“Critics comfortably off and cosmopolite tell me that it is fatal for me to live alone in the woods and paint, that I must not separate myself from humanity, reality. . . . Humanity? Is there anything more human than ones own children? Reality? Is there anything more real than poverty with a family? (except death, which is also tasted each day)?” (1931)
Carl Schmitt’s one-man show at the prestigious Philadelphia Art Alliance in March, 1930, came at a crossroads in his career. At the time the artist was moving away from his signature “tapestry” style into more religious and “mystical” themes. Many of the paintings display an experimental, even unsure hand, venturing into imaginative realms not explored by the artist before and rarely visited in later work. This bold move, while attracting favorable critical attention, followed the old pattern and did not help his lackluster sales, but demonstrates once again Schmitt’s commitment to the demands of his art in the face of economic pressures. Of course, the recent market crash made misers of even the wealthiest patrons, and the show failed to yield a single sale, although a few of the paintings would find buyers in the subsequent months. (Some remain lost to this day.)
The following two reviews are typical of the ones Schmitt received in this period. The critics are clearly fascinated with his work. Here is a painter they can’t quite pin down: is he a realist or idealist? Traditionalist or individualist? His approach is decidedly contemporary, yet he seems impervious to any particular modern influence. While many pointed to the old Italian masters as the main source of his inspiration, others identify Byzantine art or peasant and primitive influences. The headline to one review neatly summed up the critics’ response: “Old but New.”
While noting his use of color, his unusual imagination, and the lively rhythm and patterns in his canvasses, the critics fail to put their finger on Schmitt’s overall purpose and approach. At a basic level, they confess confusion with Schmitt’s claim to be a “realist” when so many of his works strike the eye as purely imaginative, even fanciful. One critic came near to Schmitt’s understanding when he described him as a painter who uses “the language of the inner eye.” Schmitt explained himself to the critics: “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.”
“In the members’ room of the Art Alliance hangs a small collection of paintings by Carl Schmitt, an artist with a distinctly individualistic manner of looking at things. Mr. Schmitt’s own theory regarding his methods is: “I try to paint only what I see as exactly and as clearly as possible.” This sounds like the creed of a confirmed realist, but this artist is nothing of the sort. He is an idealist with a peculiar sense of color, given to religious subjects and apparently influenced by early Italian art.
“His pictures at the Art Alliance are mostly religious in subject matter. His ‘Trinity: Decoration‘—why ‘Trinity’ when apparently it represents only the Second Person, on the cross surrounded by angels—is almost Byzantine in feeling and very ornamental. In it the color scheme is restrained, harmonious and satisfactory. In others of his sacred group he contrasts magenta and light green in a way to put one’s teeth on edge.
“His ‘Picnic’ differs entirely from these other pictures. In it he shows a very modern group dining al fresco against a highly conventionalized landscape background, the general treatment reminding one of a modernized Botticelli. The whole is very amusing and effective, a joyous little canvas.”
—”Individualism of Carl Schmitt,” Philadelphia Record, March 2, 1930
“The art of Carl Schmitt, as seen in his one-man show at the Art Alliance, is the vivid expression of a highly individual and imaginative personality.
“Only one of the compositions, a small portrait sketch, is primarily realistic. The emotional tempo of the artist seeks rather the realm of pure fancy, developing unusual color combinations and richly decorative compositions not unlike, in pigmental and design emphasis, the peasant art expressions of primitive peoples.
“Schmitt covers every inch of space with color and design interest. He is especially sensitive to colors. In one composition which he titles ‘Gethsemane’ the moving folds of robes, of hills and sky are further intensified by the weird olive green and greenish-yellow pigmentation.
“Something of the design quality of peasant embroidery enters into the colors and pattern weaving of a highly imaginative Crucifixion, while, in the various imaginative compositions based upon the theme of the Annunciation, Schmitt combines the unusual in pigmentation with a certain basic purity of conception, lending to the figures portrayed the charm of the naïve.
“Those who consider Carl Schmitt’s art from an unrealistic viewpoint will find it eccentric. His figures often give the impression of brownish jointed wooden dolls. As figures they are disappointing, but when considered as part of a larger rhythm, part of a moving pattern, they achieve a fuller meaning.
“The charm of Schmitt’s art lies in the richness of his imagination, its design quality, and its individual choice of pigments. Coupled with this is an emotional reaction that never sinks to the level of the decadent.”
—Christian Science Monitor, March 15, 1930
Last month we looked at over a dozen “lost” paintings of Carl Schmitt, works whose locations or owners remain unknown. The Foundation relies largely on the owners of such works for photographs and information about them (dimensions, signature, date and other markings) whereby we can build up our catalog raisonné. This can help us trace Schmitt’s stylistic development and his contribution to art in the twentieth century.
This post provides a cross-section of Schmitt’s work from the 1920s through the early 1950s. As we have seen before in Schmitt’s work, the paintings, while traditional in content (taking up such well-worn subjects as the nativity of Christ and the Holy Family), are innovative in technique and expression. As a critic remarked upon Schmitt’s large “Nativity,” “One might well have believed that ‘the Nativity’ could not be given a new significance. Yet using all the familiar paraphernalia, the artist has informed the theme with astonishing vividness and beauty.” The same could be said of his still lifes and portraits.
Although a deeply religious man, Schmitt did not see his art primarily as an outlet of his own religious feeling, but, as we have seen, as a mystical reflection of objective truth as revealed in religion. He even eschewed the term “religious art,” seeing all of the Fine Arts as rooted in “mystical religion,” “the vital force from which springs all [of man’s] notable activity.” “Great art is an exact barometer and contemporary of religion,” Schmitt wrote in his 1925 essay “Ritual: The Gate, “not religion as the popular historians record it, an exterior thing, the machine, the corporate thing alone, nor as the Puritan records it, the ‘inner light’ alone, an individual disease, but mysticism: the just balance between interior individual communion with God and corporate life in God.”
Holy Family—Gothic Decoration, 1922 — A companion work to the large Nativity (now at the Carl Schmitt Foundation studio-gallery in Silvermine) and featured with it in the prestigious journal International Studio in 1925. After seeing it at the exhibition of the Architectural League of New York in 1925, a critic for The New York Times marveled how it was “permeated with a tenderness and richness of devotional feeling.”
Gethsemane, 1924 (30 x 25 in.) — This painting and the following pair were exhibited together at a one-man show at the Art Alliance of Philadelphia in early 1930 and at Park Avenue Galleries in New York later that year.
Of four paintings by Schmitt on this theme, this is perhaps the most arresting. A critic from the New York Herald Tribune called the painting “impressive,” remarking that it possessed a “subtle quality not entirely unlike the mysticism of El Greco.”
Guardian Angel, c. 1929 (30 x 36 in.) — This painting was first exhibited at the Silvermine Guild in the summer of 1929, and thereafter at numerous exhibitions in Connecticut and New York City. A contemporary review described it as “an exquisitely simple portrait of a young girl,” which is “given its angelic quality by an unearthly light which plays about her features.”
Madonna of the Milk Bottle, 1930 — When asked by the editor of the journal Liturgical Arts, Maurice Lavanoux, to send a representative sample of his work, Schmitt sent a photograph of this painting. It was printed as the frontispiece of the in the November, 1944 issue. Schmitt reported to Lavanoux, “The Madonna was bought some years ago by the doctor who discovered that orange juice or tomato juice should be fed to infants. He is not a Catholic but a Jew. I forget his name.” Lavanoux later published an excerpt from Schmitt’s unfinished book Europe and the Arts in the journal.
Ven. Francis Libermann, early 1950s — Libermann (1804-52) was known as the “second founder” of the Holy Ghost Fathers, a religious order with a seminary in Norwalk, Connecticut, which was attended by Schmitt’s son Jacob. The order sold the seminary in 1979, and it is not known what has become of the painting. It was reproduced as the frontispiece of a biography of Libermann, Star of Jacob, published in 1953.
Last week we looked at several early “lost” works of Schmitt. There is also a trove of imaginative paintings from the 1920s—among them Schmitt’s most acclaimed works—whose owners and locations remain unknown.
Muses on the Mount, 1921 — The first of a series of “muse” paintings which includes Muses on in the Valley (1921) and Muses Marooned (two versions, 1934 and 1936). The painting, along with Dalmatian Mother and another unlocated work, Cafe, Chartres, was sent to Mrs. Julius Goldman, whose father-in-law was the founder of Goldman Sachs. It is not known if Mrs. Goldman purchased the work.
Temples Unfinished, 1921 (oil and Hawthorne medium, 25 x 30 in.) — One of a number of paintings inspired by the artist’s love for Rome and its architecture (others include Esto Perpetua and Schmitt’s depictions of the palace of Septimius Severus), this work was shown at the Carnegie International in 1921, and in 1923 at the National Academy in New York. It also figured prominently in a three-man show in Silvermine in the summer of 1924, one of the first hosted by the new Silvermine Guild of Artists.
From that Silvermine show the painting was sold to Mr. and Mrs. Walter S. Poor of New Canaan, Connecticut. The Poors were one of Schmitt’s most loyal local patrons at the time, purchasing no less than seven works from the artist between 1922 and 1924. Their collection of Schmitts included the lovely pastel Peach Blossoms, later given to the New Canaan Historical Society and shown at an exhibition of the artist’s works there in 2011.
Land of Efthil, 1922 (30 x 36 in.) — First exhibited at the Carnegie International in 1922, no photograph or detailed description exists for this curiously-titled work. A critic from the Christian Science Monitor described it and Temples Unfinished as “tranquil transcripts of antique themes.”
A Gift of Fruit, 1926 (below) — A masterpiece of Schmitt’s tapestry style, this painting was shown at the 25th Carnegie International exhibition in 1926 and sold the next year from a show at Art Institute of Chicago. The last known owner was Mr. Harold Janisch, a Boston banker, in 1944. The New York Evening Post described it as “a vast web of color holding forms in its tapestried pattern, yet for all its flaming tones subdued to its unity of design.”
A Picnic, 1927 (oil on canvas, 35 x 42 in.) — One of Schmitt’s best known works at the time, A Picnic was shown at numerous national and international exhibitions before being purchased by Arthur Judson, manager of the Philadelphia Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic. Judson lent it to the Century of Progress exhibition at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, but there has been no trace of it since then.
According to a critic in the New York Times, the painting “hints remotely at some prescribed rite, an implication all the more appealing that it is so woven with the material of daily life.” The review offers perceptive remarks on Schmitt’s treatment of the figures and tress in the background, a feature noted by other critics.
“It depends almost wholly upon the interesting treatment of the framework in which the episode is placed, but this framework follows a fashion of modern theatre borrowed from a long past century, the fashion of bringing the stage into the body of the theatre and letting the actors in among the audience. Gothic arches are formed from the branches of tall, sleek trees, the foliage forming a rich ornament like that surrounding the porches and windows of medieval cathedrals. The background figures stand within these arches or advance through them, and in the foreground other figures are seated at the little feast, while children and dogs play and take natural, funny attitudes that perfectly fulfill the design.”
A Christening Party at Chartres, 1928 (oil on canvas, 45 x 54 in.) (see image above) — One of many works inspired by Schmitt’s stay in Chartres, France 1926-27, a reviewer called it a “golden gaiety,” “one of those pictures which make you long to be in the place depicted.” The painting was first exhibited at the 27th Carnegie International exhibition in late 1928, after which it was purchased by the Pittsburgh Athletic Association. A search by the Foundation in the PAA’s headquarters in was unsuccessful.
The location of a very similar painting, Dance of Life, Chartres, was also unknown until its owner contacted the Foundation in 2011.
The Second Night, 1929 (oil on canvas, 48 x 40 in.) — This enigmatic painting, first shown at the Carnegie International exhibition in 1929, was seen in cities across the country in the next 7 years. It was owned by Schmitt’s patron John Kenneth Byard in 1936 (who lent it to a show in Dallas that year), but was not among the artworks given by Byard to his alma mater Hartwick College in 1950.
Asked by a curator at the St. Louis Museum of Art about the “meaning” of the painting, Schmitt responded, “As I am reluctant to inflict mystical implications upon what is largely an extroverted public, I thought it best only to imply through the title the idea of the ‘second night of the soul’ and to allow the beholder to make his own story.”
If you own any work by Carl Schmitt, or wonder if the painting, pastel or etching you own may be one of his works, we would be delighted to hear from you! We are especially interested in works not found in the CSF website’s online gallery.
Over the past few years, people from as far away as Hawaii have contacted me, eager to tell about the work of Carl Schmitt that they own. Naturally, I am gratified to hear of those who appreciate Carl Schmitt and want to learn more about his work and further his legacy. More importantly, those who contact the CSF in this way do a tremendous service to everyone interested in Schmitt.
Although the Foundation makes every possible effort to locate Schmitt’s unknown works, many are effectively “lost,” or untraceable, and will remain so until the owners themselves contact the Foundation. The photographic record, as well as details about Schmitt’s works (dimensions, signature, date and other markings) supplied by these individuals are invaluable in building up our catalog raisonné, revealing more of the artist’s stylistic development and his contribution to art in the twentieth century. For this we are very grateful.
Schmitt’s “lost” works include paintings, pastels, etchings, and drawings; most date from the first half of his career (1906-1940). The Foundation’s archives hold valuable clues that can help in the search, including exhibition history, critical reviews and other press reports, the last known owner, and in a few cases, photographs of the work. We will explore this record in the next few weeks, highlighting his imaginative and religious paintings. We will also be looking works which have been “found” by those who have contacted the Foundation with information about their painting or pastel.
In this post we focus on some of Schmitt’s early works, culminating in an important portrait commission from the 1930s.
Opus Minor No. 1, 1911 (15 x 18 in.) — An early still life, described as a “beautiful painting done in dark tones,” it was Schmitt’s first work to be accepted by a major national exhibition. The eminent still life master and Schmitt’s former teacher, Emil Carlsen, “highly praised” the work when it was shown at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in February and March of 1912. The painting was later shown at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Art Academy of Indianapolis before being bought by the Youngstown architect Charles F. Owsley. (Owsley also commissioned a pastel portrait of his son from Schmitt, now unlocated.)
Aspiration – Symbolic Decoration, 1912 (oil over tempera) — This work was commissioned by W. D. Packard of Warren, Ohio, founder of the Packard Motor Car Company. Packard was so pleased with the work that he commissioned a second painting the following year, Shadow Dance – Rondeau. Packard also commissioned Schmitt to paint his own portrait, which was to hang in the office of the park he left to the city. No trace of any of these paintings has been found.
Ruth, 1916 (oil on board, 25 x 30 in.) — One of several commissioned portraits Schmitt did for well-to-do citizens in his hometown of Warren, Ohio, and the surrounding area in the early years of his career. This painting, a portrait of the young daughter of a doctor from Youngstown, is his only known oval painting.
God’s Garden, 1916 — While no known photograph of the painting exists, a reviewer described it in the following terms: “outlined against a yellow ship’s sail and a gray sky is a group of three or four figures: they are on elevated ground, at the foot of which may be glimpsed a bit of deep blue ocean. In the dress of the figures and in other externals there is a suggestion of the Greek: the idea suggests the fortunate isles.” Schmitt himself said of the painting, “In that land there is wonderful dawn without dark night to precede it–light is understood without shadow. It is the land in which the human heart finds a release from the puzzling paradox–life in the flesh.”
In 1920, the painting was bought by Samuel Prentiss of Winona, Minnesota, a former client of Schmitt’s father-in-law, the architect Austin W. Lord. Lord had designed a handsome Georgian mansion for Prentiss in 1912, one of a pair built for him and his brother-in-law Frederick Bell. The house was recently restored.
Paintings and pastels done for the Works Progress Administration, 1934 — Schmitt executed six works in oil for the Depression-era program: three still lifes, one imaginative, one portrait and one religious painting. He also completed eight pastels.
The state of Connecticut distributed these works to various state institutions, including sanatoriums, hospitals, and colleges. All of the institutions to which Schmitt’s paintings were dispersed have since closed or been transferred to different agencies, and the artwork has been lost long the way. The Connecticut State Library’s WPA Art Inventory Project has been trying to track down and recover these works through a database with information on the artwork from WPA files, including the work of Carl Schmitt.
Portrait of Zell Hart Deming, 1937 — Deming, owner and editor of Schmitt’s hometown newspaper, the Warren Tribune, was the first of Schmitt’s patrons and a life-long friend. The first editor-owner of an American newspaper and the first woman to be a member of the Associated Press, Deming funded Schmitt’s study in New York at the National Academy and his trip to Italy a few years later. Over the years she purchased or arranged the sales of over twenty of Schmitt’s oil paintings and dozens of his pastels, etchings, and drawings. She also introduced Schmitt to her godson, the poet Hart Crane, and helped arrange Schmitt’s guardianship of Crane in New York in the early months of 1916.
The newspaper commissioned Schmitt to paint this portrait for its offices as a posthumous tribute. The Tribune article announcing the hanging of the painting 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.”
An inquiry to the newspaper as to its whereabouts proved fruitless. Schmitt produced two versions based on the same photograph, one shown here and another now in the Carl Schmitt Foundation studios.
Next week we look at several “imaginative” paintings from the 1920s whose locations remain unknown.