New book Carl Schmitt: The Conscience of Beauty now for sale!

Until now, you have read short “tweets” of Carl Schmitt’s thoughts on this blog.  Now, the CSF is pleased to announce the publication of the unfiltered Carl Schmitt in a new collection of his writings, The Conscience of Beauty.

The Conscience of Beauty  collects over seventy of Schmitt’s essays,  most appearing now for the first time.  With a foreword by the artist’s son Jacob, and edited and introduced by CSF director Samuel Schmitt, this 222-page volume can be binge-read in an evening, or taken up from time to time as a leisurely formation in the conscience of beauty.

cob-sample-pages-2Schmitt wryly observes in the first essay that when the artist puts down his brushes to speak, “his muse is displeased at the digression” and “he is perilously close to talking rubbish.”  But this collection reveals a man whose words on paper are at least as remarkable as his work on canvas.

The man who can both paint and write without displeasing his muse is rarely found, but to live and paint and write is given only to the few.cob-sample-pages-1In these short essays Schmitt has gathered and distilled the fruits of his contemplation over a long lifetime. Alongside practical advice on getting through the dull times of life and helpful observations on the good of squabbling siblings stand sharp fragments on the uttermost reaches of the four last things and piercing, prophetic critiques of our times. As his grandson and namesake Carl F. Schmitt recalls, he understood reality in a way that “lay between, and always accounted for, both the particular and the general, the small and the large, the individual and the collective, the material and the spiritual, the natural and the divine. The scale of his approach was relentlessly human, participating in both the mundane and the glorious.”

Click on the image below to order your copy.  You can see a preview here.

The book makes a wonderful gift for Christmas!

Book cover image

Carl Schmitt

The Conscience of Beauty

$20.00

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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.’”

2013 Open House - admiring new painting

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.

Woman_and_Guardian_Angel - detail of dove

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.

“Built only for the prince and the peasant”: Carl Schmitt in Korčula

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The Chapel, 1929, gum Arabic print.
This small church sits off cathedral square in the center of the town of Korčula in Dalmatia (the coastal region of present-day Croatia). The print was rendered from sketches made three years prior during Schmitt’s second visit there.

Carl Schmitt was overwhelmed by the beauty of Dalmatia from the time he first set foot there in January, 1914.  His visit was purely serendipitous.  Sailing through the Adriatic on its way to Italy, his ship stopped briefly in Split and Schmitt disembarked to explore the ancient city.  He heard the ship whistle the “all aboard,” but, enchanted by the people and the scenery, he decided to remain. When he returned to the port, the ship was gone, and thus began Schmitt’s first sojourn in Croatia.

Chapel - Korcula - contemporary photograph - CROPPED

Schmitt made the most of his stay, sketching peasants, army officers, musicians, and others he met on the streets and in the cafes of the city.  As he described it to Catholic activist and writer Peter Maurin, in Dalmatia “People still combine cult, that is to say liturgy, with culture, that is to say literature, with cultivation, that is to say agriculture.”

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Schmitt’s constant sketching and his association with some newfound friends of a revolutionary stripe attracted the attention of local authorities. In the politically charged days before the ourbreak of the Great War, they took him for a spy and after a brief interrogation, let him go. He decided to go on to Italy as planned, but always pined for Dalmatia.

The brief sojourn in the city made a deep impression on the artist, and Schmitt even considered settling there with his family after a subsequent visit to the region 1926. The sketches he made of the island of Korčula off the Dalmatian coast during this later trip formed the basis of a series of prints published in the February 1929 issue of Scribners Magazine. In the article Schmitt described his attraction to the picturesque town in almost rhapsodic terms:

“Korčula is a town of 3,000 people on an island of the same name. It is on the regular steamboat route between Split and Dubrovnik. Since I was first in Dalmatia fourteen of the principal cities of the mainland have lost their character of peasant homeliness and something fine is gone out of their hospitality. But not so Korčula.

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House in Korčula, 1926 (pastel on paper, 17 x 13 in.) and a contemporary photograph of the same house.
The photo was sent to me by Sani Sardelić, curator of Korčula Town Museum, which is publishing a booklet on Carl Schmitt’s visit to the the town in 1926.  The father-in-law of the book’s author hosted Schmitt in this house during his stay there almost 90 years ago.

“I could write at length of the health (and consequent beauty) of the imaginations and bodies of the people of Korčula, due, I think, in part to a providential weakness in modern banking ability and in part to a beneficent sun. But the city, the buildings, the boats, and the indescribable water of the Adriatic are also a part of the picture. The city rises out of this clean blue water of carved white glowing stone and climaxes in the cathedral which was begun in the thirteenth century. There are no automobiles here. The limestone-paved streets rising steep to the cathedral are built only for the prince and the peasant, one on foot, the other on a donkey. For this is the story of Korčula.”

Schmitt would return to his beloved Dalmatia only once more, this time with his wife for a second honeymoon in 1934, shortly after their tenth child’s second birthday. For him, the region embodied his ideal of becoming a true “peasant,” one whose role is to “intuitively envision, act, create.” He longed to form a firm “base of culture and religion” for his family by “a long memory and experience of [a] place.” For him, such a place is “where body and soul become one.”  Silvermine would fulfill that role for him and his family in the years ahead, but for Schmitt, Europe would always remain “an island of the Fine Arts; the locus of the full liberation of the imagination.”

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Building a Boat, 1929, gum arabic print.
“With Korčula in the background—a white city shimmering in the subtropical sun.”

Reprinted from the July 2014 issue of  Vision, the CSF e-newsletter.  To subscribe or read past issues, click here.

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