a portrait painter has become rosier.


Mrs. Schmidt, formerly Theresa Reisch of Cincinnati, assumed her present name and status in 1913, the year before Schmidt became a student of Duveneck, and has shared with him his entire art life. Schmidt finds her a severe, honest, and talented critic, and she is a sympathetic companion in his intellectual life as well, away from his art.


His hobby is to read aloud to her in the evenings, abstruse works or economics, and discuss them with her. They know, and detest, “Meir Kampf” in the original German, and they have absorbed Karl Marx’s “Capital.”


Voltaire, Bernard Shaw, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Jack London’s “The Iron Heel” are theirs, not only on the library shelf but in their craniums. A red-letter day in Schmidt’s life is in the calendar of 1908 when, in Philadelphia, a boy of 15, he was introduced to Jack London and actually shook hands with him.


The older philosophers are not neglected. Kant is favorite reading in awe and wonder, and so is Schopenhauer.

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