“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.

From the archives: “An artist with a distinctly individualistic manner of looking at things”

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Annunciation, c. 1922, oil on canvas, 20 x 24 in.

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.”

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Madonna in White, 1929, oil on masonite, 48¼ x 40 in.
One of two madonnas shown at the Art Alliance, the other being the lost work  Madonna in Orange.

“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: Decorationwhy ‘Trinity’ when apparently it represents only the Second Person, on the cross surrounded by angelsis 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.

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A Picnic, 1927, oil on canvas, approx. 48 x 40 in.

“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

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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 the similar painting shown at the Art Alliance.  Critics often remarked on Schmitt’s powerful use of color in paintings of this period, particularly those of a “mystical” character.

“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.

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Guardian Angel, c. 1929
 One of two angel paintings shown at the Art Alliance exhibition. 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.”

“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.

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Angel of the Resurrection, c. 1930, oil on canvas, 42 x 35 in.

“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

“Just look at it!”: Portrait Study (Self-Portrait) (1915)

“I think pictures are meant to be looked at.  If there is a secret—the eye must comprehend it.”  Carl Schmitt, 1929

Portrait Study (Self-Portrait), 1915, oil on canvas, 20 x 18 in.

Today we begin a new weekly series taking a closer look at Schmitt’s work, called “Just look at it!”

Commenting on Schmitt’s art presents something of a paradox, as the artist himself was adamant that his pictures needed no philosophical or aesthetic “explanations.”  As he asked wryly in one of his notebooks, “Is there anything more discouraging than writing about pictures?”  And to those asking for an explanation of a painting, he would reply curtly, “Just look at it!”

Certainly, “pictures are meant to be looked at.”  This series does not aim to “explain” Schmitt’s pictures as much as present their “language.”  A familiarity with this language can help reveal depths of splendor beyond what we may be able to absorb on a first encounter with his works.

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Self-Portrait, January 20, 1915, Naples, pencil sketch

We start with an essay by Carl Schmitt’s son Jacob on a painting familiar to those who have followed Carl Schmitt on Facebook and elsewhere, his Self-Portrait from 1915.  Schmitt was then 25 years old and recently returned from a year of study in Europe.  Formally entitled Portrait Study, it was given by the artist to a close friend, James Porter, shortly after it was completed, who returned it to him 44 years later.  Porter remarked in a letter that “while this portrait is a bit in the raw, it does, in a way, preserve your looks of that distant date.”  


This painting is not typical of Schmitt’s work. If one looks closely, one observes that the paint does the work, that is, each stoke applied creates line, light, color, and form. The artist’s approach evidently was to draw an under-painting in burnt sienna (as seen in another self-portrait done around the same time) and then add local color to express the quality and values of the forms depicted.

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Self-Portrait, oil on canvas, 24 x 20 in.
An unfinished work showing the first layer of under-painting.  It is not known why this painting was not completed.

A lyrical movement is expressed in the oval lines of the hat, repeated in the collar, the shoulder, arm, the line of the chin, and nose.  These are offset by the movement of the forearm and hand.  One is caught by the candid immediacy of the facial expression observed in the eyebrow, the glancing but penetrating eye, and the parted lips.  One is also struck by the facial movement generated by the outline of the forehead, the nose, lips, and Adam’s apple carried through to the tip of the shirt contrasted with the darker left side of the face.

This same idea is seen in the handling of the line of the ear in contrast to the dark pattern of the hat.  Both of these line techniques permit a sharp facial contrast without the traditional dark background.

The more one studies this work the more one sees the cleverness of its repetitious rhythmic line, its patterns of light and shade through which the artist captures the content and form of the subject as though by surprise.

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.

More “lost” paintings—Imaginative works

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.

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A Christening Party at Chartres, oil on canvas, 1928.
After being shown at the 27th Carnegie International to critical acclaim, this painting was bought by the Pittsburgh Athletic Club in January 1929 for $1,500.  A search by the Carl Schmitt Foundation at the PAC was unsuccessful and the painting’s location remains 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.

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An unidentified “muses” painting, probably Muses on the Mount

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.

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Temples Unfinished, 1921
A contemporary black-and-white photograph in the Carl Schmitt Foundation archives.

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.”

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A Gift of Fruit, 1926, oil on canvas (a contemporary black-and-white photograph).
Frank Jewett Mather, professor of art at Princeton University and a leading art critic of the day (and one of the few admired by Schmitt), called it “nosegay of color,” “a celestial thought of motherhood treated with a delightful levity and joyousness.”

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.

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A Picnic, 1927
A critic for a Philadelphia paper called it “a modernized Botticelli. The whole is very amusing and effective, a joyous little canvas.”

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.

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A Christening Party at Chartres (center) hung at an exhibition, probably the 1928 Carnegie International.

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.

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The Second Night. 1929

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.