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

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From the archives: Schmitt and “the surrounding inanities” or, “Why didn’t someone tell me twenty years ago about these men that are selling at fabulous prices now?”

“There are five paintings by Carl Schmitt in the exhibition and it is to be regretted that there are not five collectors in Pittsburgh keen enough to ‘see’ and acquire them.”
—Penelope Redd, on the 1923 “Exhibition of Well-Known Artists,” held at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh

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Ancient Episode, oil on canvas, 24 x 30 in.
An oil painting with this title, but with larger dimensions, was shown at the 1923 Carnegie show, along with Annunciation (below) and two “lost” works in Hawthorne medium, The Holy Spirit and the Muse and Mosaic Marriage.

Schmitt had been exhibiting at the major exhibitions across the country for over a decade when he found a champion in the art critic for the Pittsburgh Post, Penelope Redd.  Redd hailed Schmitt as “the logical heir of the great Americans such as Homer and Eakins,” singling him out as “one of the few modern painters that promises to survive the flood of the competently commonplace and the falsely modish.”

The artist was receiving increasingly warm praise from other critics as well.  Reviewing an exhibition in Silvermine in July, 1923, the Christian Science Monitor noted that Schmitt “brings to his work a rare color sense, an instinct for rich design, a fine imagination, and sufficient inspiration to make his effects convincing.”

As Schmitt was being noticed by the critics, his schedule of exhibitions was becoming more crowded than ever.  The year 1923 was particularly busy, with no fewer than 35 of his works featured in a dozen exhibitions, including such prestigious venues as the Carnegie International, the National Academy of Design, the Chicago Art Institute, and the Corcoran Gallery.  His work was also shown at national exhibitions in Cincinnati, Omaha, and Detroit, as well as the usual round of shows in Silvermine.

Among the yellowed newsprint collected in our studio archives, Redd’s review of the 1923 “Exhibition of Well-Known Artists,” held at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, merits note for its keen appreciation of Schmitt’s art and its understanding of his plight as an outstanding young artist who has yet to be “discovered.” 

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A Gift of Fruit, 1926, oil on canvas (a contemporary black-and-white photograph).
“‘A Gift of Fruit'” Redd wrote in a review of the 1926 Carnegie International, “combines the fundamentals which make for the endurance of the older types of painting and the exciting interplay of form and color which marks the newer movements. Carl Schmitt turned away from the assurance of popularity as a pleasant painter to become one of our potentially great painters, although he works in more or less obscurity.”

The curious thing about Carl Schmitt is that one believes he has arrived at a point of crystallization only to discover that he has gone on to something else.  He has developed from the “best student that Emil Carlsen ever had” to one of the few original painters known to us through exhibitions.  At first he painted in a decorative manner that was not unlike the work of Puvis de Chavannes. Every time he changed he dug harder into the form of art—he became less and less satisfied with the delightful effects of his surface decorations and gladly met the dubious comments he encountered.

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The Well, oil on canvas, 1918.
This, one of Schmitt’s most widely exhibited and admired early paintings, was often compared to the work of the nineteenth-century French artist Puvis de Chavannes in its “quiet” and “serenity.”
(A black and white image taken from the catalog of the 32nd Annual Exhibition of American Paintings at the Art Institute of Chicago, where the painting was shown in the fall of 1919.)

The group in the Carnegie Institute is of the last two years and mark his greatest advance. Carl Schmitt is now definitely engaged in giving the significance of the idea although painting what is really “pure design.”  “The Holy Spirit and the Muse” arouses in one many queries as to the artist’s symbolism.  The “Pieta” is a modern primitive.  He has used colors that will disturb the realistic-eyed one but he must have had a deliberate intent in using a glorious yellow touched with red.  The composition with its incessant movement gives the sensation of living life—not the still life that most modern pictures are. Carl Schmitt has the uncanny power of imparting life to his work.  Not by the simulation of vigor through technic but through the ability to make his paintings creative. He is at a decided disadvantage at a large exhibition where the observer cannot isolate Schmitt’s canvases from the surrounding inanities.

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Pietà, c. 1923, oil on canvas, 33 x 41 in.

“The ‘Pieta’ is a modern primitive. . .  [Schmitt] has used colors that will disturb the realistic-eyed one but he must have had a deliberate intent in using a glorious yellow touched with red.  The composition with its incessant movement gives the sensation of living life—not the still life that most modern pictures are.”

A very rich man in this town once said: “But why didn’t someone tell me twenty years ago about these men that are selling at fabulous prices now?”  And the one who loved art answered: “But would you have listened?”

That is particularly true of Carl Schmitt.  It is not reasonable to suppose that a man can show the amazing endurance that Carl Schmitt has in persevering in his desire to paint and to achieve the profound without some day being “discovered.”  The period of waiting is wearisome to those who like to see a young painter encouraged, and it is precarious for the painter himself.  There are five paintings by Carl Schmitt in the exhibition and it is to be regretted that there are not five collectors in Pittsburgh keen enough to “see” and acquire them.

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Annunciation, c. 1922, oil on canvas, 20 x 24 in.
Also shown at the 1923 exhibition in Pittsburgh.

“I’ve always loved still life”

“I’ve always loved still life, ever since I was a kid,” Carl Schmitt remarked in a conversation with his son Jacob.  “I remember the first things I drew; a great many of them were still lifes.”  He recalled his earliest drawing, a pair of black patent leather shoes that had “caught his attention.”  In the course of his long career, Schmitt painted over fifty still lifes in oil, as well as a small number in pastel.

When asked why so many still lifes, he replied, “There’s no anxiety about the sitter, you have the article there waiting for you exactly the same as it was the day before; the only thing that’s changed is the light.  The article itself is there and you can study it at leisure.”  “Leisure” was particularly important for Schmitt, as his still lifes, by his own admission, could require as many as ninety “sittings.”

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Carl Schmitt, Glass Platter. A fine example of Schmitt’s mature style.

Carl Schmitt’s early still lifes show the clear influence of his teacher at the National Academy of Design, the renowned still life painter Emil Carlsen (1853-1932).  Called by a contemporary critic “unquestionably the most accomplished master of still-life painting in America today,” Carlsen has been credited with bringing the genre back to respectability and even prominence at the turn of the twentieth century.

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Emil Carlsen, Still Life with a Brass Kettle and Shallots, 1904 (private collection)

Schmitt’s decision at age eighteen to transfer to the National Academy in 1907 was due in large part to Carlsen’s presence on the faculty there.  Schmitt proved to be one of Carlsen’s most accomplished students, winning the top prize in still life upon his graduation from the Academy in 1909.

In the ensuing years, Carlsen kept in touch with Schmitt, offering guidance and help with his career. “At any time you are more than welcome to my studio and to all the help I can give you; as I consider you a most able serious and thoughtful student,”  Carlsen offered in a friendly letter to Schmitt in 1916.  “Your work is sound, make it a little more solid, that is all you need,”  he wrote in another letter.  “You see I cannot stop being the teacher,” he continued, “but I am very fond of you and believe sincerely in your future.”

In the summer of 1916, Carlsen asked Schmitt to teach his courses at the Academy in the fall while Carlsen traveled to Europe.  But Schmitt, busy with commissions and exhibitions, never took up his offer.  He was, however, recognized by critics as Carlsen’s prize student and always acknowledged his debt to his teacher, keeping a set of notes and bon mots from Carlsen’s Academy classes for the rest of his life.

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Carl Schmitt and Emil Carlsen about the time both were at the National Academy of Design in New York, 1907-1909

To people familiar with Schmitt’s works, it is hardly surprising that the artist first attracted attention for his still lifes.  His first painting selected for a major national exhibition was a still life entitled “Opus Minor No. 1” (present location unknown), shown at the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts in 1912.  Later that same year, this painting was accepted at two other prominent shows, at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC and in Indianapolis.  Another early still life, “Study,” took a similar route, exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago before moving to the Philadelphia Academy and a circuit of major shows throughout the Midwest.

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Carl Schmitt, Still Life, 1932, a rare example in pastel

When asked about the perennial appeal of the still life for the artist, Schmitt answered, “It’s largely a field of technical development, the still life is. . . . I suppose the thing standing there catches the eye more readily, and especially when I was starting out to paint I used to do one still life a day for training, to train myself.”

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Carl Schmitt, pencil sketch for a still life. Note the jug on the left which also appears in Glass Platter, above.

Carlsen, too, considered the still life a vehicle for technical mastery, asking in an article from 1908, “Why should the earnest student overlook the simplest and most thorough way of acquiring all the knowledge of the craft of painting and drawing, the study of inanimate objects, still life painting, the very surest road to absolute mastery over all technical difficulties.”  Or as Carl Schmitt put it in an interview toward the end of his long career as a painter, “I’m a visionary, an experimenter. . . . Still life is the best way of experimenting.