“Just look at it!”: Gertrude Reading

A guest post by Jacob A. Schmitt

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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.

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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.

“Just look at it!”: St. Paul the Hermit (1922)

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St. Paul the Hermit and Allegorical Figure with a Rose, 1922, oil on canvas, 30 x 25 in.

A guest post by Carl B. Schmitt, Jr.

I once asked my father what that “allegorical figure with a rose” was.  His answer: “Just look at it.”  He never explained his paintings: he wanted others simply to enjoy them, to look with their own eyes.

The holy figure on the left was clear.  And since my father often coupled the pursuit of the good with the pursuit of beauty, I thought the mysterious figure on the right might stand for beauty, or possibly the arts.

It was only many years later that my father said something that showed me there is far more to this painting.  “There are two things you don’t fully realize until you’re eighty.  The first is how beautiful everything is, and the second is how passing it all is—all just nothing.”  Instead of facile explanations, his words put before me the mystery of beauty.  That’s what he wanted us to see and to enjoy.

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While we may not be artists, beauty is not foreign to us.  We are all drawn to beauty of a rose and pause to enjoy a rainbow or a sunset.  And when our attraction to someone or something beautiful turns to love, our love increases as we get to know that person or thing better, and we enjoy that, too.  Beauty is our birthright.

Enjoyment connects beauty with the good, and it increases as we get to know the truth of things.  Enjoyment always accompanies our growth in the knowledge and love of that which is truly good: to see more deeply into reality in this way is to enjoy it—and experience it as beautiful.

It is the good, the true, and the beautiful that connect the two figures in this painting.  The saint on the left, pursuing the good, is inseparable from the figure that represents the mystery of beauty.  Truth, goodness, and enjoyment of beauty are something we all experience in life itself.

Velasquez - Schmitt St Paul the Hermit

(left) Diego Velázquez (1599-1660), Saint Anthony Abbot and Saint Paul the Hermit, 1635, oil on canvas, 102 x 75½ in. Museo del Prado, Madrid.
(right) Carl Schmitt, St. Paul the Hermit, oil on canvas, c. 1922, 30 x 25 in. (Private collection)
Schmitt’s depiction of St. Paul of Thebes (d. c. 341) being fed miraculously by a raven was inspired by a painting of the saint by the great seventeenth-century Spanish master.  The enigmatic figure on the foreground is Schmitt’s own contribution.

But life is not simply the enjoyment of all that is good and true and beautiful, and here is where that “everything is passing” comes in.  It refers to all the negatives in life that stem from our limitations and mistakes—as well as those of others.  My father saw all of these “non-goods” in terms of the great good of life itself.  It is in all the fears, setbacks, and darkness that the true greatness of life is revealed.  These are the shadows and the voids my father combined with the brightly lit lyric forms to make his art real—and hence beautiful.

In this way, he shows that each of us can find a measure of joy, peace, and beauty by pausing long enough to see our own struggles in the light of the great goodness of life itself.  This is the real work that redeems life of its momentary anxieties and troubles.  And as my father reminds us, that takes a lifetime.

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Reprinted from the CSF News, Fall 2010.

Wisdom on Wednesdays—Sanctified, redeemed, reborn

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Christ at Emmaus, dry point etching

“One can only be sanctified as an individual in a society of individuals of which Christ is the head.  One can only be redeemed as a person in a society of persons of which Christ is the head.  One can only be reborn in a society of families of which Christ is the head.”  (1958)