Wisdom on Wednesdays: the sense of personal and family reality

Today we begin a weekly feature, Wisdom on Wednesdays, highlighting the thought of Carl Schmitt on art, beauty, family, religion, and life in general.


Gertrude, dry point etching, 1916 (two years before her marriage to Carl Schmitt)

“The greater the momentum of mass communication, the greater the distortion, disproportion, of social reality in relation to personal reality and family reality.  Probably never before have men had so keen a sense of social reality, or so feeble a sense of personal and family reality.” (1962)


“A masterpiece of God”

“When will we learn that childhood is in a great sense not simply a preparation for adult life but a thing unique and complete in itself—a masterpiece of God.” —Carl Schmitt, January 14, 1925

Carl Schmitt saw art as play firsthand in his own children. With delight, he watched his nine sons and one daughter paint and sculpt, sing and  rhyme, tell stories, act, dance and build.  He observed that all children practice all seven fine arts when their imagination “is allowed to express itself naturally (and consequently authentically).”


Eight of Schmitt’s sons, early 1930s

As they grew older, the children studied a wide range of arts, from music and drama to painting and architecture.  No doubt the children, who recall being regaled by their father’s poems and rhymes after supper and lulled to sleep by the sound of their mother playing the piano, had much beauty to imitate.  They were constantly surrounded by their father’s paintings and pastels, and often saw him sketching indoors and out.

In 1932 the children’s work was recognized at a local art show.  According to a newspaper account, “the seven sons of Carl Schmitt” ranging in age from 5 to 13, showed “an arresting group of varied work.”  Schmitt himself kept a large cache of his children’s drawings and other artwork in his studio (where it still fills a huge box) as a reminder that, in his words, “the truest art of a painter is done up to the age of fourteen.”


Austin with ‘Cello, oil on canvas, 42 x 48 in., 1931, depicting the artist’s son, a gifted young musician. Schmitt considered this one of his finest paintings.

Carl Schmitt went further: “We must remember that the masterpieces of painting are done by children under fourteen. Why is this?” he asked. “I think it is because purity of heart is especially necessary to quality, and after fourteen it is only maintained by struggle. Before that it is a sweet and natural and unconscious offering to God.”

In his studio notes, Schmitt often emphasized that the first virtue to be cultivated by the artist is precisely this purity of heart, corresponding to the lyric stage of the imagination.  It is clarity of intention which will enable him to “contribute to beauty-offerings of great value to the few people who actually enjoy and love beauty.”

While recognizing the purity of young children, Schmitt did not romanticize them. With nine boys and a young girl, the atmosphere in his home was far from the hushed calm of an art class.  Many were the days when, as Carl wrote to his brother Robert, the “children howl and fight most of the time—it is rare to have a moment during the day when one is not coughing or crying.”


The artist’s wife Gertrude feeding their son Austin, September 9, 1921

A writer from the Catholic Worker, Donald Powell, visited the Schmitts in 1934 and offered a colorful picture of their home life in the mid 1930s.  “I have eaten with the Schmitts and seen the youngsters in their bunks, one on top of the other, shipwise. I have seen them at play. I envy and love the whole flock of them: Carlo, Gertrude, the boys and the girl, dirty faces, dirty diapers and all.”  Many of Schmitt’s works graced the walls of their modest home, and indeed, depicted life within those walls.

Another visitor in the 1930s was a personal friend of Schmitt’s, the well-known writer Padraic Colum. “I had seen some of these pictures before and in a place that had a different atmosphere from that of a picture gallery,” Colum related in an article for Commonweal magazine. “I had seen them in the painter’s house, on rough walls, hanging above where children played or where a family sat at a meal. In these surroundings they had seemed natural and right—they had enshrined the reality that was around.”


Gertrude at home in Silvermine (pastel on paper), c. 1920

“There is love within this family; it was built on love and survives through love,” Donald Powell wrote of Schmitt and his remarkable family he visited that day in Silvermine.  He was of course speaking of the mutual love of parents and children, and their shared love of God.  But one can also perceive a deep love of beauty, that the  members of his own family were, in his mind, the first of those “people who actually enjoy and love beauty,” the “simple and intelligent [who] are not of this world.”

In the words of his son Jacob, this love is revealed in his dedication to “those natural cultural values that made supernatural values possible and toward those supernatural values that fulfilled the natural.”  This was at the heart of the “reality that was around”—the buoyant  purity and constant creative energy of his many children, whom Schmitt naturally “enshrined” in his work.

Art as play


Three Children with Toys, oil on canvas, c. 1926, 30 x 36 in.

As we saw in our last post, Carl Schmitt saw the creation of art as a “symbolic story.”  It is the story of man’s search for God in all things—of seeing “beyond things” —and conveying this vision in an artistic medium.

For such a transcendent end the story has humble beginnings.  As Schmitt explains in his 1922 essay “Some Brief Suggestions of My Main Beliefs in Art,” “art in its essence is neither practical nor religious.  It is play.”

It is crucial to grasp the place of art—of fine art—in the life of man: it serves no practical purpose, but neither does it serve a religious purpose, exalted as that may be.  In Schmitt’s terms, we could say that art does not deal with means (the stuff of practical life) nor with ends (the purview of religion).  Rather, the artist, the creator, like the child at play, is one “close to the origins” of things. This unique position gives art a purity in revealing the life of man, both body and soul.  As Schmitt puts it, “That play”—art—“is a record of the soul’s life united with the life of the body.”

Like the two components of man, body and soul, the material record and the spiritual record, though present in a single work of art, can be distinguished.  (And, as we shall see, it is just this distinction that Schmitt sees as the key to the judgment of any artistic creation.)  On the side of the material life, the record is straightforward: “We are pretty well aware of the record of material life: in painting, the tactile and optical reality.”  But just as with man, a body without a soul is dead: “This ‘optical reality’ alone does not express life: the content, the soul is missing.”

In Schmitt’s view, Western art since the Middle Ages has been so focused on “optical realism” as to forsake the life of the soul.  He goes so far as to refer to most art of the past several centuries as “dead,” commenting wryly: “By and large, the dead painting—painting which is wonderfully realistic description and description alone–has been praised, bought, and generally bothered about very seriously for many years.”

But how is the artist to embody more than just the “optical reality” of things in his work?  “How is this life of the soul evident in a painting?”  As the eye is the power of the body which records the description, so also there is a power which “records the immanent and transcendent life of the soul.”  This power must be operative if the painting is to “express life.”


“The Little Red House,” oil on canvas, 18 x 22 inches

At this point, Schmitt’s thought takes an unexpected turn: he identifies this power with the imagination.  We are used to thinking of the imagination as the conjurer of fantasy, the creator of fictional worlds and fantastic creatures.  Fundamentally, however, the imagination is the power to make mental images: it works with the memory to form pictures of things that once were or to “imagine” things that never were or could be.

What is startling here, and is key to his whole aesthetic vision, is that Schmitt sees the record of the life of the soul not in terms of concepts but precisely in terms of images. In this sense he calls the imagination “the physical counterpoint of the soul”: it records or “images” the life of the soul.

As description or likeness is the record of material life, so Schmitt names the record of the spiritual life “design.”  The difference between “likeness” and “design” is the same as the difference between two activities of the artist, drawing and designing: “Many draw, but few design.”  Drawing is concerned with the likeness, but design transcends the technique of drawing.  At the same time design is not to be thought of as something apart from the likeness, or an order imposed upon it, but as that which “informs the mass and unifies it.”

In describing the imagination’s perception of design in a painting, Schmitt takes a cue from the art of music.  Just as the rhythm is not “added to” a melody, but is inseparable from it, so design is the “expression which is embedded in, and at one with description.”  The deeper pleasure in art comes precisely from the perception of this rhythm: “After our first enjoyment of whatever descriptive, optical pleasure (the sensuous and the tactile) there may be in a work of art, come the delight of the imagination: ‘reading’ the rhythm.”

As the imagination of the artist produced these rhythms, so it is the imagination of the viewer which takes them in and enjoys them.  These rhythms “are personal and they are the permanent stuff of this our world, delight of the lovers of beauty. The loves, victories, or defeats, triumphs, all movements of the soul, in fact live for us in the rhythms of our peers, the artists.”

Portrait of Santo Caserta - CSF11405

Portrait of Santo Caserta, oil on canvas, c. 1932

Although Schmitt goes on to say that “the varieties of rhythm are infinite,” he identifies three principal currents: the lyric, epic, and dramatic.  This takes us full circle to the “threes” discussed in one of our first posts, “Carl Schmitt’s Vision.”  There we outlined Schmitt’s seminal idea of the triune “realities of the imagination”, the lyric, epic, and dramatic.  It cannot be overstated how fundamental this “triune thesis” —the interplay of lyric, epic, and dramatic—are to Schmitt’s thought.  In various forms it appears again and again in his reflections on fine arts, and by extension in discussions of history, politics, and religion.  The thesis forms the backdrop of virtually every substantial essay recorded in Schmitt’s notebooks over many decades.  A selection of these essays can be found at the Carl Schmitt website, and we will be exploring many of them in upcoming posts.

Seeing symbols

“Man cannot long remain interested in things only. When he searches for greater happiness he searches for the reality behind things—he finds God. When man finds the Reality of the universe he suddenly sees all things (the natural order, creation) as symbols. And when he sees symbols he is a ‘creator’ or artist.”

Muses in the Valley

Muses in the Valley, 1921, oil on canvas, 25 x 30 in.

This quotation, from Schmitt’s 1925 essay “On Mythology,” is a wonderful description of the genesis of the artist. For Schmitt, the artistic impulse does not arise from within man, whether as a psychological need or attempt at self-expression; nor is it merely a response to the beauty of nature or of human life, great as these things may be. Rather, art is fundamentally a reaction to man’s search for God.  In finding this ultimate Reality man sees the world in an entirely new way.  In fact, it is just this “seeing” things as reflections (symbols) of God—seeing “beyond things” —that is the bedrock of the artistic imagination.

As Schmitt explains further in in the same essay: “[T]he secondary reality of materiality parallels [the] Primary Reality. When man has experienced this Primary Reality . . . he reacts in art, a parallel. He reveals in any of the arts an exact record, a symbolic story of that Prime Experience.”


Tanagra and vase, oil and canvas

It is fascinating to trace Schmitt’s account of the artist’s working out of this this “symbolic story.”  We will explore this in our next post.

My refreshment in servitude

We have seen that for Carl Schmitt, an artist will produce great and lasting work only in so far as he himself has been “worked on” by One higher than himself.  “It is the instinct of the artist to make, that is, to operate on some material vastly inferior—less willful—than himself,” he wrote in 1933. “The artist knows that he cannot operate successfully upon such matter unless he has previously been operated on as a vastly inferior being.

In a paradoxical way, this “being operated upon” finds a necessary complement in the artist’s self-criticism and self-discipline: God and man work together to form a mature artist.  As he wrote in 1922, “The perfect attitude for the artist is the continual companionship of God and unceasing toil.  To dream of Eden before the Fall: to work in the world by the sweat of his brow.”

Adam and Eve

Adam and Eve, oil on canvas, 1931

In Schmitt’s life this “attitude” expressed itself in a conscious effort to realize the graces offered to him in his vocation as an artist.  “All art, like spiritual progress, is dependent upon grace: ‘Artist by the grace of God,’ as my father used to say.”  His ideas linking the channels of grace, the sacraments, to the various fine arts were not just theories, but attempts to penetrate the reality he lived in his own life as an artist.

In another paradox, Schmitt refers to the state of the artist as “servitude” —to reality, and ultimately, to God.  He did not see this as an enforced or bitter slavery but rather a free subordination of one’s life to higher realities.  And, as he reflected in the early 1930s, it was not without its own rewards: “The natural condition of Artistic Creation is servitude—but servitude voluntary, supported by charity, surrounded by leisure!”


Black Bottle and Two Eggs, oil on hardboard, c. 1935

Schmitt conveyed all this in a striking way in a poem dating from 1925, where “mastery” (of oneself) and “servitude” (to God) are inexorably joined in a complete personality.

By virtue of the Dear God Which is within me,
I will master my body in its every function.
As much as I master my body so much will my God master me.
And I am happy only in this servitude.
My labor is in mastery.
My refreshment in servitude
Without mastery, I am without servitude.
Without servitude:
I am a coward, hopeless, without joy.
Restless, without the peace of faith,
Sorrowful, without happiness.
With mastery, by virtue of my God within me,
I am a slave to my God above.
My slavery opens my soul at the top,
Admitting my Infinite God as a sharp wedge driven through ice.


Back Bottle and Two Eggs, detail