“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.

CSF12311 - detail of woman's head

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.

“Just look at it!”: St. Paul the Hermit (1922)

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St. Paul the Hermit and Allegorical Figure with a Rose, 1922, oil on canvas, 30 x 25 in.

A guest post by Carl B. Schmitt, Jr.

I once asked my father what that “allegorical figure with a rose” was.  His answer: “Just look at it.”  He never explained his paintings: he wanted others simply to enjoy them, to look with their own eyes.

The holy figure on the left was clear.  And since my father often coupled the pursuit of the good with the pursuit of beauty, I thought the mysterious figure on the right might stand for beauty, or possibly the arts.

It was only many years later that my father said something that showed me there is far more to this painting.  “There are two things you don’t fully realize until you’re eighty.  The first is how beautiful everything is, and the second is how passing it all is—all just nothing.”  Instead of facile explanations, his words put before me the mystery of beauty.  That’s what he wanted us to see and to enjoy.

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While we may not be artists, beauty is not foreign to us.  We are all drawn to beauty of a rose and pause to enjoy a rainbow or a sunset.  And when our attraction to someone or something beautiful turns to love, our love increases as we get to know that person or thing better, and we enjoy that, too.  Beauty is our birthright.

Enjoyment connects beauty with the good, and it increases as we get to know the truth of things.  Enjoyment always accompanies our growth in the knowledge and love of that which is truly good: to see more deeply into reality in this way is to enjoy it—and experience it as beautiful.

It is the good, the true, and the beautiful that connect the two figures in this painting.  The saint on the left, pursuing the good, is inseparable from the figure that represents the mystery of beauty.  Truth, goodness, and enjoyment of beauty are something we all experience in life itself.

Velasquez - Schmitt St Paul the Hermit

(left) Diego Velázquez (1599-1660), Saint Anthony Abbot and Saint Paul the Hermit, 1635, oil on canvas, 102 x 75½ in. Museo del Prado, Madrid.
(right) Carl Schmitt, St. Paul the Hermit, oil on canvas, c. 1922, 30 x 25 in. (Private collection)
Schmitt’s depiction of St. Paul of Thebes (d. c. 341) being fed miraculously by a raven was inspired by a painting of the saint by the great seventeenth-century Spanish master.  The enigmatic figure on the foreground is Schmitt’s own contribution.

But life is not simply the enjoyment of all that is good and true and beautiful, and here is where that “everything is passing” comes in.  It refers to all the negatives in life that stem from our limitations and mistakes—as well as those of others.  My father saw all of these “non-goods” in terms of the great good of life itself.  It is in all the fears, setbacks, and darkness that the true greatness of life is revealed.  These are the shadows and the voids my father combined with the brightly lit lyric forms to make his art real—and hence beautiful.

In this way, he shows that each of us can find a measure of joy, peace, and beauty by pausing long enough to see our own struggles in the light of the great goodness of life itself.  This is the real work that redeems life of its momentary anxieties and troubles.  And as my father reminds us, that takes a lifetime.

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Reprinted from the CSF News, Fall 2010.

“Just look at it!”: Deposition (c. 1933)

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Deposition, c. 1933, oil on canvas, 30 x 24 in.

A guest post by my late father, John S. Schmitt, written two years before his death in 2012.  The painting now hangs in the chapel he built for Trivium School. 

On the walls of my home I have a collection of fine works by Carl Schmitt, including two religious paintings.  It is one of these that I am proudest to own, to sit before and to think about.  It depicts the deposition of Christ, the taking down of his dead body from the cross.  Let me tell you some of the things I have delightfully discovered about the composition of this painting and how light reveals the values of the objects in the painting.

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Study for Deposition, pastel on paper, approx. 9 x 13 in.

At first glance, the arrangement of the composition is circular or, as the artist would put it, lyrical.  The huddled figures at the top with their supporting arms, the legs of the body, and the humble figure at the lower right constitute the principal shape of the painting.  Looking more closely, we see vertical structural elements, the hallmark of the epic: the arms gently but firmly supporting the weight of the dead body.  Finally, the angular forms in the contraposto of the body and the turn of the head, arms, and legs of Christ reveal dynamic or dramatic elements.  Thus both the lyrical and epic elements draw the eye to focus on the dramatic figure in the center.  The abstract and universal forms embedded in nature—the lyric, epic, and dramatic—are here brilliantly interwoven in a simple unity of mature and masterful composition.

Deposition - Gates Moore - Cropped and color corrected

Pieta, 1922, oil on canvas, 25 x 30 in.
A work inspired by the old masters both in its composition and in its use of contemporary dress, the latter unusual for Schmitt in a religious painting.

Along with the composition, the artist’s use of light to reveal form draws us into the contemplation of the reality before us.  It is light and dark which reveal all form.  The artist has delineated the form not only through his simple palette of the three primary colors but also the values of light and dark, most evident in the effulgence of light.  This light is truly mysterious.  Does it emanate from an unseen source outside the painting, or does it flow out from the sacred body itself?

Once again we are confronted with the mystery of the central figure in the painting.  And yet this aesthetically dynamic figure is a dead body!  Although surrounded by darkness, it seems to glow with a light beyond the power of nature.  As inspiring as the presence of light is in the painting, finally it is through the selective lack of light—what the artist called voids—that, paradoxically, reality is revealed for what it truly is.  Like the irony of the drama of the dead body at the center of the painting, the voids —the absence of light—serve an “ironic” or paradoxical function highlighting the significance of what is being depicted.

Thus this masterpiece allows us to glimpse what the physical eye alone is unable to perceive.  We realize something of the Grand Reality bodied forth in delightful contemplation of natural reason, faith, hope, and charity: the reality of the Incarnation in truth is represented.

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Reprinted from the CSF News, Fall 2010.  This painting was also featured in a post on the blog The Way of Beauty.

“Just look at it!”: Immanent Trinity Decoration (1924)

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Immanent Trinity Decoration, 1924, oil on canvas, 48 x 40 in.
The Novitiate of St. Isaac Jogues, Wernersville, Pennsylvania

This painting, along with his Nativity, is among Carl Schmitt’s largest religious paintings, and his most glorious.  It was done during Schmitt’s “tapestry” period, yet, like The Sower, moves beyond that ethos both in terms of artistic accomplishment and religious content.  

The work caught the eye of Mrs. Nicholas Brady, wife of one of the most prominent and wealthy Catholics in America, who purchased it for the novititate house she was building for the Jesuit order in Wernersville, Pennsylvania.  Mrs. Brady had already bought a smaller crucifixion Schmitt had done while in Chartres (see image below), and gave both to grace the new house, where they remain to this day. 

Contemporary reviewers of the painting appreciated its glorious color but were were puzzled by its title; as one critic wondered, “why ‘Trinity’ when apparently it represents only the Second Person?”  They also noted how odd it was to depict Christ’s crucifixion without the cross.  In this article Schmitt’s son Carl, Jr. ponders  the deeper content of the work, exploring both its title and its portrait of Christ. 

IMMANENT TRINITY DECORATION - detail of man's head

This is a most perplexing painting. As I’ve said on other occasions, whenever I offered an  explanation of one of my father’s paintings, he would always say, “Don’t make silly theories, just look at it.”

He meant, “If you are in any way attracted by it, look again, gaze at it, think about it, contemplate it. And then maybe you’ll see something more in it—and perhaps you’ll even begin to enjoy it.”

At a first look, we certainly are perplexed.  The main figure seems to be Christ crucified—but certainly not in a guise we are familiar with.  His arms are outstretched as if on a cross and he seems to be dying; but the cross itself is not there.  Wounded he is, but not in his feet, and though he has a halo, there’s no crown of thorns; it is also a bit startling to see his hair almost blond. And though we can see there a Mary, John, the Magdalene, and two angels, the setting itself hardly suggests that “place of the skull” we know as Calvary.

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Crucifixion, 1927, oil on canvas, 18 x 15 in.
The first of Schmitt’s works purchased by Mrs. Nicholas Brady, it is one of the few oil paintings he completed during his stay in Chartres with his family.

But the title at least supplies us with a clue: this is the immanent Christ.  This is, to be sure, most unusual, yet we can find its basis in the Gospel itself.  We have seen portrayals of Christ drawn from a multitude of Gospel scenes—all those Nativities and Madonnas and countless other depictions of the Savior’s life through his passion and death to his resurrection, ascension, and glory.  None of these can be said to portray an immanent  Christ.

Schmitt saw Christ in all of those ways, but the basis for his depiction of an immanent Christ can also be found in the Gospel. Christ, for Schmitt, was “true God and true man,” and this he continues to be, now and forever, the absolutely perfect union of the divine and the human.  In Biblical language the word adam means “man,” and for Schmitt, as he often pointed out, it was no  accident that Christ’s favorite name for himself was “the Son of Man.”

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Adam and Eve, c. 1930, oil on canvas, 38½ x 33¼ in.

Furthermore, who has not been moved by that passage in the Gospel when Christ refers to a moment in the last judgment when those he welcomes into his kingdom ask, “When did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or see thee thirsty and give thee to drink?” And the Lord will answer, “Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of these, the least of my brethren, you did it to me.”  And Christ gives a like response to those who were condemned.

In effect, Christ is potentially immanent in every man.  Pope John Paul II more than once said that Christ “has united Himself in some way with every man.”  Here is man not just in the universality of a word we use to assert a truth, but in the reality of the Word, which we likewise find asserted in the Gospel.  And likewise who has not heard that we are called to be “other Christs”?  Who has not been challenged by the effort to “see Christ” in others?

Schmitt has written that “The aim of art is to bear witness of the truth.”  He devoted his life as an artist to seeing reality as truly and deeply as he could in order to put it into his work, which he always thought of as simply a gift.  This is perhaps why he asked us simply to look at his paintings, in the hope that we might “in some way” be attracted enough to look again and see more deeply.

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Reprinted from the CSF News, Fall 2013.

“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.”

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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.

CSF12009 - detail of Madonna's face