“Still life is the best way of experimenting”

In our last post, we saw how Carl Schmitt considered still life an ideal medium for exploring new avenues in his painting.  While Schmitt’s still lifes are grounded firmly in the grand tradition of the genre, he was also an “experimenter,” developing the classic model in imaginative and unexpected ways.

Seen in the works of the eighteenth-century master Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin (1699-1779). the classic still life exhibits a number of characteristic features: deliberate yet unstudied composition, hushed light often focused on a single object, a subdued, uncluttered background, a muted range of colors and quiet, careful brushwork resulting in a polished sheen.  A single prominent element in the composition (typically a bottle or bowl) is not uncommon.  Emil Carlsen, a teacher of Schmitt’s and a champion of Chardin’s style, took up many of these elements, which in turn made their way into the work of his most accomplished student.

Chardin - White Teapot

Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, White Teapot, 1764. Private collection.

Carlsen’s debt to Chardin can be seen most vividly in the very objects he depicts, offering a kind of homage to the elder master.  In addition to bottles and bowls, these include pieces of fruit, brass pots, ceramic jugs, a white cloth, dead game, flowers, and occasionally a small statue or other objet d’art.  Those familiar with Schmitt’s works will recognize many of these articles in his works, along with his beloved eggs and cups.

CSF - Orange Still Life

Carl Schmitt, Orange Still Life, 1914.
One of the artist’s finest early works.

Schmitt’s early Orange Still Life (above) features the formal composition, soft light, and subdued palette of many of the works of Chardin and Carlsen.  While Schmitt adopts the customary features of Chardin’s style in its formal arrangement and prominent black bottle, he makes subtle changes as well.  Unlike the traditional model, not all the objects in the painting are equally distinct; in fact, it is difficult to make out exactly what objects are represented in the background of the painting.


Carl Schmitt, Bottles on Their Sides. Like the Orange Still Life, this painting is permeated by a dominant hue, even though the objects in it are actually of various colors.

More significantly, Schmitt, taking his cue from the orange in the foreground, allows a single color to permeate the work, a theme that can be seen in many of his subsequent still lifes such as Bottles on their Sides (above), Pink Drapes, and One Black Bottle and Garlics (see bottom of the post). Perhaps his most remarkable work along these lines is his White Still Life. Here the artist presents an arrangement of white plates, eggs and other objects on a white tablecloth, the whole bathed in a cool white light, a tour de force of the use of color.

Schmitt used color in other new ways as well.  He expanded the customary palette to include deep primary colors, notably red and green, and used hitherto underused colors, such as purple.  In another outstanding still life from the 1920s (below), Schmitt imposes a color scheme of red and orange on the black bottles and blue jug and bowl in the picture, many of which appear in other paintings with their true colors.


Carl Schmitt, Still Life, proabably early 1920s. The distinctive Italian apothecary jug can be seen in another guise in Schmitt’s Two Oranges, (below).

Schmitt also shifted the “viewpoint” of the still life, which traditionally was at eye level, often on a table top, and centered, making the composition fill the canvas.  In certain works he subtly brought the viewer into the painting by separating what he called the “picture plane” from the plane of the viewer.  His Two Oranges (below) includes the canvas of the painting itself within the composition, depicting the artist’s own “view” of the objects rather than the objects in themselves.


Carl Schmitt, Two Oranges, c. 1950. The painting includes the canvas on which it is being painted within it (bottom right).

In other works Schmitt shifts the conventional perspective.  A series of remarkable still lifes from the 1930s depicts the same arrangement of objects from six different angles and distances.  This phenomenon can also be seen in the two different versions of Tanagra and Vase (below).  His Bottles on Their Sides (above) and Still Life with Book are painted from above, while others, such as Eggs, Salt Cellar, and Bowl, seem to present only a portion of a full picture, with objects cut off at the edge of the canvas. Alternatively, One Black Bottle and Garlics (below, with Eggs, Salt Cellar, and Bowl) presents the objects as if far away in a lonely landscape.

Tanagra Still Lifes pair

Carl Schmitt, Tanagra and Vase, two versions, 1934.

Schmitt, like any good student, strove both to receive fully what his teacher had to offer and, finally, to go beyond it.  Not long after Carlsen’s death in 1932, Schmitt was still pondering what he had heard from his teacher many years before, and offering his own thoughts.  “One does not paint merely as one knows (“Paint it as you know it.” —Emil Carlsen),” he wrote in 1933.  “One must paint as he loves, as he knows, as he understands, as he desires, as he imagines, as he sees.”

10008 and 10015 side by side

Carl Schmitt, Eggs, Salt Cellar, and Bowl (left) and One Black Bottle and Garlics, c. 1975.

One thought on ““Still life is the best way of experimenting”

  1. Pingback: “I’ve always loved still life” | Carl Schmitt: The Vision of Beauty

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