“Just look at it!”: Woman and Guardian Angel (1925)

CSF12311 - Woman and Guardian Angel

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).”

CSF12311 - detail of angel's head

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.

Woman and Guardian Angel: Sculpture “in the lowest relief”

CSF12311 - Woman and Guardian Angel

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).”

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.

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.

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

Carl Schmitt - Building a Boat (Croatia) - CSF43002 - from Scribners magazine

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.

Holy_Family - NO BORDER

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.

13239 - Gift_of_Fruit - CROPPED

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.

CSF44000

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.

“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?

CSF12101 - NEW

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.

CSF12206

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.”

Greek Temple - Pantheon 2

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.”