On This Day: October 25, 1925—Duty and beauty

“It must be understood once and for all that duty as a separate entity is simply outside the province of beauty.

“Of course a compromise can and sometimes must be made.  The rule in this case is this: that whatever there is of duty must be subordinated to the dominant intention of beauty.

“The constant struggle is between duty and beauty.”


Wisdom on Wednesdays—Mystics and morals

“Neither the mystic artist nor the ethical person should be confused.  It is only when the artist is stupid and carries his art too far over into ethics that his confusion begins.  Nor can he carry his moral responsibility too far into art without disaster.” (June 1943)


Self-portrait, charcoal and pastel on paper, November 1916

“Art is concerned with beauty first”

“A second-rate artist paints ‘good’ pictures (or evil pictures).  A first-rate artist paints beautiful ones.”  —Carl Schmitt, 1938

Carl Schmitt was adamant that art is not an exercise in ethics; beauty in itself has no moral compass.  “Only beauty may and must be neither good nor evil.  The minute it is either good or evil by so much does it cease to be beauty.”  Art inhabits a different space than moral duty.  “Art is concerned with beauty first and not with the world of good and evil or usefulness and uselessness. Beauty is neither one nor the other.”


Onions (Green Key), oil on canvas, c. 1933, 25 x 30 in.
One of seven studies done in different color “keys.” The complete series was exhibited at a one-man show at Columbia University in 1936.

In fact, to the extent that the artist attempts to use his art to further some moral or ethical goal, he becomes more a propagandist or an illustrator and less an artist.  “The artist is prone to yield to temptation to attempt to reform life instead of fleeing as he should to the imaginative life (art).  As a reformer he is denying his gift of the gods and lowering himself.  He becomes a carpenter instead of an architect, a craftsman rather than a creator.”

This is not to say that the act of artistic creation has no moral significance, only that the artist’s work, his striving, lies primarily in the realm of wisdom.  And wisdom, as we have seen, is essentially “proportion”: a balance of the elements of man’s existence, between origins, means, and ends, between the aesthetic, expedient, and religious ingredients that together make a complete human life.


Onions (Orange Key), oil on canvas, c. 1933, 30 x 25 in.

Schmitt makes it clear that while these elements “are distinct, they can never be isolated without heresy,” that is, an insistence “upon approaching Reality from an exclusive angle.”  An artist is not a “specialist” in beauty.  But Schmitt extended this verdict of “heresy” to the moral life lived apart other aspects of man’s existence: “Even goodness alone is a heresy.  A specialist is a heretic no matter how much truth there may be, no matter how much beauty, no matter how much goodness in his specialty.  Man’s origin (his myths) mans end (his goal) man’s means (his science) must be in proportion.”


Onions (White Key), oil on canvas, c. 1933, 25 x 30 in.

At the same time, proportion did not entail an equality among origins, means, and ends, between art, practical life, and religion.  It was clear for Schmitt that the “accent [is] upon the goal: God, Reality.”  For “Reality is the keynote to life and art. To be aware of reality—to be awake, is to be alive.”

“Where body and soul become one”

“Priority of birth, a long memory and experience of the place . . . is the base of culture and religion. It is the point where body and soul become one.”  —Carl Schmitt, 1936

As we saw in our previous post, Carl Schmitt: peasant,” the two facets of Schmitt’s vocation as artist and father were intimately joined in the life he lived in Silvermine.  His was a “high fatherhood”: his role, with his wife Gertrude, to foster a family culture.  Carl Schmitt called it “morale.”


Family Group, oil on canvas, c. 1926

Just as a man lives by his morals and a society holds common mores, each family is joined together with a distinct and irreplaceable morale.  The complement of personal morals, societal mores, and familial morale is yet another in a string of little “trinities” that, for Carl Schmitt, reflect the fullness of reality in the three planes of man’s life.

Deeper than moral righteousness, cheerful family togetherness or the mutual enjoyment of aesthetic or healthy pursuits, morale was rooted in Schmitt’s convictions as an artist and the struggles he embraced in holding fast to those convictions.  The morale of Carl Schmitt’s family was as distinct as his fingerprint, but formed by all the members together.

Some of the elements of this  “morale” have already been mentioned: what Schmitt calls “priority of birth” and “a long memory and experience of the place.”  The first did not refer to the nobility of family ancestry, but to the unity engendered by a common origin.  As he wrote in 1932, “All attempts at community life outside the family idea must ultimately fail because the idea or unity of birth is lacking.”

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The Well, oil on canvas, 1918.
Schmitt’s fiancée Gertrude Lord served as the model, drawing water from a well in the front yard of her house at Lordale. The Silvermine valley can be seen in the background. This black and white image is 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.

This basic unity was underscored by a “place” for the family, one that Schmitt envisioned well before his marriage to Gertrude Lord in 1918.  While still an art student in New York, he was introduced to the bucolic hamlet of Silvermine, about an hour by train from Manhattan in rural Connecticut.  He was so taken by the beauty place that within a few years he had purchased a small plot of land overlooking the Silvermine River, not far from the home of the noted sculptor Solon Borglum.  It featured a ruin from pre-Revolutionary times, surrounded by the stone walls, rolling fields, trees and giant boulders.


House at Silvermine, pastel on paper

His future wife also had roots there.  The Lord family summered just down the road in an old farmhouse they christened “Lordale.”  It was to Silvermine that Schmitt returned with his bride Gertrude in 1919, and it was there that they would raise their family, moving only once to a home built for them by their sons on a plot of land originally part of Lordale.

Schmitt’s decision to settle and raise his family in Silvermine was not a matter of sentiment or necessity, but was rooted in a deep awareness of the effect that permanence, memory, and place would have on his life and that of his family.  When his children grew up and formed families of their own, many of the nine Schmitt brothers built homes for one another on adjoining lots in Silvermine given to them by their mother from her inheritance of Lordale.

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Gertrude with firstborn son Robert on the porch at Lordale,1919

For more on Carl Schmitt’s sense of place and his first years in Silvermine, see the of the Spring 2011 issue of the CSF News.