“Just look at it!”: The Sower (c. 1937) and Via Crucis (c. 1936)

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The Sower, c. 1937, oil on hardboard, 24 x 19¾ in.

A guest post by Carl B. Schmitt, Jr.

These two paintings provide an occasion to clarify a confusion that people commonly have about Schmitt’s art: that it can be divided  into “religious” and “non-religious” works.  For Schmitt, all of his art was religious, including his portraits and still lifes.  Such categories force a division Schmitt himself never made in his art.  For Schmitt, beauty in art was fully and exclusively a human matter, portraying purely temporal, visible realities—things we all experience in our daily lives, whether we are religious believers or not.

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Via Crucis, c. 1936, oil on aluminum, 18 x 15 in.
This painting, with a frame by the artist’s brother Robert, was given by Carl Schmitt to Our Lady of Fatima Parish in Wilton, Connecticut.  It now hangs in the reconciliation room.

According to Schmitt, all the arts reflect the mystery of Life only to the extent that the artist captures the fullness of human experience in his work.  The great artists, Schmitt felt, were able to “see deeper” into reality—to contemplate it, to see the life of man and of nature in all its depth and mystery.

These two paintings can help us meet the challenge found in almost all of Schmitt’s work.  The content of The Sower and Via Crucis seems obvious enough: both are about Christ.  And yet this is hardly the whole story.

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The Sower, 1937, Conte crayon on paper, 18 x 14 in.

A first look at The Sower might raise the question: Why is Christ portrayed as a farmer?  He was a carpenter and probably never sowed any seed in a field.  But this is not simply a picture of Christ.  Rather, it represents all of us in our basic human condition, the condition that was not erased, but embraced and perfected by Christ.  The artist challenges us, under the spell of beauty we find in his work, to see this fullness of reality.

The image of the sower makes us reflect that all good—any good—is naturally diffusive of  itself.  Every time we experience anything good in the course of our day, we desire to spread it around, tell it to others, to be “sowers” of the good word.  Can we see more deeply still?  Is not our love of the good (even the small goods of our daily lives) and our desire to share it a sign of our love for others?  The Christ in this painting is each one of us.  Even if Christ’s parable has a primary reference to spreading the seed of his word, it builds upon and perfects our natural desire to share the good with others.

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Carrying the Cross, 1922, etching, 7 x 13 in.
One of two etchings given by Schmitt to Hiliare Belloc in August, 1923

We again meet a perplexity upon seeing the Via Crucis.  Here, Christ wears no crown of thorns, indeed, there is no blood—nothing to suggest the bowed and suffering servant.  Instead, he is shown resolutely striding ahead to his own crucifixion with manful vigor.  The contrast with traditional depictions is a bit startling, perhaps even shocking.  As with The Sower, we are invited to go deeper and perceive something that is universal to all men.

“Greater love than this no man has, than to lay down his life for his friends”: Christ said this of his own sacrifice on the cross.  But consider how every Marine—and not necessarily a Christian—is ready to sacrifice himself to save the life of his buddy under fire.  And this readiness to sacrifice is also seen in the many small and loving acts we do for others without a thought of the cost.

The beauty of Schmitt’s paintings stems from his profound vision of human reality.  Their beauty lures us to stay and look again.  But he considered the beauty of his work a small reflection of the deeper reality—and with it, the beauty and joy—we can find if we but respond to the invitation to learn how to stop, enjoy, and contemplate.

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Reprinted from the CSF News, Winter 2012.

Wisdom on Wednesdays—It takes three

“The dialogue, so much in the popular speech today, exists seemingly as a final court of appeal.  Such an attitude is only possible where the third party, Christ, is unseen.  As a matter of reality, Christ is always present, and when we become aware at last of his presence, the trialogue takes the place of the dialogue.”  (1964)

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The Visitation, dated August 11, 1921, pastel on paper

The Flowering of One’s Roots

A wonderful article by Bridget Skidd, a recent graduate of Thomas More College in Manchester, New Hampshire, on her search not only for a long-lost painting, but her place in the Catholic tradition.  While in England studying the Catholic Literary Revival,

Through word of mouth I had heard that a painting by my great grandfather, Carl Schmitt, was ‘somewhere in Oxford.’ With no idea of the subject of the painting except that it was religious, and unsure of which of the many houses and colleges might be the home, I set out on my search.

Read the rest here: The Flowering of One’s Roots.

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Resurrection, c. 1940.
This painting is very similar to one of the same name bought by Schmitt’s good friend John Cavanaugh in the 1940s and now owned by the C. Michael Schmitt family.

On This Day: July 22, 1928—“Carl Schmitt is doing things that are unique in America today”

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Building a Boat, gum arabic print, 1929.
“With Korčula in the background—a white city shimmering in the subtropical sun.”
One of a series of prints Schmitt executed for his article “Korčula, On the Adriatic,” published in the February 1929 issue of Scribners Magazine. Another print in this series, The Chapel, is currently on the New Canaan Historical Society exhibit On Canvas, Paper & Board—Works by The Silvermine Group of Artists, now showing through August 5, 2014.

In the summer of 1928, Ada Rainey, art critic at the Washington Post, wrote a profile of the Silvermine colony, calling it “one of the most creative and unique among all the art colonies.”   This is due in large part, she notes, to the fact that “practically all the artist own their own homes, there being practically no transient artists…Consequently there is a stable population which is entirely different from many artist colonies where artists congregate to merely study or paint throughout the summer without any serious interest in the community.”

Rainey highlighted the work of a number of the better-known artists in the colony, including Carl Schmitt, Bernhard Gutmann, and the architect Alfred Mausolff.  (As if to show the closeness of the Silvermine community, Gutmann was a close friend of Schmitt’s, while Mausolff was the husband of his wife’s sister Margherita.)  

Rainey’s discussion of Schmitt’s art appears below.

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Holy Family—Gothic Decoration, oil on canvas, 1922 (a contemporary black-and-white photograph).
A companion to the artist’s his larger Nativity. A critic for the New York Times wrote of this pair of Schmitt paintings: “[they] are permeated with a tenderness and richness of devotional feeling only equaled in the work of Maurice Denis, and embodied in a less intricate design.”

Of the individual members [of the Silvermine colony], a great deal could be written, for they are producing artists who are truly original.

There is, for instance, Carl Schmitt, who is doing things that are unique in America today. There are few artists today in America who are painting canvasses of real spiritual import.  Religious is a term which means frequently theological dogma, which can by no stretch of the imagination be applied to the painting of Carl Schmitt.  Rather are his creations concerned with the universal feeling of man for his origins and the desire to understand this relationship.

Although the title of some of his paintings are, for instance, “Peter the Hermit,” “Holy Family,” “Celestial Thought of Motherhood,” yet there is no hint of the conventional treatment that we are familiar with in the old Italian paintings.  Rather we find a new approach through the imagination of the artist who is moved by universal themes and must express the surge of feeling that comes to man when he thinks of the infinite and the expression of this power in the lives of men and women.

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A Gift of Fruit, oil on canvas, 1926 (a contemporary black-and-white photograph).
Frank Jewett Mather, professor of art at Princeton University and a leading art critic of the day (and one of the few admired by Schmitt), wrote of the work, “It is a celestial thought of motherhood treated with a delightful levity and joyousness.”

This is the deepest feeling and the most universal that can be expressed through the brush of the painter and one which all art lends itself to express.  Seldom is the American artist bold enough to concern himself with these profound themes.  The plea has been that the public is not interested in such themes, but now there is a swing of the pendulum to the deep feelings.

Mr. Schmitt has a language which is tremendously interesting in itself and which is commanding greater and greater interest in art circles.  He has rich luminous color, which is in no way exaggerated, a fine sense of composition, his figures are woven into a pattern that has organic unity, the whole welded into a beauty and power through the strength of his imagination.

The artist is now coming into his own and his paintings are in great demand for exhibitions throughout the country.  “Muses in the Valley,” exhibited in the last exhibition of the Chicago Art Institute, has just been sold [this evidently refers to A Gift of Fruit, exhibited and sold in 1927], as has another painting of a “Madonna and Child,” with primitive treatment in pastel.

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Head in marble, c. 1924.
Regrettably, Carl Schmitt’s only finished work of sculpture.

Most of his paintings are in oil in which he does his best work.  However, he is not confined to this medium, as an exquisitely beautiful head has just been chiseled out of marble, which is rhythmically beautiful and significant. This is a new field in which the artist has begun to work, which if he continues to be as successful in as this first attempt he will go far toward becoming a sculptor of great plastic power.

Mr. Schmitt has a sense of form which is powerfully expressive.  He is now working on a series of illustrations for an article on the “Cities of Dalmatia.”  The significant element in his work is that fact that he is an artist who works exclusively from the vision of his inner nature and is in no way objective or external, but is profoundly introspective and is seeking to express his feeling directed by philosophical thought of the great realities of life and the universe.

A Vista of the Cathedral (Korčula, Dalmatia), gum arabic print,1929.
Another in the series published in Scribners, February 1929.

Wisdom on Wednesdays—Desire and the gift

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Woman and Guardian Angel, oil on canvas on board, 1925, 30 x 25 in.
A recent gift to the Foundation from the grandniece of John Kenneth Byard, one of Carl Schmitt’s early patrons.

“We can only get a gift from God by drawing it to us through desire.  We cannot get it at any time, but only at that precise moment when our soul is consumed with desire for that particular gift.  Thus only is suffering to be understood.  The deeper the suffering, the emptier the soul, the higher the gift.

“The ultimate gift, Hope, can only be wanted when we despair sufficiently.  Today we do not yet despair sufficiently—it is a half-way affair, clinging to an old faith like a fairy-tale.  Only when we are honest enough to acknowledge our very patent loss of faith, can we recover it again through Hope and Love.  Faith, you must know, has died though lack of love.  We must go manfully on to desperation.”  (1939)