“Just look at it!”: The Sower (c. 1937) and Via Crucis (c. 1936)

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

A guest post by Carl B. Schmitt, Jr.

These two paintings provide an occasion to clarify a confusion that people commonly have about Schmitt’s art: that it can be divided  into “religious” and “non-religious” works.  For Schmitt, all of his art was religious, including his portraits and still lifes.  Such categories force a division Schmitt himself never made in his art.  For Schmitt, beauty in art was fully and exclusively a human matter, portraying purely temporal, visible realities—things we all experience in our daily lives, whether we are religious believers or not.

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Via Crucis, c. 1936, oil on aluminum, 18 x 15 in.
This painting, with a frame by the artist’s brother Robert, was given by Carl Schmitt to Our Lady of Fatima Parish in Wilton, Connecticut.  It now hangs in the reconciliation room.

According to Schmitt, all the arts reflect the mystery of Life only to the extent that the artist captures the fullness of human experience in his work.  The great artists, Schmitt felt, were able to “see deeper” into reality—to contemplate it, to see the life of man and of nature in all its depth and mystery.

These two paintings can help us meet the challenge found in almost all of Schmitt’s work.  The content of The Sower and Via Crucis seems obvious enough: both are about Christ.  And yet this is hardly the whole story.

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The Sower, 1937, Conte crayon on paper, 18 x 14 in.

A first look at The Sower might raise the question: Why is Christ portrayed as a farmer?  He was a carpenter and probably never sowed any seed in a field.  But this is not simply a picture of Christ.  Rather, it represents all of us in our basic human condition, the condition that was not erased, but embraced and perfected by Christ.  The artist challenges us, under the spell of beauty we find in his work, to see this fullness of reality.

The image of the sower makes us reflect that all good—any good—is naturally diffusive of  itself.  Every time we experience anything good in the course of our day, we desire to spread it around, tell it to others, to be “sowers” of the good word.  Can we see more deeply still?  Is not our love of the good (even the small goods of our daily lives) and our desire to share it a sign of our love for others?  The Christ in this painting is each one of us.  Even if Christ’s parable has a primary reference to spreading the seed of his word, it builds upon and perfects our natural desire to share the good with others.

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Carrying the Cross, 1922, etching, 7 x 13 in.
One of two etchings given by Schmitt to Hiliare Belloc in August, 1923

We again meet a perplexity upon seeing the Via Crucis.  Here, Christ wears no crown of thorns, indeed, there is no blood—nothing to suggest the bowed and suffering servant.  Instead, he is shown resolutely striding ahead to his own crucifixion with manful vigor.  The contrast with traditional depictions is a bit startling, perhaps even shocking.  As with The Sower, we are invited to go deeper and perceive something that is universal to all men.

“Greater love than this no man has, than to lay down his life for his friends”: Christ said this of his own sacrifice on the cross.  But consider how every Marine—and not necessarily a Christian—is ready to sacrifice himself to save the life of his buddy under fire.  And this readiness to sacrifice is also seen in the many small and loving acts we do for others without a thought of the cost.

The beauty of Schmitt’s paintings stems from his profound vision of human reality.  Their beauty lures us to stay and look again.  But he considered the beauty of his work a small reflection of the deeper reality—and with it, the beauty and joy—we can find if we but respond to the invitation to learn how to stop, enjoy, and contemplate.

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Reprinted from the CSF News, Winter 2012.

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