“Just look at it!”: Madonna in White (1929)

Madonna in White is a strange,  fascinating painting.  It was first shown at the 28th Carnegie International Exhibition in Pittsburgh 1929, where it appeared with two other enigmatic works, The Second Night and Madonna in Orange, both now lost.

 A critic’s description of the latter work suggests that it was a companion piece to the present painting, “with deep tones of orange and of brown, its orange-yellow highlights on little round angel forms, its flashes of red in angel wings, its charm of design against a blue background.”  Another critic noted Schmitt’s remarkable color combinations in the two Madonnas, writing that “many of the complex figure groups glow with unearthly fire, as if reviewed through colored gelatin.”  

The artist’s underlying intention in these works, however,  was less about an exploration of design and color as it was an expression of what Schmitt called “mysticism,” “a vision of something more real, more subjective and objective than the natural senses have experienced.”


Madonna in White, 1929, oil on masonite, 48¼ x 40 in.

As with many of Carl Schmitt’s paintings, this work is at once fresh and familiar, routine and revelatory.  The image of the Virgin Mary holding the Christ Child, as old as Christian art, is pictured here in truly modern guise, with bold colors and stylized figures.

Schmitt’s work is a marriage of modern training and deep familiarity with the masterpieces of his craft, particularly those rooted in Christian Europe.  His studies in Florence in his early twenties, where he saw first-hand the works of the great Italian masters, was a turning point in his life and left an indelible mark on his future work.  Although he sketched and studied these works like so many before him, he was not interested in copying their style as much as their content.  He was able to “abstract” the deep religious “substance” of these works, integrating it into his own style.

Duccio Maesta detail

Duccio di Buoninsegna (c. 1255-1318), Maestà, detail.
Painted 1308–1311. Tempera and gold on wood, full dimensions 84 in × 156 in. Museo dell’Opera Metropolitana del Duomo, Siena

With Madonna in White, Schmitt takes up the traditional images of Christ and the Virgin Mary, incorporating time-honored iconography into his work in a fresh way.  The painting is a modern maestà, an iconic depiction of the Virgin Mary holding the Christ Child in her lap surrounded by angels and saints.  Derived from Byzantine tradition, it was taken up in the Middle Ages by such masters as Duccio and Giotto.

Giotto Ognissanti Madonna

Giotto di Bernadone (1266-1337), Madonna Enthroned (“Ognissanti Madonna”), c. 1310. Tempera on panel, 128 in × 80 in. Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Here, Schmitt transforms the old masters’ solemnity to playfulness, their royal court changed into a child’s wonderland. Where the tradition presented the Virgin and Child surrounded in timeless gold, Schmitt revels in deep purples and greens, colors very much of our own world.  The purity of the Mother and Child is transposed into the world of childlike innocence.  Schmitt’s friend, the critic and writer Padriac Colum, intuits this shift: “Austerity is not the mark of this religious painter; he gives us rapture most often, he gives us gaiety sometimes.  There is gaiety, there is playfulness even in the Madonna in White, in which a happy babe is held by a happy mother, and four sturdy children have the place of heraldic supports.”

It is tempting to see these “four sturdy children” as a portrait of the four cardinal virtues: the two “earthly” virtues of Temperance and Fortitude represented by the calm cherub and the brave knight at the Virgin’s feet, with carefree Prudence and “blind” Justice hovering above.  Each is furnished with a pillar, further suggesting their role as “pillars” of a good life.

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Schmitt generally shied away from such direct allegory, lest the whole be lost.  The children attend upon the Mother, who in the Christian tradition is the “Seat of Wisdom”—the throne of her Son, Wisdom Himself.  Schmitt reminds us that wisdom is intimately related to our desire to become “little children” as Christ taught.  This “childlikeness,” far from being weakness or immaturity, incorporates what is noblest in human nature both in its ecstatic and down-to-earth qualities, that of the stolid man-at-arms and the mercurial dancer.

The Madonna avoids our gaze, as if to direct ours to the Child, who, upon closer examination, does not sit upon her lap but is held or rather hovers above her knees.  The Child, while haloed like his Mother, seems otherwise indistinguishable from his fellow children except in the glow that emanates from his small body, which light is in turn reflected by his Mother.  As in so many classic paintings, her face is pensive, as if in shadow, reflecting perhaps upon the destiny of the One held in her arms.

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More “lost” paintings—Religious works

Last month we looked at over a dozen “lost” paintings of Carl Schmitt, works whose locations or owners remain unknown.  The Foundation relies largely on the owners of such works for photographs and information about them (dimensions, signature, date and other markings) whereby we can build up our catalog raisonné.  This can help us trace Schmitt’s stylistic development and his contribution to art in the twentieth century.  

This post provides a cross-section of Schmitt’s work from the 1920s through the early 1950s.  As we have seen before in Schmitt’s work, the paintings, while traditional in content (taking up such well-worn subjects as the nativity of Christ and the Holy Family), are innovative in technique and expression.  As a critic remarked upon Schmitt’s large “Nativity,” “One might well have believed that ‘the Nativity’ could not be given a new significance.  Yet using all the familiar paraphernalia, the artist has informed the theme with astonishing vividness and beauty.”  The same could be said of his still lifes and portraits.

Although a deeply religious man, Schmitt did not see his art primarily as an outlet of his own religious feeling, but, as we have seen, as a mystical reflection of objective truth as revealed in religion.  He even eschewed the term “religious art,” seeing all of the Fine Arts as rooted in “mystical religion,” “the vital force from which springs all [of man’s] notable activity.”  “Great art is an exact barometer and contemporary of religion,” Schmitt wrote in his 1925 essay “Ritual: The Gate, “not religion as the popular historians record it, an exterior thing, the machine, the corporate thing alone, nor as the Puritan records it, the ‘inner light’ alone, an individual disease, but mysticism: the just balance between interior individual communion with God and corporate life in God.”

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Holy Family—Gothic Decoration, oil on canvas, 1922
A contemporary black-and-white photograph.

Holy Family—Gothic Decoration, 1922 — A companion work to the large Nativity (now at the Carl Schmitt Foundation studio-gallery in Silvermine) and featured with it in the prestigious journal International Studio in 1925.  After seeing it at the exhibition of the Architectural League of New York in 1925, a critic for The New York Times marveled how it was “permeated with a tenderness and richness of devotional feeling.”

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Gethsemane, 30 x 25 in.
from a contemporary black-and-white photograph in the Carl Schmitt Foundation archives

Gethsemane, 1924 (30 x 25 in.) — This painting and the following pair were exhibited together at a one-man show at the Art Alliance of Philadelphia in early 1930 and at Park Avenue Galleries in New York later that year.

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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 his earlier painting on the same subject seen above.  Critics often remarked on Schmitt’s powerful use of color in paintings of this period, particularly those of a “mystical” character.

Of four paintings by Schmitt on this theme, this is perhaps the most arresting.  A critic from the New York Herald Tribune called the painting “impressive,” remarking that it possessed a “subtle quality not entirely unlike the mysticism of El Greco.”

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Guardian Angel, c. 1929

Guardian Angel, c. 1929 (30 x 36 in.) — This painting was first exhibited at the Silvermine Guild in the summer of 1929, and thereafter at numerous exhibitions in Connecticut and New York City.  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.”

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Madonna of the Milk Bottle, 1930
The New York Times wrote that the painting “is the one that speaks most clearly of Mr. Schmitt’s genius for suffusing a subject upon which minds have grown dull with a fresh innocence of rendering that arouses new interest.”

Madonna of the Milk Bottle, 1930 — When asked by the editor of the journal Liturgical Arts, Maurice Lavanoux, to send a representative sample of his work, Schmitt sent a photograph of this painting.  It was printed as the frontispiece of the  in the November, 1944 issue.  Schmitt reported to Lavanoux, “The Madonna was bought some years ago by the doctor who discovered that orange juice or tomato juice should be fed to infants. He is not a Catholic but a Jew. I forget his name.”  Lavanoux later published an excerpt from Schmitt’s unfinished book Europe and the Arts in the journal.

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Ven. Francis Libermann, early 1950s

Ven. Francis Libermann, early 1950s — Libermann (1804-52) was known as the “second founder” of the Holy Ghost Fathers, a religious order with a seminary in Norwalk, Connecticut, which was attended by Schmitt’s son Jacob. The order sold the seminary in 1979, and it is not known what has become of the painting.  It was reproduced as the frontispiece of a biography of Libermann, Star of Jacob, published in 1953.

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.

From the archives: A crazy man and his crazy wife

Catholic writer Donald Powell (1899-1985) published the following in the Catholic Worker newspaper in November 1934, not long after meeting Carl Schmitt and his wife and family in Silvermine.  The complete article, “The Forgotten Man—Carl Schmitt,” may be found on the Carl Schmitt Foundation website.

A few months after the article appeared, Powell wrote to Schmitt in his usual tongue-in-cheek manner, “Sorry I embarrassed you with the dope on the family.  I suppose it was a lousy trick to say publicly in America that a husband and wife are in love with each other.  Worse, it was probably downright immoral and how I’ve escaped the Inquisition for such heresy is more than I know.”  

It was easy to see that Schmitt and his family did not lead an easy life in the 1930s, and Powell, while focusing on the love and warmth of the Schmitt household, does not disguise the privations they suffered during those Depression years.  But with keen insight Powell recognizes the true hardship Schmitt endured was not so much the scarcity of material things as the lack of support and understanding from those who should have been the first to supply it: fellow Catholics.  In fact it was non-Catholics who would proved to be Schmitt’s principal financial supporters in the first part of his career, as Powell himself wryly observes in his article.

In an entry in his notebooks some twenty-five years after Powell’s visit, Schmitt noted that these patrons enabled him “to bring up a numerous family in circumstances of poverty and to make it possible to paint.”  Yet he acknowledges that it was his wife who was his true support in that difficult time.  “Whether this latter activity on my part was necessary under those circumstances was questionable to many, probably most, including many times myself, but not to Gertrude, my wife, who encouraged me in the illusion that I should in turn encourage my muse.”

Powell and Schmitt kept up a vigorous correspondence into the 1960s.  Schmitt’s letters to Powell form part of the Donald Powell Papers at Georgetown University in Washington, DC; Powell’s side of the conversation can be found in the Foundation’s archives in Silvermine.  

If, as James Joyce suggests, the supreme question about a work of art is out of how deep a life it has sprung, then Carl Schmitt is a great artist.  He may or may not be: but of this I am certain: he is a great man.

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Carl and Gertrude outside the house of Carl’s brother Robert, Silvermine, 1926

The artist is, of course, a crazy fellow.  He seeks perfection even while his reason tells him that his powers are finite and that he cannot achieve it. Perhaps he realizes part of his vision, but he wants it all.  He is a mystic who never sees his God—Truth, Beauty and Goodness—whole.  The only reason that society does not segregate him in asylums, along with other anti-social humans, is that he is not immediately dangerous to life or property.

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Carl and Gertrude Schmitt around the time Donald Powell met them in the early 1930s.

The crazy man is a fellow of medium height, with a shock of dark brown hair, light brown eyes (Pan’s eyes) and a deeply lined face.  He looks, and is, ill-nourished.  When painting he gets pains in the back of his neck and in his back and becomes so keyed up that he cannot eat.  But he still worries the canvas with his brushes and fingers until at least part of his vision is realized.  He is just that crazy.

Worse: he has a crazy wife.  Proof: she has ten children.  “Carlo,” I said, “you are not so much, the woods are full of artists, but your wife is a miracle.”  She is just that: a natural woman in an unnatural world, a woman of charm, unfailing tact and fine sensibilities.  Schmitt, of coarser mold, a man, must make great demands upon her, but I have never found her wanting.  The answer is, naturally, after sixteen years of married life and ten children, she is still in love with her husband.  She is a miracle all right, but perhaps her husband is a miracle worker.

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Portrait of the Schmitt family in 1926 by friend and fellow Silvermine artist Bernhard Gutmann (1869-1936) (taken from a newspaper clipping).
Surrounding Gertrude (left to right) are Austin, David, Michael, Peter, baby Jacob, and the oldest, Robert.  Carl Schmitt can be seen painting in the background.

I have told several of my respectable friends about these children and have watched the expressions of wonder, amazement, and even horror come to their faces.  The more respectable they are, the more horrified they are.

I have eaten with the Schmitts and seen the youngsters in their bunks, one on top of the other, shipwise. I have seen them at play.  I envy and love the whole flock of them: Carlo, Gertrude, the boys and the girl, dirty faces, dirty diapers and all.  There is love within this family; it was built on love and survives through love.


Gertrude feeding her son Austin, September 9, 1921

Mysticism on Mondays—The mystical virtues

“The thesis then is that a living experience of the graces of meekness, poverty of spirit, and temperance is necessary for the quickening of a sense of beauty.”  —Carl Schmitt, 1922

As we have seen, Carl Schmitt saw the mystical life as a direct parallel to the aesthetic life.  As a kind of “natural religion,” artistic creation demands “virtue.”  “Art is natural religion and its ‘mysticism,’ while paralleling true mysticism, is natural and created.”  As with the religious mystic, the “natural mystic” must cultivate in his own way what Schmitt called the “mystical virtues” of temperance, poverty of spirit, and meekness—also referred to as purity, poverty, and humility—if he is to realize his full creative potential. 

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St. Paul the Hermit (Purity and Poverty), oil on canvas,1922, 25 x 30 in.

Purity, Poverty, and Humility are a triad of virtues with deep roots in the mystical tradition.  They are the basis of the “evangelical counsels” of Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience, most familiar to us as the vows of monastic life.  They in turn counter the vices of avarice, lust, and pride—the principal temptations of the world, flesh, and the devil as given in Scripture.  Schmitt sometimes called these by more contemporary names: pleasure, money, and power; Comfort, Wealth, and Success.

Just as art is not an ethical exercise, Schmitt is very clear that the aesthetic virtues, while finding a parallel in the moral life, are not moral in themselves: they do not perfect man as man.  They in no way take the place of the moral life, and in fact are subordinated to it.  As Schmitt wrote in 1924, “A life toward humility, poverty, and purity is worth much more than one devoted to form and space and quality.”

Nevertheless, these virtues are not divorced from the aesthetic life; indeed, they are essential to it.  Schmitt saw “humility, poverty, and purity” as directly linked with “form, space and quality,” these last three delineating the dramatic, epic, and lyric stages of the imagination, respectively.

From seeing merely the appearances or the “quality” of things (the lyric stage), the artist must move on to beholding them in “space” (the epic), all the way to the perception of their full reality, their “form” (the dramatic vision).

As in the mystical life, the first virtue to be cultivated is purity of heart, corresponding in the life of the artist to the lyric stage of the imagination.  It is the cultivation of that vision which sees things in their full outward “quality”; as Schmitt puts it: “purity of heart is especially necessary to quality.”


Untitled, pastel on paper, 14 x 16 in.

The artist, however, cannot avoid grappling with what Schmitt called “status”: his relation to the world and its standards—security, influence, fame— which can be boiled down to one thing: money.  In the present world Schmitt saw the pursuit of money (and all that goes with it) as the greatest threat to the integrity of the artist.

It was not a matter of the artist chasing after celebrity or a life of luxury, nor of living “in poverty” with no means at his disposal.  As Schmitt put it simply: “artists are often heard to say that they will do pot-boilers until they have accumulated sufficient money to enable them to paint ‘as they want to.’  Well, they never do.”  The artist must choose first to paint as he wants to—to “paint as he loves, as he knows, as he understands, as he desires, as he imagines, as he sees.”  The vision of the artist, to paint “as he sees,” depends on the purification of all the other powers of his soul.


Café Cetinje, oil on canvas, c. 1931, 30 x 25 in.

The artist then realizes that the struggle does not deal so much with things outside of himself, but is one within.  He must develop his own personality to full maturity.  He comes to the realization that the art he creates is only as great as his struggle to achieve this “personality,” which he called “the potential of form.”

Schmitt sketched the panorama of this journey to “personality” in terms of man’s threefold life as family, society, and person.  “Most men must belong to, identify themselves with, either the collectivity of the family (or an ethnic group) or with the mass of individualist, economic-limited people.  This is invariably in order to acquire the confidence necessary to perseverance in life.  Very few identify with themselves.  For that way leads to complete subjection to God or the devil.”


Self-portrait, oil on hardboard, c. 1960, 18 x 15 in.

It is in this arena of “subjection”or “servitude” to God or the devil—pride or humility—that the true battle lies.  “The truth is that the issue between wealth and poverty can never be resolved in this world (any more than any moral issue can be resolved here),” Schmitt wrote in 1938.  “They must both be swept aside when they have played themselves out in favor of the new order—they must give way for the new act with a new hero: Humility, and a new villain: Pride.”

Although Schmitt was writing in the context of a decisive moment in the history of the last century, the phenomenon he describes applies first of all to the individual person.  Schmitt wrote eloquently of the battle to subject himself to God, going so far as to say, “I am happy only in this servitude.”

The role of the artist in this struggle, however, is not principally on the moral level, as it is with the saint.  Not that the artist himself is not called to virtue, indeed to sainthood.  It is only that his witness, unlike that of the saint, lies in the realm of the symbol.

In an essay from 1935, “Hope for the Future of Art,” Schmitt outlined the artist’s task in this “symbolic story“: “I make bold to say that the reality (on which the symbolic art feeds) is simply the pageant of the struggle between the virtues and the vices individual or collective of man historical.  The artistic vocation in the painter lies essentially in the faculty of standing aside and, as objectively as possible, setting in symbols the high intensity of this very real war.”

Adam and Eve

Adam and Eve, oil on board, c. 1931, 38½ x 33¼ in.

Where does beauty come into this “war”?  “Peace, like Beauty, cannot be the principal aim—cannot be directly striven for,” he wrote in the early 1930s. “Such neutralities are the result of safeguarding activities, beauty being a by-product of life.”  While beauty, and indeed the creative powers of the artist, remain “neutralities” in this conflict, they are nonetheless caught up in “the pageant of the struggle between the virtues and the vices.”  Schmitt vividly portrays this “pageant” in a poem from 1925:

I dream of a world magnificent
Teeming with realities:
Reality of virtue, Reality of vice,
And Reality of Beauty:
God, the Devil and Beauty.
I remember and hope for such a world. . . .