“Just look at it!”: Madonna in White (1929)

Madonna in White is a strange,  fascinating painting.  It was first shown at the 28th Carnegie International Exhibition in Pittsburgh 1929, where it appeared with two other enigmatic works, The Second Night and Madonna in Orange, both now lost.

 A critic’s description of the latter work suggests that it was a companion piece to the present painting, “with deep tones of orange and of brown, its orange-yellow highlights on little round angel forms, its flashes of red in angel wings, its charm of design against a blue background.”  Another critic noted Schmitt’s remarkable color combinations in the two Madonnas, writing that “many of the complex figure groups glow with unearthly fire, as if reviewed through colored gelatin.”  

The artist’s underlying intention in these works, however,  was less about an exploration of design and color as it was an expression of what Schmitt called “mysticism,” “a vision of something more real, more subjective and objective than the natural senses have experienced.”

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Madonna in White, 1929, oil on masonite, 48¼ x 40 in.

As with many of Carl Schmitt’s paintings, this work is at once fresh and familiar, routine and revelatory.  The image of the Virgin Mary holding the Christ Child, as old as Christian art, is pictured here in truly modern guise, with bold colors and stylized figures.

Schmitt’s work is a marriage of modern training and deep familiarity with the masterpieces of his craft, particularly those rooted in Christian Europe.  His studies in Florence in his early twenties, where he saw first-hand the works of the great Italian masters, was a turning point in his life and left an indelible mark on his future work.  Although he sketched and studied these works like so many before him, he was not interested in copying their style as much as their content.  He was able to “abstract” the deep religious “substance” of these works, integrating it into his own style.

Duccio Maesta detail

Duccio di Buoninsegna (c. 1255-1318), Maestà, detail.
Painted 1308–1311. Tempera and gold on wood, full dimensions 84 in × 156 in. Museo dell’Opera Metropolitana del Duomo, Siena

With Madonna in White, Schmitt takes up the traditional images of Christ and the Virgin Mary, incorporating time-honored iconography into his work in a fresh way.  The painting is a modern maestà, an iconic depiction of the Virgin Mary holding the Christ Child in her lap surrounded by angels and saints.  Derived from Byzantine tradition, it was taken up in the Middle Ages by such masters as Duccio and Giotto.

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Giotto di Bernadone (1266-1337), Madonna Enthroned (“Ognissanti Madonna”), c. 1310. Tempera on panel, 128 in × 80 in. Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Here, Schmitt transforms the old masters’ solemnity to playfulness, their royal court changed into a child’s wonderland. Where the tradition presented the Virgin and Child surrounded in timeless gold, Schmitt revels in deep purples and greens, colors very much of our own world.  The purity of the Mother and Child is transposed into the world of childlike innocence.  Schmitt’s friend, the critic and writer Padriac Colum, intuits this shift: “Austerity is not the mark of this religious painter; he gives us rapture most often, he gives us gaiety sometimes.  There is gaiety, there is playfulness even in the Madonna in White, in which a happy babe is held by a happy mother, and four sturdy children have the place of heraldic supports.”

It is tempting to see these “four sturdy children” as a portrait of the four cardinal virtues: the two “earthly” virtues of Temperance and Fortitude represented by the calm cherub and the brave knight at the Virgin’s feet, with carefree Prudence and “blind” Justice hovering above.  Each is furnished with a pillar, further suggesting their role as “pillars” of a good life.

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Schmitt generally shied away from such direct allegory, lest the whole be lost.  The children attend upon the Mother, who in the Christian tradition is the “Seat of Wisdom”—the throne of her Son, Wisdom Himself.  Schmitt reminds us that wisdom is intimately related to our desire to become “little children” as Christ taught.  This “childlikeness,” far from being weakness or immaturity, incorporates what is noblest in human nature both in its ecstatic and down-to-earth qualities, that of the stolid man-at-arms and the mercurial dancer.

The Madonna avoids our gaze, as if to direct ours to the Child, who, upon closer examination, does not sit upon her lap but is held or rather hovers above her knees.  The Child, while haloed like his Mother, seems otherwise indistinguishable from his fellow children except in the glow that emanates from his small body, which light is in turn reflected by his Mother.  As in so many classic paintings, her face is pensive, as if in shadow, reflecting perhaps upon the destiny of the One held in her arms.

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“Built only for the prince and the peasant”: Carl Schmitt in Korčula

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The Chapel, 1929, gum Arabic print.
This small church sits off cathedral square in the center of the town of Korčula in Dalmatia (the coastal region of present-day Croatia). The print was rendered from sketches made three years prior during Schmitt’s second visit there.

Carl Schmitt was overwhelmed by the beauty of Dalmatia from the time he first set foot there in January, 1914.  His visit was purely serendipitous.  Sailing through the Adriatic on its way to Italy, his ship stopped briefly in Split and Schmitt disembarked to explore the ancient city.  He heard the ship whistle the “all aboard,” but, enchanted by the people and the scenery, he decided to remain. When he returned to the port, the ship was gone, and thus began Schmitt’s first sojourn in Croatia.

Chapel - Korcula - contemporary photograph - CROPPED

Schmitt made the most of his stay, sketching peasants, army officers, musicians, and others he met on the streets and in the cafes of the city.  As he described it to Catholic activist and writer Peter Maurin, in Dalmatia “People still combine cult, that is to say liturgy, with culture, that is to say literature, with cultivation, that is to say agriculture.”

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Schmitt’s constant sketching and his association with some newfound friends of a revolutionary stripe attracted the attention of local authorities. In the politically charged days before the ourbreak of the Great War, they took him for a spy and after a brief interrogation, let him go. He decided to go on to Italy as planned, but always pined for Dalmatia.

The brief sojourn in the city made a deep impression on the artist, and Schmitt even considered settling there with his family after a subsequent visit to the region 1926. The sketches he made of the island of Korčula off the Dalmatian coast during this later trip formed the basis of a series of prints published in the February 1929 issue of Scribners Magazine. In the article Schmitt described his attraction to the picturesque town in almost rhapsodic terms:

“Korčula is a town of 3,000 people on an island of the same name. It is on the regular steamboat route between Split and Dubrovnik. Since I was first in Dalmatia fourteen of the principal cities of the mainland have lost their character of peasant homeliness and something fine is gone out of their hospitality. But not so Korčula.

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House in Korčula, 1926 (pastel on paper, 17 x 13 in.) and a contemporary photograph of the same house.
The photo was sent to me by Sani Sardelić, curator of Korčula Town Museum, which is publishing a booklet on Carl Schmitt’s visit to the the town in 1926.  The father-in-law of the book’s author hosted Schmitt in this house during his stay there almost 90 years ago.

“I could write at length of the health (and consequent beauty) of the imaginations and bodies of the people of Korčula, due, I think, in part to a providential weakness in modern banking ability and in part to a beneficent sun. But the city, the buildings, the boats, and the indescribable water of the Adriatic are also a part of the picture. The city rises out of this clean blue water of carved white glowing stone and climaxes in the cathedral which was begun in the thirteenth century. There are no automobiles here. The limestone-paved streets rising steep to the cathedral are built only for the prince and the peasant, one on foot, the other on a donkey. For this is the story of Korčula.”

Schmitt would return to his beloved Dalmatia only once more, this time with his wife for a second honeymoon in 1934, shortly after their tenth child’s second birthday. For him, the region embodied his ideal of becoming a true “peasant,” one whose role is to “intuitively envision, act, create.” He longed to form a firm “base of culture and religion” for his family by “a long memory and experience of [a] place.” For him, such a place is “where body and soul become one.”  Silvermine would fulfill that role for him and his family in the years ahead, but for Schmitt, Europe would always remain “an island of the Fine Arts; the locus of the full liberation of the imagination.”

Carl Schmitt - Building a Boat (Croatia) - CSF43002 - from Scribners magazine

Building a Boat, 1929, gum arabic print.
“With Korčula in the background—a white city shimmering in the subtropical sun.”

Reprinted from the July 2014 issue of  Vision, the CSF e-newsletter.  To subscribe or read past issues, click here.

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On This Day—August 10, 1914

One hundred years ago, Carl Schmitt was in Italy, staying with the Grazzini family in their villa above the town of Fiesole in the northern region of Tuscany.  Since his arrival in Italy in the spring, the artist had been hard at work, sending a large shipment of paintings and pastels to his patron, Zell Hart Deming, in Warren, Ohio, before venturing on a series of scenes of Fiesole and the surrounding countryside.  Schmitt’s portrait of Dr. Grazzini’s lovely daughter Luisina  would be shown at an exhibition in Florence in the fall.  

In early August the artist’s seemingly idyllic life was shattered by the outbreak of war between the great powers, and before the week was out large numbers of refugees from Germany flooded the northern part of Italy.  In the face of the conflict Schmitt would move to Florence, then to Rome, and finally to Naples, whence he sailed back to the United States in early February, 1915.  Deming saw fit to publish Schmitt’s letter to his parents in his hometown newspaper, The Warren Tribune, on August 10.

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Luisina Grazzini at her father’s villa, summer 1914.

Carl Schmitt who is studying at Fiesole, on the hills above Florence, writes under the date of August 10 to his father, Prof. Jacob Schmitt:

The situation here is very serious and will very likely be worse as soon as prices are going up rapidly.  I am still living at Dr. Grazzini’s villa.  Many Americans are here and I have seen several hysterical women who have no money.  Many of them are school teachers and all are stranded.  But you probably know more about it than I do.  The papers have given hardly any victories to Germany but I fear they are making headway.

I wish I might get a letter from home.  I have no idea how long we shall be without mail for how long before this will reach you.  Meantime I am working as hard as the weather will permit.

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Self-portrait sketch, dated January 20, 1915, while Schmitt was in Naples awaiting his boat home to America.

We should be all right if anyone has any money.  The Italians can’t draw their money out of the banks, so they are nearly as hard up as the Americans and English here.

The northern cities are full of Italians, English and Americans who have been expelled from Germany and other countries at war.  All these refugees depend on the charity of the Italians.  The Grazzini Villa is filled to overflowing.

I have been having a gold crown put on a tooth I broke and my dentist had great difficulty in getting enough gold in Florence for it.  All Europe seems to be extremely hostile to the Prussians and the stories that come from the north are terrible.

from The Warren Tribune, August 10, 1914

The charming Luisina in the garden.

The Schmitt family in France, 1926-27

Arriving in Paris before dawn on July 26, 1926, Carl Schmitt, as many artists before and since, was exuberant. “Paris is a wonderful city,” he wrote his brother Robert that same day. “The gardens and even forests within the city are astoundingly beautiful when first seen (and after).”  He was staying at the Hotel St. James on the Rue de Rivoli, in the heart of the historic city.  “My balcony overlooks the Tuileries gardens with the Orleans station directly opposite; across the Seine and to the left stretches the great mass of the Louvre.”  His first day in Paris was taken up with exploring the great museum and its artistic treasures.  “I looked at every picture there the other day and enjoyed the thousands of Americans doing the same.”

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Schmitt’s snapshot of the interior of Chartres cathedral.
“The soul should be like a perfectly transparent window,” he wrote in his studio notebook in December, 1928, “But the imagination should be like the lancet over the altar at Chartres.”

Schmitt had dreamed of settling in Europe since his first trip there in 1914.  He was particularly drawn to Dalmatia and the Adriatic coast, where, as he later related to the Catholic activist and writer Peter Maurin, “people still combine cult, that is to say liturgy, with culture, that is to say literature, with cultivation, that is to say agriculture.”

After leaving the region and before coming to Paris, however, he informed Robert that “Dalmatia would never do for the family.”  Schmitt had long venerated Gothic art and architecture, calling the cathedral at Chartres “that marvel of marvels,” its exterior figures and the decorations of its portals “sculpture at its highest.”  He went on to say that “France is certainly beautiful and I feel very much at home here, and I am sure it is best for family for a long stay.”

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Gertrude Schmitt, left, with her six boys and a friend, on the ship to France, October, 1926.

In August, Schmitt secured a house in the town of Chartres, not far from its great cathedral.  His wife Gertrude, traveling with their six children, joined him there in early October.  Life in the little village surrounding the great church, however, turned out be less than ideal.  A letter to his brother shortly after Gertrude’s arrival was sober: “Concerning life here: The disadvantages just about outweigh the advantages.  It is about as dark as a winter’s twilight in Silvermine—all day.  So painting except in monochrome is out of the question, and as far as ‘art’ is concerned I was much better off in Silvermine.”  As was characteristic of him, Schmitt found humor in his unhappy circumstances, noting that the new maid “is practically worthless, but we expect to at least give her a start in the world so she can be equipped for life’s struggle.”

But the condition of his family was far from humorous.  “The children have all been sick of fever and bronchitis as well as myself,” he wrote to Robert on New Year’s Eve.  “They were all in bed a week and I have just gotten up today for the first time.  You can imagine how much work for Gertrude, the maid being worthless practically.”  He admitted, reluctantly, that it was best to come home.  “I dread the thought of moving again and I dread the thought of staying another day . . . I do not think it will be for long, however, as we expect to come home the last of April.”

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Gertrude, the boys, and the maid, outside their house in Chartres, 1927.

A month later things had improved considerably.  Schmitt was working hard at a commission and “six small canvasses.”  The children, recovered both from their sickness and the local schools, were now taught by a governess “who takes perfect care of them and is very conscientious.  Today was another beautiful day—like spring—and we are having our first favorable reaction.  The neighbors are pruning their fruit trees and getting gardens ready, and people on the streets are beginning to look cheerful again.”

By this time Schmitt had already booked passage for his family back to America.  It would be ten years before Schmitt would again venture to bring his family to Europe.  They set out for Italy and lived there for a time, but his dreams of making it their permanent home would be dashed, this time by the onset of World War II.  After settling in Silvermine for good, Schmitt never lost his love for Europe, seeing it as “an island of the Fine Arts; the locus of the full liberation of the imagination.”

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A Street in Chartres, oil on canvas, 30 x 25, c. 1937

“A Monument”

Carl Schmitt wrote this brief essay in one of his notebooks in 1935.  It recounts a sketching trip where he was overtaken by the ruins of the massive palace of the emperor Septimius Severus, built around AD 200 on the Palatine Hill overlooking the Circus Maximus in Rome.  Some of the pastel sketches he made on this trip were shown at an exhibition in New York in the summer of 1935.  Later Schmitt used them as the bases for a number of watercolors and oil paintings.

My companion took me along a foot path over the Palatine to the farthest western end and showed me a heroic ruin on the hillside.  I immediately liked it.  Green fields surrounded us richly sprinkled with scarlet poppies.  On the ground among the flowers I saw occasionally bits of mosaic and iridescent glass.  The building was bulky and recalled the typical poetry deep in Rembrandt.  He must have seen somewhere a print of this.  On this account it was good to draw but also because it was isolated.  An occasional pair of lovers or two mounted policemen came by and seminarians.  So in the heart of Rome and overlooking it, we sat down to sketch.

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Palace of Septimius Severus, pastel and wash on paper, 14 x 17 in., dated May 16, 1935.

Rome lives in the round.  All sides of the ruin, on different levels, are interesting.  And it is constructed, not poured.  Even the vertical blind walls are arched with the peculiar thin Roman tile.  That solid construction coupled with tremendous scale characterizes ancient Rome.

When I had finished a beggar came by, a little shrunken man, toothless, and in dialect he said something, so I gave him two soldi, and thinking of my investment I asked him who made the building we were drawing.  He said Septimius Severus had built it for his palace, and shuffled along.

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Palace of Septimius Severus, oil on canvas, c. 1950, 20 x 24 in.
Schmitt painted this work for his close friend and benefactor Harold M. Landon, a stockbroker and art collector.  Landon’s most prized painting, Luca Giordano’s
The Flight Into Egypt, now hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

My companion who knows about such things told me that Septimius Severus was an Emperor-soldier who lived in the 2nd century and that he found the world in fragments and left it one, even imposing peace in Britain.

Whether what I had heard was true or not, there stood that bulk.  I have never felt time so challenged.

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Palace of Septimius Severus, watercolor on paper, 15¼ x 18¼ in.