“Just look at it!”: Anno Domini 1941 (1941)

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Anno Domini 1941, 1941, oil on hardboard, 18 x 23½ in.

A guest post by Carl B. Schmitt, Jr.

Carl Schmitt painted this still life for an exhibition in New York in 1941.  The invited artists were asked to comment on the imminent possibility of the nation’s entrance into World War II, already raging in Europe and the Far East.  The exhibition itself featured paintings showing  a variety of attitudes toward war in general and the issues the artists felt were at stake in this war.

I suspect that my father found the decision of what to paint for this exhibit an unusual challenge.  His whole artistic drive had been directed toward representing a view of man and his destiny in fundamental terms.  He strove to capture the beauty of things in his art, and this meant seeing reality in all its mystery.  The result is another of his wonderful still lifes which, like all his paintings, he left for others simply to enjoy and find in it what they may.

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Carl Schmitt, Anno Domini 1941 (detail) and Botticelli Madonna and Child with St. John the Baptist (detail), tempera on panel, 1468 (Musée du Louvre, Paris).

The “comment” in the painting  can be found in the way the two model airplanes partially obscure the Madonna and Child in the triptych.  But the two planes themselves also suggest that Schmitt had in mind a larger cultural context than the Second World War: one is indeed a war plane, but the other is not.  Together they may be taken as representing our culture’s devotion to the pursuit of knowledge for the sake of making things, which in turn is done for the sake of making money.  This is the true devotion that characterizes our culture, to the point that the highest realities are obscured.

Schmitt didn’t object to producing “useful” things; they serve great social needs.  But alongside social values stand two more important ones: family and ultimately the person.  In Schmitt’s triune vision of reality, these three are seen in terms of origins, means, and ends—the family dealing with man’s origins, society with the means, and person with ends.  The person is paramount, for ultimately only the individual person thinks and loves, thereby making the choices that lead through family and social life to his true end.

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Still Life, c. 1947, oil on hardboard, 10 x 12 in.
Carl Schmitt was reluctant to explain his work, writing in 1922, “the artist is filled with the desire to express through vision alone. When he speaks, it is with the good (though perhaps unfortunate) intention of bridging, however inadequately, the gap which exists between the aesthetic and rationalistic extremes. When he speaks he is painfully aware of the strangeness of his medium and that his muse is displeased at the digression.”

This painting, then, encompasses Schmitt’s triune vision in a single beautiful work that “comments” on our current cultural situation.  Schmitt saw our culture as so devoted to the means that origins and ends are lost sight of: we thus find it difficult to maintain what family can be and what role the individual person might play in our culture in a fully human way.  Schmitt summed up his attitude in his essay “And / Or” from 1943: “When our fellow men are so immersed in means that they can admit of nothing but the exclusion of ends and origins—when ‘truth’ is pursued at the complete exclusion of beauty and goodness, and when wealth alone is valid to the exclusion of all else, it would seem that only catastrophe would bring man to his senses.  For only the humiliated and impoverished man is capable of those inclusions which make him once more human.”

Although Carl Schmitt painted this work in response to a specific request as to its content, he did something more. In characteristic fashion he produced a painting of quiet and intriguing beauty.  If the viewer looks at it and then ponders it more deeply, he may just catch the gentle irony in it—and some of the wisdom behind it.

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Reprinted from the CSF News, Summer 2012.

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“Just look at it!”: Woman and Guardian Angel (1925)

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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).”

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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.’”

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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.

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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.

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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.

“Just look at it!”: Gertrude Reading

A guest post by Jacob A. Schmitt

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Gertrude Reading, oil on canvas, 48 x 40 in.
According to family lore, Gertrude, over the months that she sat for this portrait, would alter this dress to accommodate her advancing pregnancy. Toward the end, the dress could not be let out any further, and the painting was left unfinished.

This is a wonderful portrait of the artist’s wife, Gertrude.  A gracious, lyrical femininity is seen in the dignified movement of the pose and the basic forms of the flowing dress, the upper body, arms, and head.  This is enhanced by the tilt of the head repeated in the poised wrist and contrasted by the repose of the right arm—a superb sense of a balance of rhythmic lyricism.

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A more informal picture of Gertrude reading, a pen and ink sketch from 1926.

At the same time—and this is Schmitt’s first picture that offers this technique—the whole picture is united by a conical-triangular shape formed from the flowing dress at the base, through the dignified rectangular form of the body capped by the dark hair. Hence, there is movement within solidity, but with delicacy, balance, and poise.

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Compared to earlier portraits, one sees a refinement in the handling of light falling upon the upper face, shoulders, and arms.  The viewer’s eye is moved and focuses more clearly on the central aspect of Gertrude’s concentration by the technique of a more refined sculpting and modeling of the head and shoulders.  Along with this modeling, a solidity of form is achieved by the manner in which light is used in the background and how it falls on the figure.

This painting, seriously damaged in a fire in the summer of 2012, was recently restored to its original beauty and now graces the home of one of Carl Schmitt’s grandsons in Massachusetts.

“Just look at it!”: St. Paul the Hermit (1922)

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St. Paul the Hermit and Allegorical Figure with a Rose, 1922, oil on canvas, 30 x 25 in.

A guest post by Carl B. Schmitt, Jr.

I once asked my father what that “allegorical figure with a rose” was.  His answer: “Just look at it.”  He never explained his paintings: he wanted others simply to enjoy them, to look with their own eyes.

The holy figure on the left was clear.  And since my father often coupled the pursuit of the good with the pursuit of beauty, I thought the mysterious figure on the right might stand for beauty, or possibly the arts.

It was only many years later that my father said something that showed me there is far more to this painting.  “There are two things you don’t fully realize until you’re eighty.  The first is how beautiful everything is, and the second is how passing it all is—all just nothing.”  Instead of facile explanations, his words put before me the mystery of beauty.  That’s what he wanted us to see and to enjoy.

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While we may not be artists, beauty is not foreign to us.  We are all drawn to beauty of a rose and pause to enjoy a rainbow or a sunset.  And when our attraction to someone or something beautiful turns to love, our love increases as we get to know that person or thing better, and we enjoy that, too.  Beauty is our birthright.

Enjoyment connects beauty with the good, and it increases as we get to know the truth of things.  Enjoyment always accompanies our growth in the knowledge and love of that which is truly good: to see more deeply into reality in this way is to enjoy it—and experience it as beautiful.

It is the good, the true, and the beautiful that connect the two figures in this painting.  The saint on the left, pursuing the good, is inseparable from the figure that represents the mystery of beauty.  Truth, goodness, and enjoyment of beauty are something we all experience in life itself.

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(left) Diego Velázquez (1599-1660), Saint Anthony Abbot and Saint Paul the Hermit, 1635, oil on canvas, 102 x 75½ in. Museo del Prado, Madrid.
(right) Carl Schmitt, St. Paul the Hermit, oil on canvas, c. 1922, 30 x 25 in. (Private collection)
Schmitt’s depiction of St. Paul of Thebes (d. c. 341) being fed miraculously by a raven was inspired by a painting of the saint by the great seventeenth-century Spanish master.  The enigmatic figure on the foreground is Schmitt’s own contribution.

But life is not simply the enjoyment of all that is good and true and beautiful, and here is where that “everything is passing” comes in.  It refers to all the negatives in life that stem from our limitations and mistakes—as well as those of others.  My father saw all of these “non-goods” in terms of the great good of life itself.  It is in all the fears, setbacks, and darkness that the true greatness of life is revealed.  These are the shadows and the voids my father combined with the brightly lit lyric forms to make his art real—and hence beautiful.

In this way, he shows that each of us can find a measure of joy, peace, and beauty by pausing long enough to see our own struggles in the light of the great goodness of life itself.  This is the real work that redeems life of its momentary anxieties and troubles.  And as my father reminds us, that takes a lifetime.

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Reprinted from the CSF News, Fall 2010.

“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.