Wisdom on Wednesdays—Suffering reveals form

“It must be recalled to mind, especially today when Form is almost unknown (Form in its metaphysical—Form in its aesthetic sense) that true Form cannot be rediscovered except by mean of destruction.  There is absolutely no Form (in the purest sense of the word) possible unless it is discovered by sacrifice and death.”
—from the essay “The Critic” (1943)


Immanent Trinity Decoration, 1924, oil on canvas, 48 x 40 in.
The Novitiate of St. Isaac Jogues, Wernersville, Pennsylvania


From the archives: Schmitt and “the surrounding inanities” or, “Why didn’t someone tell me twenty years ago about these men that are selling at fabulous prices now?”

“There are five paintings by Carl Schmitt in the exhibition and it is to be regretted that there are not five collectors in Pittsburgh keen enough to ‘see’ and acquire them.”
—Penelope Redd, on the 1923 “Exhibition of Well-Known Artists,” held at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh


Ancient Episode, oil on canvas, 24 x 30 in.
An oil painting with this title, but with larger dimensions, was shown at the 1923 Carnegie show, along with Annunciation (below) and two “lost” works in Hawthorne medium, The Holy Spirit and the Muse and Mosaic Marriage.

Schmitt had been exhibiting at the major exhibitions across the country for over a decade when he found a champion in the art critic for the Pittsburgh Post, Penelope Redd.  Redd hailed Schmitt as “the logical heir of the great Americans such as Homer and Eakins,” singling him out as “one of the few modern painters that promises to survive the flood of the competently commonplace and the falsely modish.”

The artist was receiving increasingly warm praise from other critics as well.  Reviewing an exhibition in Silvermine in July, 1923, the Christian Science Monitor noted that Schmitt “brings to his work a rare color sense, an instinct for rich design, a fine imagination, and sufficient inspiration to make his effects convincing.”

As Schmitt was being noticed by the critics, his schedule of exhibitions was becoming more crowded than ever.  The year 1923 was particularly busy, with no fewer than 35 of his works featured in a dozen exhibitions, including such prestigious venues as the Carnegie International, the National Academy of Design, the Chicago Art Institute, and the Corcoran Gallery.  His work was also shown at national exhibitions in Cincinnati, Omaha, and Detroit, as well as the usual round of shows in Silvermine.

Among the yellowed newsprint collected in our studio archives, Redd’s review of the 1923 “Exhibition of Well-Known Artists,” held at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, merits note for its keen appreciation of Schmitt’s art and its understanding of his plight as an outstanding young artist who has yet to be “discovered.” 

13239 - Gift_of_Fruit - CROPPED

A Gift of Fruit, 1926, oil on canvas (a contemporary black-and-white photograph).
“‘A Gift of Fruit'” Redd wrote in a review of the 1926 Carnegie International, “combines the fundamentals which make for the endurance of the older types of painting and the exciting interplay of form and color which marks the newer movements. Carl Schmitt turned away from the assurance of popularity as a pleasant painter to become one of our potentially great painters, although he works in more or less obscurity.”

The curious thing about Carl Schmitt is that one believes he has arrived at a point of crystallization only to discover that he has gone on to something else.  He has developed from the “best student that Emil Carlsen ever had” to one of the few original painters known to us through exhibitions.  At first he painted in a decorative manner that was not unlike the work of Puvis de Chavannes. Every time he changed he dug harder into the form of art—he became less and less satisfied with the delightful effects of his surface decorations and gladly met the dubious comments he encountered.

The Well from AIC 1919 - CROPPED

The Well, oil on canvas, 1918.
This, one of Schmitt’s most widely exhibited and admired early paintings, was often compared to the work of the nineteenth-century French artist Puvis de Chavannes in its “quiet” and “serenity.”
(A black and white image taken from the catalog of the 32nd Annual Exhibition of American Paintings at the Art Institute of Chicago, where the painting was shown in the fall of 1919.)

The group in the Carnegie Institute is of the last two years and mark his greatest advance. Carl Schmitt is now definitely engaged in giving the significance of the idea although painting what is really “pure design.”  “The Holy Spirit and the Muse” arouses in one many queries as to the artist’s symbolism.  The “Pieta” is a modern primitive.  He has used colors that will disturb the realistic-eyed one but he must have had a deliberate intent in using a glorious yellow touched with red.  The composition with its incessant movement gives the sensation of living life—not the still life that most modern pictures are. Carl Schmitt has the uncanny power of imparting life to his work.  Not by the simulation of vigor through technic but through the ability to make his paintings creative. He is at a decided disadvantage at a large exhibition where the observer cannot isolate Schmitt’s canvases from the surrounding inanities.


Pietà, c. 1923, oil on canvas, 33 x 41 in.

“The ‘Pieta’ is a modern primitive. . .  [Schmitt] has used colors that will disturb the realistic-eyed one but he must have had a deliberate intent in using a glorious yellow touched with red.  The composition with its incessant movement gives the sensation of living life—not the still life that most modern pictures are.”

A very rich man in this town once said: “But why didn’t someone tell me twenty years ago about these men that are selling at fabulous prices now?”  And the one who loved art answered: “But would you have listened?”

That is particularly true of Carl Schmitt.  It is not reasonable to suppose that a man can show the amazing endurance that Carl Schmitt has in persevering in his desire to paint and to achieve the profound without some day being “discovered.”  The period of waiting is wearisome to those who like to see a young painter encouraged, and it is precarious for the painter himself.  There are five paintings by Carl Schmitt in the exhibition and it is to be regretted that there are not five collectors in Pittsburgh keen enough to “see” and acquire them.


Annunciation, c. 1922, oil on canvas, 20 x 24 in.
Also shown at the 1923 exhibition in Pittsburgh.

Wisdom on Wednesdays—“Who can feast without fasting?”

“To feast and fast is to be lonely. Society is always neo-Greek—’Moderate in all things.’ Since Christ, this last is the first step to smugness and hypocrisy. It is Aristocratic to feast—it is Peasant to fast. It is an Aristocratic right to take—it a Peasant right to give.  But who can take who will not give, and who can feast without fasting, who can enjoy kingship without servitude, and leisure without sacrifice?”  (1928)

CSF13234 - COLOR

A Christening Party at Chartres, 1928, oil on canvas, 45 x 54 in.

Wisdom on Wednesdays—The art of religions

“In comparatively aesthetic sterile periods, like that of today, when the science rather than art of religions flourishes, critics are tempted to see no connection between religion and beauty, mistaking as they do, the external shell, which today is prosperous generally, for religion in its fullness.”
—from the essay “The Value of the Fine Arts” (March 1943)

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 to art school from his apartment at 400 Manhattan Avenue to the 110th street subway.

The artist “explains” his work

“Several people have complained that they cannot understand my pictures and have asked if I would explain them.  This lack of understanding never fails to surprise me, as I try to paint only what I see as exactly and clearly as possible. I think pictures are meant to be looked at.  If there is a secret—the eye must comprehend it.”  —Carl Schmitt, 1930

Second Night border

The Second Night, 1929, oil on canvas, 48 x 40 in.
Present location unknown.

Carl Schmitt was adamant that a painting does not need any “explanation”—one simply had to “look at it.”  For him, the “eye” of the viewer was the only adequate vehicle for the vision conveyed by the artist.

Yet a number of Schmitt’s paintings seem to cry out for some interpretation.  Enigmatic titles such as Esto Perpetua,Muses Marooned, and Purity and Poverty only add to the mystery.

Schmitt’s The Second Night was one such painting.  As the artist’s most successful work up to that time, it was inevitable that people wondered about the significance of the title as well as the “meaning” behind the figures in the painting.  The secretary to the Director of the Art Museum in St. Louis, where the painting was shown in the fall of 1930, wrote to Schmitt to ask “unofficially” “why you entitled your painting ‘The Second Night.’”  In his typically accommodating fashion, Schmitt responded a few days later with a beautiful handwritten letter.

CFS letter to St Louis Art Museum - 7 Oct 1930 - CROPPED

As the archivist here at the CSF, the most enjoyable part of my work is seeking out lost items: artwork, photos, and the “other half” of Carl Schmitt’s extensive correspondence. I tracked this letter to the St. Louis Art Museum, where the archivists graciously sent along the “lost half” of this exchange.

Dear Miss Herlage,
Thank you very much for your inquiry. I am sorry that my title has caused difficulties – many people have asked what it was all about. I hardly know what to say. As you infer the ultimate object of painting is vision. Still an idea (or common experience) is necessary to a picture, if not of the first importance. “The Second Night” is the sixth of a cycle of seven paintings which are a mystical succession. As I am reluctant to inflict mystical implications upon what is largely an extroverted public, I thot it best only to imply thro the title the idea of the “second night of the soul” and to allow the beholder to make his own story. I trust that this in a measure will explain!

Very sincerely
Carl Schmitt

This is the only time Schmitt mentions any “mystical succession” of his paintings, so it is unclear which works might fall into this category.

What Schmitt does make clear is that the title of the painting refers to “the second night of the soul,” an unmistakable allusion to the classical mystical tradition of St. John of the Cross.  In St. John’s understanding, the soul must pass through two “dark nights“ in order to reach full union with God.  The first, the “night of the senses,” purges the soul of all affection for earthy things. In the second, far more painful trial, God purges the soul of all remaining attachments, even those to its own will and judgment.

Muses Marooned [1] [13104] A

Muses Marooned, 1934, oil on canvas, 41 x 35 in.
One in a series of “muse” paintings (“The Muses Disagree,” “Muses on the Mount,” “Muses in the Valley,” “The Holy Spirit and the Muse”) that the artist worked on through the 1920s and into the 1930s. Another version of this painting was executed the following year.
This painting was put up for auction in 2010,
Muses in the Valley in 2011.

Seen in this light, the painting may depict the intense anguish of the soul—portrayed in traditional fashion as a woman—as she submits to the promptings of the One who urges us to become “like little children” if we are to enter the Kingdom of God.  The barren landscape and mountainous crags, so different from the artists usual frondescence, heightens the anguish of the woman’s face and contorted movement as she struggles to gain a foothold on the uneven ground.  Only the Little Child stands erect.

The painting may also portray, as Schmitt’s letter suggests, a more personal “story.”  Schmitt speaks of his own “night” in the journal he kept during a busy winter early in his marriage.  Enjoying a respite from an extraordinary period of financial and artistic strain in the fall of 1924, the artist reflected, “We should thank God for all difficulties of merely getting over the mountain. But the vista after it’s over is unimagined in the night and the rocks. . . depression is the absence of Love.  Everyone must be a lover to live.”

Schmitt’s own trial opened to him a vista—a vision—”unimagined in the night.”  It remained for him to embody that vision in his art.

Temples Unfinished - Peace - Gift of Fruit

Three paintings that may have formed part of the “mystical succession” Schmitt mentions in his letter: Temples Unfinished (1921), Peace (1923), and A Gift of Fruit (1926). With the exception of Peace, the present location of these works is unknown.

Reprinted from Vision, the CSF e-newsletter, February 2014. For past issues or to subscribe, please click here.