“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.