The art of childhood: Schmitt’s tapestry style

“The child’s imagination (whether in man or youth) expresses most purely the art of painting.”   —Carl Schmitt, 1925

For Carl Schmitt, painting was the quintessential lyric art.  As we have seen, the lyric in its “truest” form can be found in art done by children, who delight in imaginative swaths of line and color, all bathed in pure, unshadowed light.  

John's Art

Untitled, pastel on paper, 2013, 12 x 27¼ in.
A work by one of Carl Schmitt’s great-grandsons.

Schmitt’s “tapestry” style was his expression of this “childlike” lyric sense.  As painting is the purest form of the lyric in the plastic arts, so his fully developed lyric style is a showcase of what can be done in what he called a single “plane,” using the elements of “light, line, and color.”  Within these confines he created a marvelously rich world.

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Madonna with Black Head-dress or Dalmatian Mother, oil on canvas, 1926, 24 x 20 in.
A critic for the New York Times dubbed a similar work a “painted tapestry” which “will be even more beautiful when wool takes the place of paint.” The two titles Schmitt gave to this work underline the ambiguously religious nature of many of his “tapestry” paintings.

Although it is the design of the “tapestry” pictures which strikes us and seems to define the style, Schmitt saw it primarily in terms of color.  The signature pattern seen in the background was for him “purely melodic,” allowing color to come to the fore.  Since it was imagined “exclusively in one plane,” it did not possess the “rhythm” that characterized fully developed design.  “For when form is imagined exclusively in one plane, design is purely melodic and the greatest opportunity is given to color.”

It is remarkable how Schmitt uses color to give solidity to his figures, with very little use of shadow or perspective.  He achieves this both through vivid coloration as well as the robust way in which he applied the pigment to the canvas, as if he was attempting to give sculptural form to the figures through the medium of paint.  It is not always clear, however, exactly what these figures are doing in the paintings.

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A Gift of Fruit, oil on canvas, 1926.
A prominent critic considered this painting “one of the distinguished paintings in the [1926] Carnegie International exhibition.” She went on to say that “Schmitt commands admiration from his colleagues but is yet undiscovered by art patrons at large. His originality of invention combined with his disciplined technic promises a future in which he will be regarded as the logical heir of the great Americans such as Homer and Eakins, even though the language he speaks be quite different from the idiom in which they expressed their pictorial ideas.”

A Gift of Fruit, painted in 1926, is a particularly rich example of the style.  It depicts a tableau-like scene of a woman being presented with a bowl of fruit, watched over by a man holding up an infant and surrounded by putti.  One wonders whether the painting, like others Schmitt did in this style, are meant to convey a religious theme, even though its title and the action it conveys seem entirely non-religious.  While the various figures in the painting—the haloed madonna, the angel-like figure holding the gift, the man with the child, the cherubs dancing about—are all reminiscent of classic religious paintings, none seem to play their familiar roles.  A contemporary critic captured something of Schmitt’s intent when she wrote,  “[Schmitt] never troubles about the conventional associations of his subjects but uses them to indulge his ardent love for richly colored compositions of involved forms in which the human figure does not distract the eye but it is a unit of a co-ordinated whole.”

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St. Katharine, oil on canvas, 1922, 30 x 25 in.

Adding to the religious sense of these paintings is that the figures exist in a sort of “timeless space” not unlike that of a Russian icon.  Even those works with an explicitly religious title, such as St. Katharine, are not always unambiguously religious in style, being (for the most part) far removed from conventional hagiography.  While the saint is depicted in a prayerful pose, her customary attributes (the spiked wheel on which she was martyred, or the book as a symbol of her learning) are nowhere to be found.

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Nativity, oil on canvas, 1924, 6 x 9 ft.

It is only in a work like Nativity that the artist gives free reign to his religious sensibility.  Even here there is strong note of originality in his treatment of a time-honored subject.  A number of familiar persona and items inhabit the painting; yet, as one critic remarked, “using all the familiar paraphernalia of the patient ox and ass, the manger, the angel host an the starry sky, the artist has informed the theme with astonishing vividness and beauty and recreated the story for us with splendor of imagination and a beautiful sincerity.”  The artist’s “personal expression gives vitality and interest to themes that have been painted and re-painted for centuries.”

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Still Life, oil on canvas, c. 1923, 15 x 18 in.

Schmitt did not limit his tapestry style to religious and quasi-religious works. The subject of his Still Life seems straightforward, but its treatment is anything but ordinary.  The bottles and jugs in the foreground, the ostensible subjects of the paintings, are practically swallowed up by the tapestry behind them.  Both the color of the bottles and the design on the Italian apothecary jug is woven skillfully into the swirling pattern on the back wall.  The “tapestry” has taken over what is at first glance a conventional still life.

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A Christening Party At Chartres, oil on canvas, 1928.

By the late 1920s, Schmitt was beginning to explore other aspects of his art.  Considering the large painting A Christening Party At Chartres (1928), one critic remarked that the artist “appears more or less to have departed from the peculiar ‘plush’ quality that has characterized his work of late, though the feeling of tapestry remains.”  A new freshness appears: the colors are more subtle and varied, the lines more buoyant, the figures less stylized.  The subject matter moves away from the complicated visions of his previous works to less enigmatic subjects.  He begins to return to portraits and to more straightforward religious themes.

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The Sower, oil on hardboard, c. 1937, 24 x 19¾ in.

Although Schmitt’s tapestry works date from 1920s, the style did not wholly fade away in the years that followed.  In The Sower (1937), for example, his former vision is apparent in the stylized background as well as the strong yet harmonious coloration of the work.  As in St. Katharine, the human figure defines the picture’s foreground plane.  In this later painting, however, Christ’s powerful gestures and sweeping movement signal a clear departure from the more static figures of the previous decade.  Here we see the tapestry style beautifully distilled and incorporated into a picture with breadth, shadow, and movement.  His earlier phase has been placed in the service of a broader vision.

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5 thoughts on “The art of childhood: Schmitt’s tapestry style

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