“Just look at it!”: Anno Domini 1941 (1941)

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Anno Domini 1941, 1941, oil on hardboard, 18 x 23½ in.

A guest post by Carl B. Schmitt, Jr.

Carl Schmitt painted this still life for an exhibition in New York in 1941.  The invited artists were asked to comment on the imminent possibility of the nation’s entrance into World War II, already raging in Europe and the Far East.  The exhibition itself featured paintings showing  a variety of attitudes toward war in general and the issues the artists felt were at stake in this war.

I suspect that my father found the decision of what to paint for this exhibit an unusual challenge.  His whole artistic drive had been directed toward representing a view of man and his destiny in fundamental terms.  He strove to capture the beauty of things in his art, and this meant seeing reality in all its mystery.  The result is another of his wonderful still lifes which, like all his paintings, he left for others simply to enjoy and find in it what they may.

Anno Domini 1941 detail and Botticelli

Carl Schmitt, Anno Domini 1941 (detail) and Botticelli Madonna and Child with St. John the Baptist (detail), tempera on panel, 1468 (Musée du Louvre, Paris).

The “comment” in the painting  can be found in the way the two model airplanes partially obscure the Madonna and Child in the triptych.  But the two planes themselves also suggest that Schmitt had in mind a larger cultural context than the Second World War: one is indeed a war plane, but the other is not.  Together they may be taken as representing our culture’s devotion to the pursuit of knowledge for the sake of making things, which in turn is done for the sake of making money.  This is the true devotion that characterizes our culture, to the point that the highest realities are obscured.

Schmitt didn’t object to producing “useful” things; they serve great social needs.  But alongside social values stand two more important ones: family and ultimately the person.  In Schmitt’s triune vision of reality, these three are seen in terms of origins, means, and ends—the family dealing with man’s origins, society with the means, and person with ends.  The person is paramount, for ultimately only the individual person thinks and loves, thereby making the choices that lead through family and social life to his true end.

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Still Life, c. 1947, oil on hardboard, 10 x 12 in.
Carl Schmitt was reluctant to explain his work, writing in 1922, “the artist is filled with the desire to express through vision alone. When he speaks, it is with the good (though perhaps unfortunate) intention of bridging, however inadequately, the gap which exists between the aesthetic and rationalistic extremes. When he speaks he is painfully aware of the strangeness of his medium and that his muse is displeased at the digression.”

This painting, then, encompasses Schmitt’s triune vision in a single beautiful work that “comments” on our current cultural situation.  Schmitt saw our culture as so devoted to the means that origins and ends are lost sight of: we thus find it difficult to maintain what family can be and what role the individual person might play in our culture in a fully human way.  Schmitt summed up his attitude in his essay “And / Or” from 1943: “When our fellow men are so immersed in means that they can admit of nothing but the exclusion of ends and origins—when ‘truth’ is pursued at the complete exclusion of beauty and goodness, and when wealth alone is valid to the exclusion of all else, it would seem that only catastrophe would bring man to his senses.  For only the humiliated and impoverished man is capable of those inclusions which make him once more human.”

Although Carl Schmitt painted this work in response to a specific request as to its content, he did something more. In characteristic fashion he produced a painting of quiet and intriguing beauty.  If the viewer looks at it and then ponders it more deeply, he may just catch the gentle irony in it—and some of the wisdom behind it.

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Reprinted from the CSF News, Summer 2012.

“Just look at it!”: Bread, Wine, and Knife (1987)

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Bread, Wine, and Knife, 1989, oil on hardboard, 7 x 9 in.

A guest post by Carl B. Schmitt, Jr.

This painting was Carl Schmitt’s last, done close to the end of an extraordinary life.  Yet it may just be the most ordinary of his many still lifes.

The painting is austere, with little of the stunning beauty of many of his other works.  The bottle of wine, the chunks of bread, and a kitchen knife are ordinary indeed—even stark in their separateness.  Yet this very plainness invites a second look and draws us to contemplate: the painting bespeaks the depths to be found in the ordinary.

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Madonna with Black Head-dress or Dalmatian Mother, oil on canvas, 1926, 24 x 20 in.

The fact that Schmitt gave the work no title reminds me of another painting, discussed earlier here, to which he gave two titles—“Madonna with Kerchief” and “Dalmatian Mother.”  I noted that there was no duplicity in this, because Schmitt’s vision of reality reflected his belief in Christ as God incarnate, one divine person with two complete natures, divine and human.  Schmitt never tired of pointing out how this meant that Christ was fully man in all of man’s created mystery, for the artist must deal with human life in this world—the life Christ shared with the rest of us—showing how human life in its fullest embraces all created reality. It was there, in the ordinary that you and I know so well, that he found the beauty he strove to realize in his art.

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Madonna of the Milk Bottle, 1930

This is why Schmitt was totally unabashed about inserting the sublime into the ordinary in a most natural and normal way.  Many of his madonnas were really portraits of his wife with one of their children.  His Madonna of the Milk Bottle may well be the only one that ever depicted Mary and her Child in this way.  Years ago, I asked him to paint a “St. Nicholas” for me. He was just finishing a self-portrait and simply painted in a miter and a crozier.  “That’s not St. Nicholas!” I vigorously protested, “St. Nicholas had a beard!”  He answered, “How do you know?  This will do.”  I was happy to get my painting at least, but as I walked away with it, my thought was that perhaps he was trying to tell me something: that a saint can be seen in any man who is striving to be a child of God.

Schmitt discerned the beauty of each of the stages that make up an ordinary life: we have spoken before of how he combined the lyric, epic, and dramatic aspects of life into his art.  He saw the dramatic as the key to the fullness of beauty, for it is there that life triumphs over death.  Schmitt’s faith found the prototype for this most powerfully in Christ’s death and resurrection.

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Loaf of Bread, 1947, oil on hardboard, 12 x 14 in.
A painting from fifty years earlier featuring many of the same motifs as Schmitt’s final work.

What makes this painting special, however, is not simply that it includes all three aspects that mark it as a late work, but that the painting puts that entire story before us.  The knife between the wine and the bread presents symbolically the sacrificial death in which Christ’s body was drained of its blood—almost too dramatically inserting that great “mystery of faith” into the ordinary.

All this I finally saw only when my sister told me it was the last painting he ever did, one he felt he had to do despite his failing eyesight.  It was for him a kind of summation of his life and work as an artist, and if he had given it a title, it might just have been “The Mass.”

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Reprinted from the CSF News, Spring 2011.

“Just look at it!”: Pumpkin with Iron Pot (1914)

A guest post by Jacob A. Schmitt

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Carl Schmitt, Pumpkin with Iron Pot, c. 1914, oil on canvas, 20 x 20 in.
Florence Griswold Museum, Old, Lyme Connecticut

Carl Schmitt’s earliest professional work was done from the time he graduated from the National Academy of Design in New York at the age of twenty-one, through to about 1914, when he left to finish his studies in Florence, Italy.  Here we see the influence of his teachers at the Academy, especially the Danish-born still life master Emil Carlsen (1853-1932), whom he admired perhaps more than any other instructor.

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Emil Carlsen, The Copper Pot, 1931, oil on canvas, 18 x 18 in.
Private collection.

The handling of light is the focus of this early stage. Although the quality of light appears throughout all of Schmitt’s work, here light contrasts with darkness in more traditional ways.  Unlike his other paintings, these early works do not reveal his usual characteristics where rhythmic forms, lyrical design, bright colors, spatial values, and dramatic focus are constructed out of layers of various modeled and glazed colors.  Instead, the painting strokes themselves create the form.

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Pumpkin with Iron Pot displays Carlsen’s simplicity of flat pattern design seen in the pot and backdrop differentiated by the brilliance of light in the cloth and pieces of pumpkin.  It has a quality of light similar to what Schmitt often spoke of as the genius of the eighteenth-century still-life painter Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, that of revealing the beauty of soft light falling on an object, especially bottles.

(c) Glasgow Museums; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Chardin, Still Life, c. 1730, oil on canvas, 11 x 14½ in.
The Burrell Collection, Glasgow
© Glasgow Museums; supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Perhaps this is where Schmitt learned to love the quality of old glass bottles seen in so many of his later still lifes.  He obtained specimens of this glass from various shops during his travels and from foundations of old ruined houses he came upon during his walks around Silvermine.  To enhance that quality of light on these bottles, he took care not to disturb the dust that would collect on them, especially after he had set them carefully in a still life arrangement.  These bottles may still be found in the studio in Silvermine.

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Pumpkin with Iron Pot was in the artist’s possession until the early 1980s, when it was acquired by the Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company as an addition to its collection of paintings and other works by Connecticut artists.  In 2001, the Company gave its entire collection to the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, Connecticut.  The museum included Schmitt’s painting in an exhibition of works from the Hartford Steam Boiler Collection the following year and featured it in its illustrated catalog, The American Artist in Connecticut.

Tracing Carl Schmitt’s “lost” paintings

Over the past few years, people from as far away as Hawaii have contacted me, eager to tell about the work of Carl Schmitt that they own.  Naturally, I am gratified to hear of those who appreciate Carl Schmitt and want to learn more about his work and further his legacy.  More importantly, those who contact the CSF in this way do a tremendous service to everyone interested in Schmitt.

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Study for “Reading,” 1936, pastel on paper, 23 x 19 in.
A pastel sketch of the artist’s wife Gertrude (sitting) and her close friend Margaret Ryan, later executed as an oil painting for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the mid-1930s. The location of the oil painting remains unknown. 

Although the Foundation makes every possible effort to locate Schmitt’s unknown works, many are effectively “lost,” or untraceable, and will remain so until the owners themselves contact the Foundation.  The photographic record, as well as details about Schmitt’s works (dimensions, signature, date and other markings) supplied by these individuals are invaluable in building up our catalog raisonné, revealing more of the artist’s stylistic development and his contribution to art in the twentieth century.  For this we are very grateful.

Schmitt’s “lost” works include paintings, pastels, etchings, and drawings; most date from the first half of his career (1906-1940).  The Foundation’s archives hold valuable clues that can help in the search, including exhibition history, critical reviews and other press reports, the last known owner, and in a few cases, photographs of the work.  We will explore this record in the next few weeks, highlighting his imaginative and religious paintings. We will also be looking works which have been “found” by those who have contacted the Foundation with information about their painting or pastel.

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Still Life, oil on canvas, signed lower left: “S/1936”
One of three still life paintings done for the WPA in the mid-1930s.

In this post we focus on some of Schmitt’s early works, culminating in an important portrait commission from the 1930s.

Opus Minor No. 1, 1911 (15 x 18 in.) — An early still life, described as a “beautiful painting done in dark tones,” it was  Schmitt’s first work to be accepted by a major national exhibition.  The eminent still life master and Schmitt’s former teacher, Emil Carlsen, “highly praised” the work when it was shown at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in February and March of 1912. The painting was later shown at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Art Academy of Indianapolis before being bought by the Youngstown architect Charles F. Owsley.  (Owsley also commissioned a pastel portrait of his son from Schmitt, now unlocated.)

early still life (pot, egg, garlics) (faded)

One of Schmitt’s early still lifes, possibly Opus Minor No. 1 or another entitled Study (1912), from a photograph in the Carl Schmitt Foundation archives.

Aspiration – Symbolic Decoration, 1912 (oil over tempera) — This work was commissioned by W. D. Packard of Warren, Ohio, founder of the Packard Motor Car Company.  Packard was so pleased with the work that he commissioned a second painting the following year, Shadow Dance – Rondeau.  Packard also commissioned Schmitt to paint his own portrait, which was to hang in the office of the park he left to the city.  No trace of any of these paintings has been found.

Ruth, 1916 (oil on board, 25 x 30 in.) — One of several commissioned portraits Schmitt did for well-to-do citizens in his hometown of Warren, Ohio, and the surrounding area in the early years of his career. This painting, a portrait of the young daughter of a doctor from Youngstown, is his only known oval painting.

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Ruth, 1916, oil on board, 25 x 30 in.
The frame is an early example of the work of Carl’s brother Robert, who had recently completed his apprenticeship with Herman Dudley Murphy at the famed Carrig-Rohane shop in Boston.

God’s Garden, 1916 — While no known photograph of the painting exists, a reviewer described it in the following terms: “outlined against a yellow ship’s sail and a gray sky is a group of three or four figures: they are on elevated ground, at the foot of which may be glimpsed a bit of deep blue ocean. In the dress of the figures and in other externals there is a suggestion of the Greek: the idea suggests the fortunate isles.”  Schmitt himself said of the painting, “In that land there is wonderful dawn without dark night to precede it–light is understood without shadow. It is the land in which the human heart finds a release from the puzzling paradox–life in the flesh.”

In 1920, the painting was bought by Samuel Prentiss of Winona, Minnesota, a former client of Schmitt’s father-in-law, the architect Austin W. Lord.  Lord had designed a handsome Georgian mansion for Prentiss in 1912, one of a pair built for him and his brother-in-law Frederick Bell.  The house was recently restored.

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Dusting, c. 1934, oil on canvas
One of six paintings done for the Works Progress Administration.

Paintings and pastels done for the Works Progress Administration, 1934 — Schmitt executed six works in oil for the Depression-era program: three still lifes, one imaginative, one portrait and one religious painting. He also completed eight pastels.

The state of Connecticut distributed these works to various state institutions, including sanatoriums, hospitals, and colleges.  All of the institutions to which Schmitt’s paintings were dispersed have since closed or been transferred to different agencies, and the artwork has been lost long the way.  The Connecticut State Library’s WPA Art Inventory Project has been trying to track down and recover these works through a database with information on the artwork from WPA files, including the work of Carl Schmitt.

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Tanagra and Vase, two versions, both oil on canvas, c. 1934.
The painting on the right (taken from a contemporary black-and-white photograph) was done for the WPA; its companion on the left, done around the same time, is owned by one of Schmitt’s grandsons.

Portrait of Zell Hart Deming, 1937 — Deming, owner and editor of Schmitt’s hometown newspaper, the Warren Tribune, was the first of Schmitt’s patrons and a life-long friend.  The first editor-owner of an American newspaper and the first woman to be a member of the Associated Press, Deming funded Schmitt’s study in New York at the National Academy and his trip to Italy a few years later.  Over the years she purchased or arranged the sales of over twenty of Schmitt’s oil paintings and dozens of his pastels, etchings, and drawings.  She also introduced Schmitt to her godson, the poet Hart Crane, and helped arrange Schmitt’s guardianship of Crane in New York in the early months of 1916.

Zell Hart Deming 1936, oil on canvas, signed “Carl Schmitt/1937” upper right 
A newspaper in nearby Youngstown wrote that the “portrait faithfully captures Mrs. Deming’s personality, which was characterized by her forceful yet kindly manner.  Schmitt knew her for many years and spent several months painting the portrait.”

The newspaper commissioned Schmitt to paint this portrait for its offices as a posthumous tribute.   The Tribune article announcing the hanging of the painting reads much like earlier congratulatory pieces published by Deming herself:

“The painting is the work of Carl Schmitt of Silvermine, Conn. (son of Prof. and Mrs. Jacob Schmitt of this city) who was most fortunately adapted to the task by reason of his long acquaintance with Mrs. Deming, in addition to his outstanding qualities as a portraitist. From the time he embarked on his artistic career as a boy, here in Warren, Mrs. Deming recognized Mr. Schmitt’s talent and the possibilities inherent in it, and thruout her life she continued in a very real sense to be his patron.”

An inquiry to the newspaper as to its whereabouts proved fruitless.  Schmitt produced two versions based on the same photograph, one shown here and another now in the Carl Schmitt Foundation studios.

Next week we look at several “imaginative” paintings from the 1920s whose locations remain unknown.

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Thinking in Threes—Beauty in the beheld

A guest post by Carl B. Schmitt, Jr.

Have you ever come upon one of those discussions about whether beauty is objective or subjective?  Carl Schmitt went beyond dichotomies of this kind, seeing in them our culture’s tendency to get stuck in “dualisms.”  He favored what he called “trinal thinking” as the only fully human way for man to deal with the realities that confront him and to order his life in a truly satisfactory way.

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Carl Schmitt, Annunciation. Oil on canvas, c. 1922, 20 x 24 in.

Trinal thinking involves more than going from one to two to three: the “three” incorporates one and two.  It finds application when we experience reality outside of ourselves.  When I say, “That rose is beautiful,” it is the “I” as a subject that perceives the beauty, yet the beauty is found in a something that I actually see.

Trinal thinking credits both sides, raising the subject/object dualism to the level where we see what beauty is in itself.  Along with Beauty, trinal thinking applies to Truth and Goodness as well: all three involve going more deeply into the realities we encounter every day in our drive for meaning and happiness.

In the case of Truth, the intellect proceeds through the triad of Knowledge, Understanding, and Wisdom.  While we can always pile up more and more knowledge, it is more important to accompany this with understanding.  The insights gained from understanding then lead to wisdom, by which we are open to what transcends and encompasses all reality. There is another triadic progress involving Goodness and the will, how we choose and order our loves.

Carl Schmitt, Annunciation, and Sandro Botticelli (c. 1445-1510), “Cestello” Annunciation, c. 1489-90 (Uffizi Gallery, Florence).

Beauty is special in that, though it deals with reality as does truth and goodness, it never leaves behind the material aspect of reality, either in its subjective or objective levels.  On the subjective level, beauty as perceived by man involves his senses and imagination right along with his intellectual powers to know and love and choose—and this gives rise to feelings and emotions as well.  On the objective level, the material and spiritual unity in the beauty of the object itself gives rise to the mystery of reality.

When a man says, “Look at that attractive woman,” the person he’s speaking to may caution, “Be careful; her beauty is only skin deep.”  Man is capable of seeing more deeply.  And if he pursues it (or her) and gets to know her better and can start to appreciate many qualities she has, he may come to realize that “She really is a very beautiful person.”  Even the tiniest experience of beauty can gently remind us of—and even confront us with—the mystery of reality, in both the object and the subject.  Beauty, in short, is always mysterious.

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Anno Domini 1941, oil on hardboard, 1941, 14 x 18 in.

Schmitt strove to create works that would be beautiful, to place that mystery of reality before us.  The painting shown here, entitled Anno Domini 1941, stands as a comment on our modern culture.  The two airplanes in the painting may be seen as representing our devotion to the pursuit of knowledge solely to produce things that make money, to the point that the highest realities are obscured.  This painting is certainly a beautiful still life, yet if the viewer continues to gaze and ponder it, he may just catch the gentle irony in it—and some of the wisdom behind it.

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Carl Schmitt, Anno Domini 1941 (detail) and Botticelli Madonna and Child with St. John the Baptist, tempera on panel, 1468 (Musée du Louvre, Paris).

Further commentary on Anno Domini 1941 can be found in the Summer 2012 issue of the CSF News.