Most Northern Kentuckians are familiar with the work of local artist Frank Duveneck. His portraits, landscapes and religious works can be found at the Cincinnati Art Museum, the Covington branch of the Kenton County Public Library and St. Walburg Monastery in Villa Hills just to name a few. Duveneck gained an international reputation that endures to this day. One of his early teachers, Johann Schmitt, is lesser known, but also left a significant artistic legacy in the region.

Johann Schmitt was born in 1825 in Heinstadt, Baden (now Germany). In his early years he lived in Munich where he was exposed to some of the greatest art Germany had to offer. He studied art in the local churches and museums, but there is no indication he had any formal art training. He learned through observation and practice. In 1848, Schmitt left Europe for the United States. The year 1848 was a monumental one with revolutions beginning in Paris and spreading across the continent, throwing Europe into chaos.

Schmitt initially settled in Westchester County, New York. Here he began working as a church artist. Initially, he received a number of small commissions. His fine work and detailed subject matter soon led to larger commissions. Growing congregations in the Midwest led him to Covington in 1862. Here he immediately found work with the Covington Altar Stock Building Company (also known as the Institute of Catholic Art). Established by the Benedictine Religious Order, who staffed St. Joseph Parish in Covington, the firm built altars, pulpits and other furnishings for the new churches that were being built across the county. Here Schmitt worked with notable artists Brother Cosmas Wolf O.S.B., Wilhelm Lamprecht and Wenceslaus Thien. Also, during this time, Schmitt became one of the earliest teachers of the young Frank Duveneck.

Schmitt quickly became known throughout religious circles as an exceptional artist and his work became highly prized. Schmitt’s first work for the Institute in Covington was the decoration of St. Francis Seraph Church at Liberty and Vine streets in Cincinnati. He then turned his talent and brush toward the Church of the Immaculata at the crest of Mount Adams. The paintings in this church depict the life of the Virgin Mary and were completed in the years between 1862-1870. They can still be seen today.

Schmitt also composed a number of commissions in Northern Kentucky. He completed a piece depicting the Assumption of Mary for St. Mary’s Church in Morning View and a similar piece on the high altar at St. Mary Parish in Alexandria. For St. Joseph Parish in Crescent Springs, Schmitt completed a beautiful rendering of St. Joseph with the child Jesus. He was also responsible for the interior decorations of his home parish of St. Joseph at 12th and Greenup streets in Covington between 1875-1879. Here he created two large paintings entitled the “Death of St. Joseph” and “St. Joseph: Protector of the Universal Church” (a smaller copy of the last work is in the Vatican Museum). The last piece was painted by Schmitt during the Kulturkampf, a time when Catholics were being persecuted in Germany.

Schmitt’s most recognizable work in the area is at Mother of God Church on Sixth Street in Covington. In preparation for the parish’s 50th anniversary in 1890, Schmitt painted five large murals across the front of the church illustrating the five joyful mysteries of the rosary. These include The Annunciation, Visitation, Nativity, Presentation of Jesus in the Temple and the Finding of Jesus in the Temple. These beautiful works can still be seen in the church today and are excellent examples of the artist’s attention to detail and fine use of color and light.

Schmitt left an artistic legacy throughout the country. His works can be found in Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Others are still being discovered. His largest mural can be found in the cathedral at Green Bay. The painting, completed in 1883, is 25 by 40 feet and depicts the crucifixion. The piece was described by one of his contemporaries: “I have never seen such a beautiful, large mural in Europe. It was painted on the plaster by Johann Schmitt from Baden, in oil paints, a method that results in more durable frescos than those with watercolors. The figures seem to live in their movements ... This crucifixion scene is the most impressive and moving that I have ever encountered.” In 1895, Schmitt completed two additional murals for the cathedral of the Agony in the Garden and the Burial of Christ.

Schmitt found great success as a religious painter. His personal life, however, was filled with sorrow. Schmitt’s first wife was Margaret Reichert, also a native of Baden. The couple eventually adopted a daughter, whom they named Mary. Mary died at 23 years of age in 1885. She was followed by her mother in 1891. Schmitt deeply grieved these losses and absorbed himself in his work. In this time of grief, he became a member of the Third Order of St. Francis, a lay Catholic society dedicated to prayer and spirituality. Eventually he married Elizabeth Scheper Meyer Racke (twice widowed) and became a surrogate father to her six children, thus providing a more stable family life.

Johann Schmitt died June 10, 1898, of kidney disease in his home on East 13th Street in Covington. He was laid to rest in Mother of God Cemetery in the same city. His tomb is marked by a near life-sized statue of St. Francis of Assisi. The monument is a short walk from the resting place of his former student and protégé, Frank Duveneck.