Woman and Guardian Angel: Sculpture “in the lowest relief”

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Woman and Guardian Angel, 1925, oil on canvas on board, 30 x 25 in.

This warm and inviting painting, one of the most beguiling of Carl Schmitt’s “tapestry” style, was the result of many months of toil in the cold winter of 1924-25.  Schmitt first mentions it his journal in early November, when he was busy at what would become one of his largest works, the mural Nativity, measuring 10 by 6 feet.  The two works now hang side by side in the Foundation’s studio-gallery in Silvermine.

After announcing “Good-bye to studio ’till 1925” on December 23, Schmitt was back at it three days after Christmas.  By the end of the month conditions were becoming desperate: “Slept rather cold in the studio last night.  I had three bathrobes and two overcoats over me. I found the bottle of milk frozen (which was by the bed) this morning.  I kept the fire roaring and worked continuously on the Guardian Angel all day.”  A week into the new year saw a milestone of sorts: “I worked on the ‘Woman and Angel’ and completed it (at least for the time being).”

Of course, the artist worked the painting over in the next few weeks, and in fact considered it only in its first stages.  “I swung the ‘Woman and Angel’ into the beginning of a picture today,” he reported on January 9.  Schmitt goes on to reveal the fruit of his long labors, both with the brush and in thought.  “I am slowly learning the place of form in painting.  Sculpture is prefigured only in painting.…cf. Cezanne at the end of his labor: ‘Painting is not sculpture.’ One might add ‘But it prefigures it, apprehends it in the lowest relief.’”

2013 Open House - admiring new painting

A friend of the CSF admires Woman and Guardian Angel, one of three works given to the Foundation in 2013.  It is shown here in a frame by Carl’s brother Robert.  The artist’s large canvas, Nativity, done at the same time, hangs in the background.

If the great nineteenth-century painter Paul Cezanne, whom Schmitt admired for his dedication to form in painting, seemed disappointed that his art could not reach the level of sculpture, Schmitt seems determined to compensate for this loss.  One sees in this painting the solid masses and bold forms of sculpture, but with the jewel-like colors that can be realized only in paint.

The forms themselves also display a flexibility that stone or bronze could not easily withstand: witness the arm of the woman intertwined with that of the angel.  Here the demands of three-dimensional form—not to mention the anatomy of the figures—bow to the overall design of the painting.

It is not clear when the work was finally completed, since it was not exhibited in the artist’s lifetime.  In 1932, the painting was bought by John Kenneth Byard, a longtime patron and friend of Schmitt.  Byard gave it to his brother Dever, who passed it on to his son, and so on to his daughter, who gave it to the Foundation in 2013.

Woman_and_Guardian_Angel - detail of dove

This article appeared originally in the May 2014 issue of Vision, the CSF e-newsletter.  If you would like to receive Vision in your inbox, you may subscribe here.

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Featured Painting: St. Francis and the Unicorn

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St Francis and the Unicorn, oil on canvas, 1931, 25¼ x 29¾ in.

St. Francis and the Unicorn is not only an unusual looking picture; it had an unusual genesis in the catalogue of Carl Schmitt’s works.  We have already written of how Schmitt moved away from commissioned work after some early success as a portrait painter.  This “commission,” however, come from a friend, and was one of the few paintings other than portraits that the artist painted on commission after his marriage in 1918.  

Harold Morton Landon was a successful stockbroker in New York with a wife and two children when he met Schmitt on a journey back from Europe in 1927.   Landon, a cultured man who translated Portuguese and Latin and boasted a fine collection of old master paintings, became an avid “fan” of the younger artist.  He saw all the exhibitions that he could and even helped arrange some shows for Schmitt at galleries in New York.  Around 1930 he had Schmitt paint a portrait of his wife Frederica, who had formed a warm friendship with Carl’s wife Gertrude.   

Landon made a singular proposal.  Having inherited $1,000 from an uncle, he wanted to pay the sum to Schmitt to paint a picture with the title The Unicorn’s Paradise.  “Fantastic looking trees, strange leaves and fruits, and other happy figures and animals etc. etc.,” Landon wrote Schmitt in September, 1930.  “Taking a peek onto this “Garden of Eden,” perhaps might be the figure of Saint Francis, the lover of animals!!  This is a suggestion: hear it in any way that you are inspired to.” 

As Landon gave Schmitt wide latitude to paint his own picture, the artist readily agreed to the proposal.  The fact that the artist was in very tight financial straits at this time may also have been a factor in his decision to accept the offer.  Most significant of all, Landon’s proposed subject matter dovetailed with the aesthetic philosophy Schmitt was working out at the time.  This is clear from the following reflection on the painting by Carl B. Schmitt, Jr., first published in the Fall 2011 issue of the CSF News.  

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St. Francis and the Unicorn, detail

Every artist is a myth-maker.  Every artistic creation is a “fiction”—an untruth that nevertheless puts the truth before us.

All this is worlds away from the ethos of modern science, based upon incontrovertible fact and mathematical accuracy.  From the industrial revolution to the digital age, our culture is shaped by science’s amazing success in raising the standard of living and creating a world market of products for us to enjoy. And few escape the incontrovertible fact that is the bottom line.  Myth is the last thing we find useful at all.

Art certainly has a place in such a culture: there is, after all, a huge market in art.  Works done by those with the artistic gift of seeing beyond the superficialities of our way of life abound.  But these artists are children of their own time.  What they see either reflects that numbing superficiality or, if labeled “radical,” throw in our faces the ugliness of our culture—and not infrequently the ugliness of their own despair.

Carl Schmitt was a true radical: he looked to the root of reality, and neither ugliness nor despair finds echo in his work. There we find only beauty—and with it an optimism about man, life, and yes, even about our culture. This painting can help us get a glimpse of that vision.

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St. Francis and the Unicorn, detail

The unicorn, in legend, purifies with its horn the waters poisoned by the serpent so all could drink.  It could only be caught by a virgin.  Though often a symbol of Christ, in Schmitt’s painting it stands for the virtue of chastity.  St. Francis represents poverty, as they behold one another in a fantastic landscape.

Schmitt painted this picture when, as an artist, he had worked through two of the three stages he saw in the life of man. In the first stage he learned to handle the rhythms of color, associated with the joys of life’s origins in the family. Its key virtue is chastity. The second stage deals with the light and shadows which reveal man more fully as he enters into society and takes on responsibilities and trials. The virtue needed at this stage is poverty as opposed to the avarice and greed that so afflicts our culture.

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Woman in Irish Coat, oil on canvas, c. 1932, 25 x 30 in.

The third stage deals with the deeper truth that all things temporal must die.  The virtue here is humility: the final blow to the pride of life that each of us must wrestle with personally.  Schmitt was able to reach it some ten years after completing this painting.  We see it in those dark voids he learned to put into his mature paintings.  He was fully aware that ours is a culture of death, but in his vision of reality, life triumphs over death.  He bore witness to this truth precisely in those voids which bring out so much of the stunning beauty of his late works.

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Gertrude in Roman Scarf, oil on canvas, c. 1960, 25¼ x 30¼ in.

When a fact passes into the past or future it becomes myth.
Myth is the stuff of Art.
Notebook 26 (1964)

Featured painting: Peeled Orange

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Peeled Orange, oil on canvas, 20 x 24 in.

No representation can begin to do justice to the vitality, richness, and depth of Carl Schmitt’s original still life painting.  When viewing—actually contemplating—the original, the words that come to mind are splendor, mystery, fullness, silence, reverence, delight, magnificence.  One finds oneself asking, “How can ordinary objects represented on a stretch of canvas so grip us?  What is going on here?”

The starting premise is that “there is much more than what meets the eye” behind those ordinary things we come across each day.  It is the genius of the artist to communicate that to us.  This is what Schmitt meant when he wrote, “the artist is concerned not with sight but with vision.”

Vision is a penetration into the depth of reality and embodying that insight in a work of art.  As Schmitt noted, “reality is the keynote to life and art. To be aware of reality—to be awake, is to be alive.  To make paint or stone real is to make it live.  A work of art is mature—complete—when it lives and appears real.”

“To be aware of reality—to be awake, is to be alive.”

Schmitt’s mature work is the fruit of a lifetime of perfecting this aesthetic approach and reflecting that vision on canvas.  The composition of a bowl, bottle, and oranges is much more than a photographic representation.  The objects reveal more being.  Schmitt has taken great pains in this painting to capture the form—the active determining principle of a thing—that makes a thing what it is—its “is-ness.”

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Peeled Orange, detail

This capturing of intangible form was the “Holy Grail” of the great masters.  They began with an under-painting in a single dark tone as the basis of the form.  They then added a thin layer of color—a glaze of paint—letting the under-painting come through.  This technique helped to give their works profoundness and beauty.

Schmitt, intrigued by color and its myriad possibilities, grappled with the problem of capturing a glowing richness of color without hiding the under-painting.  His breakthrough was to build form with color.  By forming his under-painting with multiple layers of color, then paring and “sculpting” back each layer, Schmitt was able to create a unique depth in his work.  The background is no mere flat laying on of paint, but a sculpting of colors which allows each layer to shine through, resulting in a vibrant iridescence of color.  The final step was to add what Schmitt called the “local” color—the blue of the porcelain dish, the orange of the orange peel, and the effervescent green of the bottle.

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Peeled Orange, detail

The artist’s treatment of the glass objects in this painting is particularly revealing of his grasp of their substance.  The blue of the dish as seen through the glass of the large green bottle demonstrates the skill with which the artist layered his colors.  In contrast, the smaller bottles in the background depict glass in a less familiar mode: they seem weighty and almost solid.  “My father loved to paint glass,” Schmitt’s daughter Gertrude recalls; “it was one of the things he loved to paint.”  In this painting, glass is revealed not only as luminescent, but dense and substantial.

“The painter’s business is to paint all that lies outside the empirical field:
to reveal as fully as possible what can never be shown by the camera.
In essence it is to reveal but one thing: volume, mass, and substance,
not to the exclusion of appearance but as a fulfillment of appearance–
in short, to bear witness to the mystery–the miracle–of substance.”

If the mission of the artist is to get us to raise our eyes from the mere usefulness of everyday things to wonder at their inherent beauty, then Carl Schmitt has succeeded magnificently in this still life.

—Austin L. Schmitt

Reprinted from the CSF News, Spring 2010.