“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!”: Bread, Wine, and Knife (1987)

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Bread, Wine, and Knife, 1989, oil on hardboard, 7 x 9 in.

A guest post by Carl B. Schmitt, Jr.

This painting was Carl Schmitt’s last, done close to the end of an extraordinary life.  Yet it may just be the most ordinary of his many still lifes.

The painting is austere, with little of the stunning beauty of many of his other works.  The bottle of wine, the chunks of bread, and a kitchen knife are ordinary indeed—even stark in their separateness.  Yet this very plainness invites a second look and draws us to contemplate: the painting bespeaks the depths to be found in the ordinary.

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Madonna with Black Head-dress or Dalmatian Mother, oil on canvas, 1926, 24 x 20 in.

The fact that Schmitt gave the work no title reminds me of another painting, discussed earlier here, to which he gave two titles—“Madonna with Kerchief” and “Dalmatian Mother.”  I noted that there was no duplicity in this, because Schmitt’s vision of reality reflected his belief in Christ as God incarnate, one divine person with two complete natures, divine and human.  Schmitt never tired of pointing out how this meant that Christ was fully man in all of man’s created mystery, for the artist must deal with human life in this world—the life Christ shared with the rest of us—showing how human life in its fullest embraces all created reality. It was there, in the ordinary that you and I know so well, that he found the beauty he strove to realize in his art.

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Madonna of the Milk Bottle, 1930

This is why Schmitt was totally unabashed about inserting the sublime into the ordinary in a most natural and normal way.  Many of his madonnas were really portraits of his wife with one of their children.  His Madonna of the Milk Bottle may well be the only one that ever depicted Mary and her Child in this way.  Years ago, I asked him to paint a “St. Nicholas” for me. He was just finishing a self-portrait and simply painted in a miter and a crozier.  “That’s not St. Nicholas!” I vigorously protested, “St. Nicholas had a beard!”  He answered, “How do you know?  This will do.”  I was happy to get my painting at least, but as I walked away with it, my thought was that perhaps he was trying to tell me something: that a saint can be seen in any man who is striving to be a child of God.

Schmitt discerned the beauty of each of the stages that make up an ordinary life: we have spoken before of how he combined the lyric, epic, and dramatic aspects of life into his art.  He saw the dramatic as the key to the fullness of beauty, for it is there that life triumphs over death.  Schmitt’s faith found the prototype for this most powerfully in Christ’s death and resurrection.

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Loaf of Bread, 1947, oil on hardboard, 12 x 14 in.
A painting from fifty years earlier featuring many of the same motifs as Schmitt’s final work.

What makes this painting special, however, is not simply that it includes all three aspects that mark it as a late work, but that the painting puts that entire story before us.  The knife between the wine and the bread presents symbolically the sacrificial death in which Christ’s body was drained of its blood—almost too dramatically inserting that great “mystery of faith” into the ordinary.

All this I finally saw only when my sister told me it was the last painting he ever did, one he felt he had to do despite his failing eyesight.  It was for him a kind of summation of his life and work as an artist, and if he had given it a title, it might just have been “The Mass.”

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Reprinted from the CSF News, Spring 2011.

“Just look at it!”: Pumpkin with Iron Pot (1914)

A guest post by Jacob A. Schmitt

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Carl Schmitt, Pumpkin with Iron Pot, c. 1914, oil on canvas, 20 x 20 in.
Florence Griswold Museum, Old, Lyme Connecticut

Carl Schmitt’s earliest professional work was done from the time he graduated from the National Academy of Design in New York at the age of twenty-one, through to about 1914, when he left to finish his studies in Florence, Italy.  Here we see the influence of his teachers at the Academy, especially the Danish-born still life master Emil Carlsen (1853-1932), whom he admired perhaps more than any other instructor.

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Emil Carlsen, The Copper Pot, 1931, oil on canvas, 18 x 18 in.
Private collection.

The handling of light is the focus of this early stage. Although the quality of light appears throughout all of Schmitt’s work, here light contrasts with darkness in more traditional ways.  Unlike his other paintings, these early works do not reveal his usual characteristics where rhythmic forms, lyrical design, bright colors, spatial values, and dramatic focus are constructed out of layers of various modeled and glazed colors.  Instead, the painting strokes themselves create the form.

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Pumpkin with Iron Pot displays Carlsen’s simplicity of flat pattern design seen in the pot and backdrop differentiated by the brilliance of light in the cloth and pieces of pumpkin.  It has a quality of light similar to what Schmitt often spoke of as the genius of the eighteenth-century still-life painter Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, that of revealing the beauty of soft light falling on an object, especially bottles.

(c) Glasgow Museums; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Chardin, Still Life, c. 1730, oil on canvas, 11 x 14½ in.
The Burrell Collection, Glasgow
© Glasgow Museums; supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Perhaps this is where Schmitt learned to love the quality of old glass bottles seen in so many of his later still lifes.  He obtained specimens of this glass from various shops during his travels and from foundations of old ruined houses he came upon during his walks around Silvermine.  To enhance that quality of light on these bottles, he took care not to disturb the dust that would collect on them, especially after he had set them carefully in a still life arrangement.  These bottles may still be found in the studio in Silvermine.

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Pumpkin with Iron Pot was in the artist’s possession until the early 1980s, when it was acquired by the Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company as an addition to its collection of paintings and other works by Connecticut artists.  In 2001, the Company gave its entire collection to the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, Connecticut.  The museum included Schmitt’s painting in an exhibition of works from the Hartford Steam Boiler Collection the following year and featured it in its illustrated catalog, The American Artist in Connecticut.

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.

“Still life is the best way of experimenting”

In our last post, we saw how Carl Schmitt considered still life an ideal medium for exploring new avenues in his painting.  While Schmitt’s still lifes are grounded firmly in the grand tradition of the genre, he was also an “experimenter,” developing the classic model in imaginative and unexpected ways.

Seen in the works of the eighteenth-century master Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin (1699-1779). the classic still life exhibits a number of characteristic features: deliberate yet unstudied composition, hushed light often focused on a single object, a subdued, uncluttered background, a muted range of colors and quiet, careful brushwork resulting in a polished sheen.  A single prominent element in the composition (typically a bottle or bowl) is not uncommon.  Emil Carlsen, a teacher of Schmitt’s and a champion of Chardin’s style, took up many of these elements, which in turn made their way into the work of his most accomplished student.

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Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, White Teapot, 1764. Private collection.

Carlsen’s debt to Chardin can be seen most vividly in the very objects he depicts, offering a kind of homage to the elder master.  In addition to bottles and bowls, these include pieces of fruit, brass pots, ceramic jugs, a white cloth, dead game, flowers, and occasionally a small statue or other objet d’art.  Those familiar with Schmitt’s works will recognize many of these articles in his works, along with his beloved eggs and cups.

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Carl Schmitt, Orange Still Life, 1914.
One of the artist’s finest early works.

Schmitt’s early Orange Still Life (above) features the formal composition, soft light, and subdued palette of many of the works of Chardin and Carlsen.  While Schmitt adopts the customary features of Chardin’s style in its formal arrangement and prominent black bottle, he makes subtle changes as well.  Unlike the traditional model, not all the objects in the painting are equally distinct; in fact, it is difficult to make out exactly what objects are represented in the background of the painting.

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Carl Schmitt, Bottles on Their Sides. Like the Orange Still Life, this painting is permeated by a dominant hue, even though the objects in it are actually of various colors.

More significantly, Schmitt, taking his cue from the orange in the foreground, allows a single color to permeate the work, a theme that can be seen in many of his subsequent still lifes such as Bottles on their Sides (above), Pink Drapes, and One Black Bottle and Garlics (see bottom of the post). Perhaps his most remarkable work along these lines is his White Still Life. Here the artist presents an arrangement of white plates, eggs and other objects on a white tablecloth, the whole bathed in a cool white light, a tour de force of the use of color.

Schmitt used color in other new ways as well.  He expanded the customary palette to include deep primary colors, notably red and green, and used hitherto underused colors, such as purple.  In another outstanding still life from the 1920s (below), Schmitt imposes a color scheme of red and orange on the black bottles and blue jug and bowl in the picture, many of which appear in other paintings with their true colors.

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Carl Schmitt, Still Life, proabably early 1920s. The distinctive Italian apothecary jug can be seen in another guise in Schmitt’s Two Oranges, (below).

Schmitt also shifted the “viewpoint” of the still life, which traditionally was at eye level, often on a table top, and centered, making the composition fill the canvas.  In certain works he subtly brought the viewer into the painting by separating what he called the “picture plane” from the plane of the viewer.  His Two Oranges (below) includes the canvas of the painting itself within the composition, depicting the artist’s own “view” of the objects rather than the objects in themselves.

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Carl Schmitt, Two Oranges, c. 1950. The painting includes the canvas on which it is being painted within it (bottom right).

In other works Schmitt shifts the conventional perspective.  A series of remarkable still lifes from the 1930s depicts the same arrangement of objects from six different angles and distances.  This phenomenon can also be seen in the two different versions of Tanagra and Vase (below).  His Bottles on Their Sides (above) and Still Life with Book are painted from above, while others, such as Eggs, Salt Cellar, and Bowl, seem to present only a portion of a full picture, with objects cut off at the edge of the canvas. Alternatively, One Black Bottle and Garlics (below, with Eggs, Salt Cellar, and Bowl) presents the objects as if far away in a lonely landscape.

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Carl Schmitt, Tanagra and Vase, two versions, 1934.

Schmitt, like any good student, strove both to receive fully what his teacher had to offer and, finally, to go beyond it.  Not long after Carlsen’s death in 1932, Schmitt was still pondering what he had heard from his teacher many years before, and offering his own thoughts.  “One does not paint merely as one knows (“Paint it as you know it.” —Emil Carlsen),” he wrote in 1933.  “One must paint as he loves, as he knows, as he understands, as he desires, as he imagines, as he sees.”

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Carl Schmitt, Eggs, Salt Cellar, and Bowl (left) and One Black Bottle and Garlics, c. 1975.