“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.

Giotto Ognissanti Madonna

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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More “lost” paintings—Religious works

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.”

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Holy Family—Gothic Decoration, oil on canvas, 1922
A contemporary black-and-white photograph.

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.”

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Gethsemane, 30 x 25 in.
from a contemporary black-and-white photograph in the Carl Schmitt Foundation archives

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.

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Gethsemane Gold and Silver, c. 1930, oil on canvas, 30¼ x 25 in.
The unusual coloration of this work may offer some idea of look of his earlier painting on the same subject seen above.  Critics often remarked on Schmitt’s powerful use of color in paintings of this period, particularly those of a “mystical” character.

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.”

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Guardian Angel, c. 1929

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.”

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Madonna of the Milk Bottle, 1930
The New York Times wrote that the painting “is the one that speaks most clearly of Mr. Schmitt’s genius for suffusing a subject upon which minds have grown dull with a fresh innocence of rendering that arouses new interest.”

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.

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Ven. Francis Libermann, early 1950s

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.

Mysticism on Mondays—The mystical virtues

“The thesis then is that a living experience of the graces of meekness, poverty of spirit, and temperance is necessary for the quickening of a sense of beauty.”  —Carl Schmitt, 1922

As we have seen, Carl Schmitt saw the mystical life as a direct parallel to the aesthetic life.  As a kind of “natural religion,” artistic creation demands “virtue.”  “Art is natural religion and its ‘mysticism,’ while paralleling true mysticism, is natural and created.”  As with the religious mystic, the “natural mystic” must cultivate in his own way what Schmitt called the “mystical virtues” of temperance, poverty of spirit, and meekness—also referred to as purity, poverty, and humility—if he is to realize his full creative potential. 

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St. Paul the Hermit (Purity and Poverty), oil on canvas,1922, 25 x 30 in.

Purity, Poverty, and Humility are a triad of virtues with deep roots in the mystical tradition.  They are the basis of the “evangelical counsels” of Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience, most familiar to us as the vows of monastic life.  They in turn counter the vices of avarice, lust, and pride—the principal temptations of the world, flesh, and the devil as given in Scripture.  Schmitt sometimes called these by more contemporary names: pleasure, money, and power; Comfort, Wealth, and Success.

Just as art is not an ethical exercise, Schmitt is very clear that the aesthetic virtues, while finding a parallel in the moral life, are not moral in themselves: they do not perfect man as man.  They in no way take the place of the moral life, and in fact are subordinated to it.  As Schmitt wrote in 1924, “A life toward humility, poverty, and purity is worth much more than one devoted to form and space and quality.”

Nevertheless, these virtues are not divorced from the aesthetic life; indeed, they are essential to it.  Schmitt saw “humility, poverty, and purity” as directly linked with “form, space and quality,” these last three delineating the dramatic, epic, and lyric stages of the imagination, respectively.

From seeing merely the appearances or the “quality” of things (the lyric stage), the artist must move on to beholding them in “space” (the epic), all the way to the perception of their full reality, their “form” (the dramatic vision).

As in the mystical life, the first virtue to be cultivated is purity of heart, corresponding in the life of the artist to the lyric stage of the imagination.  It is the cultivation of that vision which sees things in their full outward “quality”; as Schmitt puts it: “purity of heart is especially necessary to quality.”

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Untitled, pastel on paper, 14 x 16 in.

The artist, however, cannot avoid grappling with what Schmitt called “status”: his relation to the world and its standards—security, influence, fame— which can be boiled down to one thing: money.  In the present world Schmitt saw the pursuit of money (and all that goes with it) as the greatest threat to the integrity of the artist.

It was not a matter of the artist chasing after celebrity or a life of luxury, nor of living “in poverty” with no means at his disposal.  As Schmitt put it simply: “artists are often heard to say that they will do pot-boilers until they have accumulated sufficient money to enable them to paint ‘as they want to.’  Well, they never do.”  The artist must choose first to paint as he wants to—to “paint as he loves, as he knows, as he understands, as he desires, as he imagines, as he sees.”  The vision of the artist, to paint “as he sees,” depends on the purification of all the other powers of his soul.

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Café Cetinje, oil on canvas, c. 1931, 30 x 25 in.

The artist then realizes that the struggle does not deal so much with things outside of himself, but is one within.  He must develop his own personality to full maturity.  He comes to the realization that the art he creates is only as great as his struggle to achieve this “personality,” which he called “the potential of form.”

Schmitt sketched the panorama of this journey to “personality” in terms of man’s threefold life as family, society, and person.  “Most men must belong to, identify themselves with, either the collectivity of the family (or an ethnic group) or with the mass of individualist, economic-limited people.  This is invariably in order to acquire the confidence necessary to perseverance in life.  Very few identify with themselves.  For that way leads to complete subjection to God or the devil.”

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Self-portrait, oil on hardboard, c. 1960, 18 x 15 in.

It is in this arena of “subjection”or “servitude” to God or the devil—pride or humility—that the true battle lies.  “The truth is that the issue between wealth and poverty can never be resolved in this world (any more than any moral issue can be resolved here),” Schmitt wrote in 1938.  “They must both be swept aside when they have played themselves out in favor of the new order—they must give way for the new act with a new hero: Humility, and a new villain: Pride.”

Although Schmitt was writing in the context of a decisive moment in the history of the last century, the phenomenon he describes applies first of all to the individual person.  Schmitt wrote eloquently of the battle to subject himself to God, going so far as to say, “I am happy only in this servitude.”

The role of the artist in this struggle, however, is not principally on the moral level, as it is with the saint.  Not that the artist himself is not called to virtue, indeed to sainthood.  It is only that his witness, unlike that of the saint, lies in the realm of the symbol.

In an essay from 1935, “Hope for the Future of Art,” Schmitt outlined the artist’s task in this “symbolic story“: “I make bold to say that the reality (on which the symbolic art feeds) is simply the pageant of the struggle between the virtues and the vices individual or collective of man historical.  The artistic vocation in the painter lies essentially in the faculty of standing aside and, as objectively as possible, setting in symbols the high intensity of this very real war.”

Adam and Eve

Adam and Eve, oil on board, c. 1931, 38½ x 33¼ in.

Where does beauty come into this “war”?  “Peace, like Beauty, cannot be the principal aim—cannot be directly striven for,” he wrote in the early 1930s. “Such neutralities are the result of safeguarding activities, beauty being a by-product of life.”  While beauty, and indeed the creative powers of the artist, remain “neutralities” in this conflict, they are nonetheless caught up in “the pageant of the struggle between the virtues and the vices.”  Schmitt vividly portrays this “pageant” in a poem from 1925:

I dream of a world magnificent
Teeming with realities:
Reality of virtue, Reality of vice,
And Reality of Beauty:
God, the Devil and Beauty.
I remember and hope for such a world. . . .

Wisdom on Wednesdays—Mystics and morals

“Neither the mystic artist nor the ethical person should be confused.  It is only when the artist is stupid and carries his art too far over into ethics that his confusion begins.  Nor can he carry his moral responsibility too far into art without disaster.” (June 1943)

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Self-portrait, charcoal and pastel on paper, November 1916

Wisdom on Wednesdays: Art and mysticism

“Our great art (the early Egyptian, ancient Greek, and Gothic European) is symbolic because it is the play of men who were alive to Reality, who were true mystics. Great art is an exact barometer and contemporary of religion—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.”  (1925)

Crucifixion - from Kathy Grim

Crucifixion, oil on canvas, c. 1930, 15 x 18 in. This work was purchased by Mrs. Nicholas Brady, one of the wealthiest and most prominent lay Catholics in America in the 1920s and 30s.  She commissioned a portrait of herself from Schmitt to hang in her palatial residence on Long Island, named Inisfada, one of the largest in America.  Her husband, who died in 1930, was on the boards of Westinghouse, New York Edison, Chrysler, and many other large corporations.  When she built a novitiate house for the Jesuits in Wernersville, Pennsylvania, in memory of her husband, this painting was among the many works of art she gave to the house.  It still hangs there today along with another larger crucifixion by Schmitt.