“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.

“The unique miracle of Christian culture”

“And this is the mark of your major artist: without losing memory, the mirage, the illusion, he grasps the tangible in three planes.” —Carl Schmitt, “On Wind in Art,” 1925

For Carl Schmitt, the fault of the modern artist lies not in making too much of his art, but too little.  In his fixation with originality, personal expression, and an “abstract” style, he denies art its true significance as a bearer of “transcendent reality.”  Like oriental or primitive art, modern art is “but a sign or at best a prophecy” that can find its full stature only in the fullness brought by a Christian understanding of reality.

“When will we realize that the Fine Arts are a Christian creation?” Carl Schmitt asked.  To him, the “fine-arts are uniquely Christian.”  To be sure, non-Christian civilizations have cultivated the arts, but in Schmitt’s view, “That there is a system or hierarchy of seven fine arts [which are] symbolic expressions of spiritual realities” is “beyond [the] capacity” of these cultures.  What did these other cultures lack?  What has Christ brought that makes the fine arts possible?

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Carl Schmitt, Nativity.  Oil on canvas, c. 1926, 30 x 25 in.

Christ brought the fulfillment of what these cultures strove for but did not, indeed, could not achieve.  It was in this sense that Schmitt called Christ “the perfect myth”—He summed up and made real all the longings and dreams of the ancient peoples.  “We forget that Christ came not only because man needed hope for eternal beatitude but that He was also the historic concrete answer to the desire of the wildest imagination: the appearance on earth of a God-man.  History united to myth.”

The arts of these peoples, embodying as they did their yearnings and strivings for the transcendent—for God—were not complete, but awaited their perfection in the full revelation of Christ: God visible, God in the flesh.

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Carl Schmitt, Resurrection.  Oil on hardboard, 1941, 24 x 20 in.

The appearance of the invisible God was not simply a “religious” event, but the fulfillment of an aesthetic ideal: in Christ, symbol and substance, appearance and reality, sign and signified, are perfectly joined.  Only now that this has come about in the world can man acquire the vision to join these in permanent form in art, in what Schmitt paradoxically terms a “substantial symbol.”  “Hard as it may be for our time to understand, the Western and unique Fine Arts were only made possible through [the] radical power of Jesus Christ.  Only by means of his Incarnation and death was it possible for man to have a substantial symbol and ‘exterior sign which is but the figure and yet in reality contain the substance.'”

Giotto - Michelangelo

Giotto (c. 1266 – 1337) The Kiss of Judas, 1304–06, fresco in the Scrovegni Chapel, Padua
Michelangelo (1475-1564) Libyan Sibyl, 1511, Sistine Chapel, Vatican City

The development of the fine arts has not come about immediately; even in the Christian era we can see a progression in the arts toward their full flowering: “The progress of Christian Art (European Art, the Fine Arts) has always and steadily been toward the progressive freedom of form.”  In Schmitt’s understanding, this freedom involves  seeing things in all their dimensions, in what he calls “three planes.”  Aesthetically, “seeing” means that the artist’s vision must develop from the “picture plane” to movement “around a central axis.”  “The Oriental art (from which it springs) has always been quite static, i.e. ‘glued’ to the picture plane (if painting), ‘glued’ to the wall (if sculpture).  Practically all movement in Oriental applied art is confined to the superficial movement which two dimensions admit.”

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Temple of Concordia, c. 450-440 BC, Agrigento, Sicily
Giovanni Paolo Pannini or Panini (1691-1765) Interior of the Pantheon, Rome, oil on canvas, c. 1734, 50⅜ x 39 in. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Samuel H. Kress Collection

The unfolding of three planes has been particularly marked in the fine arts of painting, architecture and sculpture.  Schmitt points to Giotto “with his two planes and Michelangelo with the three planes” as milestones in the  full development of painting.  While the ancient Greeks perfected the exterior of the temple, architecture since the Romans “must primarily be a matter of interior space.”  And in contrast to the single perspective offered by the sculpture of the ancient Egyptians, “sculpture, since Michelangelo, must move in three planes around a central axis.”  

Egpytian sculpture - Michelangelo

King Menkaura (Mycerinus) and Queen, greywacke sandstone, c. 2500 BC, 56 in. high. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Michelangelo, Florence Pietà, marble, c. 1547-53, 89 in. high. Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence
Carl Schmitt considered this one of the great works of sculpture: “Form was freed, was felt to be able to move most fully with Michelangelo, and at the greatest degree with his last Pietà, the one in Florence” (1952).

Even now, however, the fine arts have not come to their full fruition.  “Christianity will have no great art until death enters consciously into the picture.  The Christian drama has yet to be realized.”

The “nostalgia” of modern art

“Faced as we seem to be today with a future of strains and stresses, we naturally look back, and quite pathetically try with varying success to imitate the single heart which created without ulterior motives the flat mosaic of Byzantium, the miniature of Persia, or the Flemish tapestry.  Except for men like Cézanne who are preeminent in their ability to face a dynamic future of reality, the bulk of European painting in our time has looked backward toward the youth of this art, and the cult of the primitive has led us even to the jungle.”   —Carl Schmitt, Europe and the Arts

Cezanne Apples - Schmitt Still Life side by side

Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) Rideau, Cruchon et Compotier, oil on canvas, 1893-94, 23½ × 28¾ in.
Carl Schmitt, Still Life with Apples, oil on canvas, c. 1932, 22 x 26 in.

Carl Schmitt did not object to “modern” art because it was new or contemporary, but because it was nostalgic.

When we think of modern art, most of us picture an abstract or non-representational painting, and we don’t know what to make of it.  Schmitt certainly understood this basic issue.  “The common person in looking for vision or appearance or likeness in a picture rather than expression, is in the main, right.”  He did not understand “the objection of the modern purist against optical similitude.  This attitude of hostility toward the ‘look of things’ on the part of many moderns would seem to me to be a kind of intellectual snobbery,” he wrote in his essay “The Aim of Painting.”  “To me, the most imaginative work should come as near the look of nature as possible, as any other attitude offends common sense.”

Not that every work of art must be strictly representational: Schmitt himself incorporated abstract elements into his own art.  However, “no matter how often I have leaned heavily upon abstraction, I always feel, when I do, that I have departed from the norm which universality demands.”  Abstraction was not “bad,” but it was only one part of the artist’s repertoire.  While Schmitt confesses that “I did full abstractions in my youth,” he makes it clear that “abstraction is only one side of art.  Art must be based on vision, not expressionism.”

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House in Silvermine, pastel on paper, 14 x 10 in.
Schmitt’s delight in the forms and colors of nature sometimes led him away from the strict representation of what he saw before him.

Schmitt’s fundamental issue with “modern” art, then, goes deeper than abstraction.  It also goes beyond the other objections against it most commonly heard today: its obsession with originality, its commercial aspect, or even the popular concept of art as “self-expression.”  Although he voiced all of these concerns, he saw them as symptoms rather than the essential problem.

For Carl Schmitt, art is an objective reality.  He saw art as “expressive,” but only if this means that the arts “express” transcendent realities.  In his book Europe and the Arts, he defines the arts as “those forms made by man, which have survived the ages, [and] have been the expression, or symbols, of a vital spiritual life.”  The notion of art as the expression of the artist’s personal, aesthetic, or political opinions was foreign to his thinking.

Schmitt, as we have seen, did see a role for the “personality” of the artist in the process of artistic creation.  Personality, however, must be understood in terms of the artist’s honest assessment of reality and his place in it rather than the exhibition of his personal ideas, let alone his subjective emotional state.   At worst, the modern artist “abandons himself to subjective abstractions which are generally autobiographical introspections, and this helps along the chaos.”

The problem with modern art was not “expressionism,” rightly understood, but what Schmitt called “orientalism.”  This he characterized as “the modern nostalgia, which looks back upon the early ingenuousness of painting and tries to recapture the naïveté of another more primitive age.”  “From Rouault to Picasso to African Sculpture, the reaction to Oriental applied art is evident.”  But, like primitive art, “modern art is too simple. It is applied art or functional art; it is but a sign or at best a prophecy.”  Like the pagan religions, modern art can only point to, but not embody, transcendent realities; it is a “return to the symbol alone without its transcendent reality, substance.”

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The “Little Red House”, oil on canvas, c. 1920, 18 x 22 in.

As with abstraction and expression, the mistake of the moderns was not to make too much of art, but too little.  In their struggle to free art from what they saw as the strictures of nature and custom through self-expression, they restricted it to serving ends lower than itself.  Rather than progressing toward a new future, Schmitt saw modern artists regressing to a stunted form of artistic “expression” which denied the arts their full transcendent significance.

How can art be more than a symbol?  How is it able to embody “transcendent reality”?  For Schmitt, the fine arts are possible only because of what he called “the revolution of Western Christian culture.”  More on this in our next post.