Wisdom on Wednesdays—Religion the vital force

“The Fine Arts serve to recall us to the fact that mystical religion is the vital force most deeply embedded in man, from which springs all his notable activity.
“They seem to show most clearly [that] when religion departs from this central vitality, no matter how active the science of religion, if this central core of Being is deserted the Fine Arts tend to wither and die.
“So, it may truly be said, that a culture flourishes whenever religion flourishes in its true and full sense.”
“The Value of the Fine Arts” (March 1943)

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

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“With pipe, solitude and puppy for company”: Hart Crane and Carl Schmitt—Part 1

Harold Hart Crane by Carl Schmitt

Harold Hart Crane, oil on metal support, 17½ x 14½ in. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC. Gift of The Carl Schmitt Foundation.
Painted by Schmitt in the late 1960s or early 1970s from a photograph.

Harold Hart Crane, known to the world as Hart Crane, has been called “unquestionably the major poetic talent of twentieth-century America” (Brom Weber). Though Carl Schmitt knew Crane for only a brief time in his early manhood, Schmitt’s influence on the young poet, according to one of Crane’s biographers, “cannot be over-estimated.”

Crane was born in Garretsville, Ohio, in 1899, but his family had deep roots in Schmitt’s hometown of Warren.  His mother Grace Hart was born in there, and it was there she returned with her husband Clarence, and their five-year-old son Harold.  Carl Schmitt’s father, Professor Jacob Schmitt, counted Grace’s Aunt Bess among his piano pupils at Dana’s Musical Institute in Warren.

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Prof. Jacob Schmitt (far left) with other faculty and students of the Dana Musical Institute, c. 1910.

Another Warren connection was Zell Hart Deming, publisher of the Warren Tribune newspaper. She was the widow of Grace’s brother Frank Hart and Harold’s godmother.  A generous patron of the arts, she had helped Carl with his education, first in New York and later in Europe.  Through the pages of her newspaper she did everything she could to further the career of the young painter through exhibition notices, flattering reviews and “local boy made good” chronicles of his triumphs in the art capitals of the country.

Carl Schmitt’s portrait of his patron Zell Hart Deming, publisher of the Warren Tribune, painted from a photograph after her death in 1936. The accompanying article from the Tribune reads much like earlier congratulatory pieces published by Deming herself:
“The painting is the work of Carl Schmitt of Silvermine, Conn. (son of Prof. and Mrs. Jacob Schmitt of this city) who was most fortunately adapted to the task by reason of his long acquaintance with Mrs. Deming, in addition to his outstanding qualities as a portraitist. From the time he embarked on his artistic career as a boy, here in Warren, Mrs. Deming recognized Mr. Schmitt’s talent and the possibilities inherent in it, and thruout her life she continued in a very real sense to be his patron.”

After Crane’s family moved from Warren to Cleveland in 1909, they maintained close ties with family in their former home.  Schmitt, ten years older than Hart Crane, probably did not get to know the shy teenager until the summer of 1915.  The artist was fresh from his studies in Italy, back in Warren fulfilling some portrait commissions.

By November 1916, Schmitt had returned to New York, taking a studio apartment in Stuyvesant Square.  Crane’s first letter to Schmitt around this time glows with a warm familiarity.  “Someday, perhaps next summer, I shall come to you and we will work together,” he wrote wistfully.  But the young poet was enduring one of the most trying periods of his short life.  His matter-of-fact report of the breakup of his parent’s marriage disguises both his bitterness towards his father and his overwhelming desire to get away from his boyhood home.

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Crane’s first letter to Schmitt, probably November, 1916, in the Carl Schmitt Foundation archives.
The date on the letter is in the hand of Crane’s first biographer, Philip Horton, to whom Schmitt lent his letters from Crane in the 1930s.

Dearest Carl: –
     With pipe, solitude and puppy for company, I am feeling resplendent. After a day’s work in a picture store, selling mezzotints and prints, you may not think it, yet there comes a great peaceful exaltation in merely reading, thinking and writing. For occasionally in this disturbing age of adolescence which I am now undergoing, there come minutes of calm happiness, satisfaction.
     I don’t know whether or not I informed you in my last letter, of the step mother and I have taken. Next week mother files her petition in court for her divorce from father. In this I am supporting her. So the first thing to do was to secure some employment. Your poet is now become a salesman, and (it might be worse) a job at selling pictures at Korner and Wood has been accepted.
     I have had tremendous struggles, but out of the travail, I think, must come advancement. Working evenings will give me a little time for composing. And even should it not, I have been christened, I think, and am more or less contented with anything. Carl, I feel a great peace; my inner life has balanced as I expected, the other side of the scale. Thank God, I am young! I have the confidence and will to make fate. Someday, perhaps next summer, I shall come to you and we will work together. You understand, I know.
                                                                                                                    Affectionately,
                                                                                                                                Harold


Zell filled Carl in on the details in letter the following month.  “Grace Crane has sued Clarence for a divorce, gross neglect and extreme cruelty.  Harold has quit school and isn’t at all well.”  She then makes a proposal to Carl.  “He wants to come east for a while. What do you think?  Would you tutor him an hour a day and sort of keep your eye on him for say $10 a week. . . . I think he is in a serious condition or will be if he doesn’t get away.”  Zell’s original plan called for Harold, then attending high school in Cleveland to “get a job and go to school next fall.”

A few weeks later things had taken a turn for the worse: “Harold a nervous wreck. He needs to get away.”  By the end of the month the decision had been made. Hart Crane was to live in New York, with Carl Schmitt as friend, tutor, and guardian.

(To be continued.)

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Self-Portrait, charcoal on paper, December 1916.
A work done around the time Schmitt met Crane in New York.

Wisdom on Wednesdays—The Church and culture

“The Church is not a leaven in an Evil world.  She can do nothing with the bad-will directly.  The material in which she works (literally) is ‘culture.’”  (1963)

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Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York, view of the apse under construction, c. 1908. Pencil and chalk on paper.
Schmitt passed by this view on his way from his apartment at 400 Manhattan Avenue to the 110th street subway.

Carl Schmitt’s art: “a whiff of transcendence”—by Dennis M. Helming

A longtime friend of the Foundation, Dennis M. Helming died this past May 24 in Washington, DC at the age of 75.  He was the author of numerous books, among them Footprints in the Snow: A Pictorial Biography St. Josemaría Escrivá which has been translated into many languages.  Dennis wrote the following reflection on Carl Schmitt’s life and work for the Fall 2011 the issue of the CSF News.

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Still Life, detail.

It may seem a truism but Aristotle was the first to claim our knowing proceeds from the outside in.  First, he says, we perceive in the distance a something.  As we draw closer, we make out that this thing moves on its own steam: it’s animate.  Still closer, we detect the animal is human.  And finally: “Oh, it’s Fred! He’s that tall fellow who lives down the street.”  We hasten to shake his hand.

But need we stop there?  The painter Carl Schmitt did not.  Nor did C.S. Lewis with his advice to look “inward and upward.”  In fact that’s what we all do.  With repeated contact, we get to know Fred better—his special characteristics and maybe even what makes him tick.  We go from “How come he’s there just now?” to “How come he’s there at all?”

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Pencil sketch of self-portrait of Jacopo Robusti (Tintoretto), from one of Carl Schmitt’s early sketchbooks

Indeed the only thing keeping Fred from reverting to non-existence is the merest of threads—but the strongest, too.  He neither made himself nor can account for himself.  Were his Maker to stop knowing, willing, and loving Fred, he just wouldn’t be.  The same utter dependence applies to all creatures, visible and invisible.  There we have the most radical truth of each component of this teeming universe.  And since there is no divine need to make us, we find no purpose in any of it except God’s delight and his desire to share that delight with us.

Yes, the Creator dotes over his handiwork, even as He invites us to the same table.  “Be still and see,” says the psalmist.  To plow ahead blithely with nary a thought for one’s origin and destiny is a sure­fire path to confusion and non-fulfillment.  If we don’t stop and ask what or why a thing is, but merely what it can do for us, our utilitarian self-interest crowds out any possible wonder.  To wonder is our birthright—and a gentle invitation.  Responding to it opens us up to all the greatness and beauty to be found in our world and in the profligate Creator behind it all.

Some are gifted to sustain that wonder despite the hits and misses we all experience.  It’s that full, astonishing reality of life itself in all its layers that the philosopher, the saint, and the artist are called upon to echo.  The fact is that many are called, but few are chosen.

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Red Madonna, oil on aluminum, c. 1935, 20 x 18 in.

The painter Carl Schmitt was among the latter.  He embraced that call with an artist’s passion for beauty.  Art is about life, and he committed himself to contemplating it in its fullness and to putting what he saw into his paintings.  Rather than prostitute himself by churning out “pretty” pictures or whatever might sell, he’d rather go hungry.  In his long life, he filled hundreds of canvases and far more pages of his note-books, always probing, always experimenting.  He was not only a student of the arts, but also a very wise man, perhaps even a prophet—and no mean painter.

For him, art was always more than capturing nature in its glory as seen in light and color.  There’s hidden drama in every life—in Fred’s and certainly in Schmitt’s, which was no easy one at all.  He spent decades working out how the shadows and dark voids work in relation to light and color—to set forth how life itself triumphs even over death.  This was the deeper glory he sought in all his work—that “final kick of beauty” that we find especially in his later paintings.  He has shown us how even a teapot in a still life can convey a whiff of transcendence.

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Still Life, oil on canvas, c. 1973, 24 x 20 in.