“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).”

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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8 thoughts on ““A masterpiece of God”

  1. Pingback: “A masterpiece of God” | lionandox

  2. Thanks for this article. I especially like the comments by Donald Powell and Padraic Colum. They reveal the humility that Carl Schmitt had with respect to the position of the artist in society- Colum quotes Schmitt’s notebook

    “The final responsibility for the quality of a musical composition, a poem or a picture, rests upon the aesthetic conscience of those who support the artist.”

    and

    “Music, literature and painting are essentially “peasant” arts, that is as artists, the workers in these arts are fundamentally of the “serving” class.”

    and

    “At present the artist is a dog without a master.”

    and Powell:

    “I charge flatly and bluntly that his fellow Catholics are enemies of Schmitt, his family and what he stands for.”

    Powell’s “case” is compelling!

  3. Thanks for your comment, Mark. You must be referring to the articles by Powell and Colum on the Carl Schmitt Foundation website. Colum was an old friend of Carl Schmitt’s (they first met back in 1917); Powell was a more recent acquaintance. Together they paint a compelling portrait of Schmitt as an artist with a crystal clear vision of what he is meant to do and what the cost would be.

    Even in the “good old days” back in the 1930-50s, Schmitt saw avarice and worldliness as the biggest enemies of the family. Even then there was pressure not to have a big family. He was dismissed and talked down to for the way he thought and lived – sometimes in a subtle way, other times not so subtle. He expected that from the world but was disheartened when he got it from his fellow Catholics. I think he was really heroic for the way he persevered.

    My next post will talk more about this. Stay tuned!

  4. “We must remember that the masterpieces of painting are done by children under fourteen.” What does he mean by this? I haven’t seen many masterpieces of painting by children under fourteen…

  5. Excellent question, Helen!

    In think what Carl Schmitt says about painting in his unfinished book Europe and the Arts can help us here. In this book he describes painting as “lyrical in its inspiration. That is, it draws upon the first and simplest impulses for its poetic nourishment.” As such, “there is very little that can be added to the child’s purity of vision to improve this art [painting] in its essential inspiration.”

    The simplicity that can be seen in some young people’s “paintings” (I think Schmitt would include colored drawings in this group) – their purity of line, composition, and color – attest to Schmitt’s conviction. Naturally he is not saying that such works are or could be on the same level as mature masterpieces such as Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel or Rembrandt’s marvelous self-portraits. Yet in their own say they are splendid examples of painting, much like the early serenades of Mozart, while not rivaling his great “Jupiter” symphony, are nevertheless perfect in their own way.

    In this connection, it is interesting to note that in the same book Schmitt groups painting, music, and literature together as “domestic” arts, contrasting these with the more “social” art of architecture, and the more “personal” arts of sculpture, dance, and drama. By this he means not simply that the domestic arts are often less “public” and practiced in a home setting, but that – like their paradigm painting – they are at root lyric in their sensibility, and find their natural seedbed in a family setting. So I don’t think it’s an accident that we see children producing “perfect” examples of music, painting, and literature (the latter for Schmitt referring more to poetry (“poesy”) than novels), but not sculpture, drama, or the other more epic and dramatic arts.

    I hope this helps. or at least provides some food for thought.

  6. Pingback: On This Day: March 10, 1926 | Carl Schmitt: The Vision of Beauty

  7. Pingback: From the archives—Schmitt the “amacheur,” 1911 | Carl Schmitt: The Vision of Beauty

  8. Pingback: Wisdom on Wednesdays—The masterpieces of painting are done by children | Carl Schmitt: The Vision of Beauty

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