The artist “explains” his work

“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.”  —Carl Schmitt, 1930

Second Night border

The Second Night, 1929, oil on canvas, 48 x 40 in.
Present location unknown.

Carl Schmitt was adamant that a painting does not need any “explanation”—one simply had to “look at it.”  For him, the “eye” of the viewer was the only adequate vehicle for the vision conveyed by the artist.

Yet a number of Schmitt’s paintings seem to cry out for some interpretation.  Enigmatic titles such as Esto Perpetua,Muses Marooned, and Purity and Poverty only add to the mystery.

Schmitt’s The Second Night was one such painting.  As the artist’s most successful work up to that time, it was inevitable that people wondered about the significance of the title as well as the “meaning” behind the figures in the painting.  The secretary to the Director of the Art Museum in St. Louis, where the painting was shown in the fall of 1930, wrote to Schmitt to ask “unofficially” “why you entitled your painting ‘The Second Night.’”  In his typically accommodating fashion, Schmitt responded a few days later with a beautiful handwritten letter.

CFS letter to St Louis Art Museum - 7 Oct 1930 - CROPPED

As the archivist here at the CSF, the most enjoyable part of my work is seeking out lost items: artwork, photos, and the “other half” of Carl Schmitt’s extensive correspondence. I tracked this letter to the St. Louis Art Museum, where the archivists graciously sent along the “lost half” of this exchange.

Dear Miss Herlage,
Thank you very much for your inquiry. I am sorry that my title has caused difficulties – many people have asked what it was all about. I hardly know what to say. As you infer the ultimate object of painting is vision. Still an idea (or common experience) is necessary to a picture, if not of the first importance. “The Second Night” is the sixth of a cycle of seven paintings which are a mystical succession. As I am reluctant to inflict mystical implications upon what is largely an extroverted public, I thot it best only to imply thro the title the idea of the “second night of the soul” and to allow the beholder to make his own story. I trust that this in a measure will explain!

Very sincerely
Carl Schmitt

This is the only time Schmitt mentions any “mystical succession” of his paintings, so it is unclear which works might fall into this category.

What Schmitt does make clear is that the title of the painting refers to “the second night of the soul,” an unmistakable allusion to the classical mystical tradition of St. John of the Cross.  In St. John’s understanding, the soul must pass through two “dark nights“ in order to reach full union with God.  The first, the “night of the senses,” purges the soul of all affection for earthy things. In the second, far more painful trial, God purges the soul of all remaining attachments, even those to its own will and judgment.

Muses Marooned [1] [13104] A

Muses Marooned, 1934, oil on canvas, 41 x 35 in.
One in a series of “muse” paintings (“The Muses Disagree,” “Muses on the Mount,” “Muses in the Valley,” “The Holy Spirit and the Muse”) that the artist worked on through the 1920s and into the 1930s. Another version of this painting was executed the following year.
This painting was put up for auction in 2010,
Muses in the Valley in 2011.

Seen in this light, the painting may depict the intense anguish of the soul—portrayed in traditional fashion as a woman—as she submits to the promptings of the One who urges us to become “like little children” if we are to enter the Kingdom of God.  The barren landscape and mountainous crags, so different from the artists usual frondescence, heightens the anguish of the woman’s face and contorted movement as she struggles to gain a foothold on the uneven ground.  Only the Little Child stands erect.

The painting may also portray, as Schmitt’s letter suggests, a more personal “story.”  Schmitt speaks of his own “night” in the journal he kept during a busy winter early in his marriage.  Enjoying a respite from an extraordinary period of financial and artistic strain in the fall of 1924, the artist reflected, “We should thank God for all difficulties of merely getting over the mountain. But the vista after it’s over is unimagined in the night and the rocks. . . depression is the absence of Love.  Everyone must be a lover to live.”

Schmitt’s own trial opened to him a vista—a vision—”unimagined in the night.”  It remained for him to embody that vision in his art.

Temples Unfinished - Peace - Gift of Fruit

Three paintings that may have formed part of the “mystical succession” Schmitt mentions in his letter: Temples Unfinished (1921), Peace (1923), and A Gift of Fruit (1926). With the exception of Peace, the present location of these works is unknown.

Reprinted from Vision, the CSF e-newsletter, February 2014. For past issues or to subscribe, please click here.


Wisdom on Wednesdays—The Fountain of Youth


Nursing the Baby, pen and ink on paper

“The great weakness of us Americans as a people consists in the fact that we cannot quite accept maturity, old age, death, or, for that matter, birth, babyhood.  They are not in our imaginative picture of life.  We try to live apart from birth, old age, death.  We die from ‘perpetual youth.’”  (1939)

Wisdom on Wednesdays—The masterpieces of painting are done by children

“We must remember that the masterpieces of painting are done by children under fourteen.  Why is this?  I think it is because purity of heart is especially necessary to quality, and after fourteen it is only maintained by struggle.  Before that it is a sweet and natural and unconscious offering to God.”  (January 13, 1925)


Chilton Ryan, pastel on paper, 1931, 17 x 14 in.
Portait of the son of a close friend of the Schmitts in Silvermine.

Summers in Silvermine

We continue our series of recollections by Carl Schmitt’s son David.


Eight of the nine Schmitt boys, early 1930s: back row (left to right): Austin, David, Robert, Michael, Jacob, Peter; in wagon: John, Carl, Jr.

My earliest recollection of the “early days” was my father walking to Winnipauk to ride the trolley car into Norwalk to the foot of Hospital Hill to visit my mother. Every year her only two week vacation time was when another little brother was born.  Eventually she would come home for a grand reunion introducing the new baby to the rest of us which was always a joyous occasion, a memorable event.

Summers were also happy times.  I usually put on my red and white striped bathing suit toward the end of May and would only take it off after first frost in September.  No baths either in the summer (I was, I believed, allergic to water) although I did learn to swim (doggy paddle) in Borglum’s brook and up at the old reservoir, which was enough!


Gertrude Schmitt holding her son David, with Jacob standing to the right.

I remember we kept the little kids from following us into the woods by enclosing them in the yard at home with a big stone each in their diapers.  One time after about a two hour swim we rushed home because of a huge thunder storm, and lo and behold there were the two of them soaking wet, still straining to get out of the pouring rain, anchored in the yard.  Mother was, needless to say, exasperated because she was busy at the other end of the house and never heard their crying above the storm.

David Tod Schmitt, 1924-2014

24004 - David in high school - color corrected

David Schmitt as a student at New Canaan High School, c. 1940.

David T. Schmitt died on Saturday, March 22, 2014, after a long illness.  He was born on July 8, 1924 in Norwalk, Connecticut, the fifth son of Carl and Gertrude Schmitt.

At the age of eighteen, while still in high school, he was drafted into the U. S. Army, beginning his service in March 1943 as a member of the legendary 10th Mountain Division (the “ski troops”).  After a year and a half of training in the mountains of Colorado, he served in Italy along with his brother Peter as a Technical Sergeant (Communications) in the Headquarters Division, seeing combat in the Italian campaign of 1944-45.  

In April 1953 he married Louise Stitt; they would have eight children.  During the 1960s he worked alongside his brother John at Thomas More School, a Catholic boys’ boarding school in Harrisville, New Hampshire.  After the school closed in 1971, he moved his family to Canaan, Connecticut, where he lived the rest of his life.  

David Schmitt is remembered by his family and friends as a loving, humble, and wise man.   In his last years he showed remarkable patience and cheerfulness in the face of illness and the loss of his beloved wife, Louise.  

His funeral mass was celebrated by his son, Rev. Thomas Schmitt, at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Canaan on March 26.  He is survived by his daughter and six sons, as well as his sister, five of his brothers, and numerous grandchildren.  His was preceded in death by his wife of over 50 years, and son David, Jr., who died in 2007.

A number of years ago he wrote down some recollections of his father and of his life growing up in a family of ten children in Silvermine, Connecticut.  We will be highlighting these stories here in the next few weeks.  A particularly vivid memory concerning himself and his father he called “Bear in the Coal  Bin.”

33003 - CROPPED

David (second from left) and his brothers Peter, Jacob, John and Carl, Jr., about the time of “Bear in the Coal Bin” took place.

When I was about six it was my job in the family to get the coal from the separate cellar (in the hillside) where the coal bin was located. You had to go out the front door and around the side of the house to get there.  I was afraid of that cellar because I was afraid of the dark, and the coal bin was always dark because there was no light bulb in there.  The question was, was I more afraid of Dad’s spanking for disobeying, or the dark–it was clearly a case of which was the worse! Besides, I was sure there were bears in the coal-bin.

So I hesitated in getting the coal—no one in the family knew why.  I guess they thought I was just lazy; they had no reason to think otherwise.  I used to fill the scuttle half-full at a time because otherwise it was too heavy for me to get it off the ground to carry.

One day it was about noon and mother was still begging me to please “get the coal.”  When Dad came home from his studio for supper, I made the mistake of letting him hear Mom still asking me to “get the coal.”  He didn’t tolerate disobedience, and he taught me right then and there that Fathers should be feared much more than either imaginary bears or the dark.  I got the worse licking I ever got from him!  Later I found myself getting the coal in the dark, bears and all.  I was no longer afraid of the dark or the bears—it was amazing!

34001 - little David and Jacob - CROPPED

David (left) and his brother Jacob, 1928.