Carl Schmitt—The Artist

Carl Schmitt was an extraordinary painter who developed in his long career a unique aesthetic vision that assimilated traditional European approaches to art along with the modern movements. Through this integration he arrived at his own profound approach to painting with immediate success. His paintings in the early 1920s were widely appreciated in such important galleries as The Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., The Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, the Brooklyn Museum, The Art Institute of Chicago, the Butler Museum of Art in Youngstown, the Società Delle Belle Arti in Florence, Italy and numerous other better galleries and exhibition halls in New York City. His paintings now reside in many private collections.

Considered by some to be one of America’s foremost still life painters, Carl Schmitt created pictures that disclose a joy in life. His still lifes and his pastels, with their profound sense of form and color, cause one to wonder whether this artist was in touch with some secret of creation.

The Irish poet, Padraic Colum, who was also a close friend and admirer of Schmitt, described his encounter with this man’s paintings as “rapturous.” Schmitt gives us “colors so rich as to make us understand that the earth is not dull and inert, but is like a bouquet of flowers, or a casket of jewels.”

“Not painted by a human hand”

It was this recreation of the beauty of everyday things—imbuing them with rich, deep and subtle colors signaling a deeper reality—that seems to evoke from those who see Schmitt’s work the belief that here indeed is a remarkable artist. A noted observer at one of his exhibitions exclaimed: “These pictures were not painted by any human hand!” Through such praise, one sees through Schmitt’s eyes that a world imbued with beauty is not merely a dream but a necessary reality.

Schmitt intensely disliked spending the time required to prepare and exhibit in galleries, preferring to spend his time painting. Nothing diverted him from what he saw was necessary to realize his aesthetic vision. He would spend four to six hours a day painting, sometimes sleeping in his studio so that he could “…drink in the spirit of the painting before him, awaking with its muse.”

“The secret of painting,” Schmitt once wrote, “is to realize the ability of color to create forms.” These forms are the essences of all the arts, and an artist must pursue them with perseverance. To this end, guided by his own aesthetic intuition—the primary tool of the artist—he studied color in its artificial and natural states, while ever ready to draw on science in this, in order to work out new and better ways to unveil the world of forms. More than once he wished he had a scientist at hand who could help him determine more exactly the colors he needed. As he wrote in his diary in 1924, he was not so sure that this was really necessary, “as the eye can do well enough.” Yet he nevertheless confessed that here where it was appropriate, “one craves scientific objectivity.”

Influence of Robert Henri and Emil Carlsen

His teachers at The Chase School and the National Academy of Design, William Merritt Chase, Robert Henri and Emil Carlsen, further recognized Schmitt’s talents and dedication. Carlsen even offered to tutor Schmitt privately, but Schmitt’s independent spirit saw another route to travel.

He had been working out the underpinnings of an aesthetic theory and wanted to continue searching into the mysteries of painting and the arts. In this search, he took advantage of his talent for conversation, which was always stimulating and thought-provoking. He discussed literature and poetry with Hart Crane in his New York Studio or later with Padraic and Molly Colum in his Silvermine home; painting and sculpture with Hugo Robus on their hikes from New York to Boston or Washington, D.C., and again later with Solon Borglum or Robert Flaherty in the Silvermine Tavern. These exchanges, which revealed at their best Schmitt’s creative intellect, sincerity, wit and intense desire to discover the secrets of painting and the arts, bore fruit in both his art and his later essays on the fine arts, religion, politics, economics and history [See The Thinker].

Over his 80-year career, his pursuit after truth and beauty in art took him through at least four distinct styles. Always searching for a way to incarnate his vision, Schmitt saw his to be a path previously untrodden by any artist. Constantly experimenting with media, colors and their relationships on canvas, he looked to the Italian Renaissance sculptor and painter Michelangelo, to the Dutch painter Rembrandt, to the French painter CÚzanne and to the Modernists for their innovative approaches. These were his “mentors.” Still, he tested everything, while using his own aesthetic intuition as judge.

Preparation stage

His early paintings, in the years between 1907 and 1915, are beautiful examples of the popular Rembrandtesque style, which Schmitt had learned at the National Academy of Design. They portray both a strong sense of form and a controlling of the medium that does honor to both Rembrandt and his own teacher, Emil Carlsen. The colors are muted with brown dominating, chiaroscuro is prominent, and a quiet serenity pervades each picture. Schmitt continued in this style for several years, but a sense of something greater than simply copying another’s style, even if “the other” was Rembrandt, began to take hold in him.

He saw the aesthetic ideas of the moderns not as something to replace the traditions of the past, but something to join these traditions and thereby lead us into a new understanding of the arts and the world. The fundamental guide in this endeavor must be the “vision” of the artist—be he in music, literature, painting, sculpture or any of the seven fine arts. Schmitt considered “vision” to be an integrating and unifying factor between the past and the present, between the realist and the abstractionist, between the intellect and the senses. For Schmitt, vision is more than a momentary “seeing into” a reality. It is more than just a passing emotion. True vision reaches out from the core of the personality of the artist and grasps the substantial realities of truth, goodness and beauty within creation. As he wrote in one of his notebooks, “The artist must have absolute faith in the truth of his imaginative vision.”

The artist’s first stage

In the early 1920s, after a long and passionate search into the mysteries of painting, Schmitt came to his own vision of things. He described the first experience of this vision as “seeing the mountaintop, but with no clear path to get there.” He understood the basic direction for his inquiries, which involved a total immersion in the fullness of the imaginative vision. True vision plays out on three levels of the imagination: the lyric, the epic and the dynamic. It was a matter of seeing how these levels reveal themselves in paint that constituted the heart of Schmitt’s pursuits, an effort that took him through three extended stages. [For the artist's own description of these stages see his "Essay on Wind" in Writings by Schmitt]

Schmitt’s paintings do not readily reveal a clear path of inquiry, as he experimented with the depths to which he could take each of the three stages, painting now in one style, now in another. But through all this, he never lost sight of his goal: the portrayal in paint of his aesthetic vision of creation. His guides in this, besides those mentioned above, were his own intuition and reason coupled with his Christian faith, which clarified how he was to expand and extend his search into the fullness of reality.

Paul CÚzanne was a favorite of Schmitt’s. CÚzanne’s idea that all things in their solidity are made up of spheres, cones and cylinders, and his desire to capture the richness of color in ordinary things while keeping the nobility of the museum works greatly attracted Schmitt. But where CÚzanne felt he had never achieved his goal, Schmitt claimed to have seen a way to successfully portray on canvas the union between that nobility and ordinary life.

The bright and pure colors of the Impressionists also attracted Schmitt, though he believed that they caused a rupture in art by lessening the importance of form. Nonetheless, seeing their genius for color as an important advance in art, he soon adopted similar techniques, including those of the Pointillists, Georges Seurat and Paul Signac. Yet not painting with small dots, but by building form through small strokes and various layers of color, Schmitt acquired a luminosity of different colors similar to the Pointillists but with more solidity.

Combining the Impressionists’ and the Pointillists’ sense of the beauty of pure color, and the rhythmic shapes similar to those of Edvard Munch or Toulouse-Lautrec, and flattening the entire picture through the elimination of shadows—thus accentuating the purity of color—Schmitt came upon his first experimental stage, which he called “lyrical.” After viewing A Gift of Fruit, a painting done in the lyrical mode, a critic in 1926 wrote, “[It] combines the fundamentals which make for the endurance of the older types of painting and the exciting interplay of form and color which marks the newer movements.”

In lyrical art, the light falls equally upon all surfaces, thus eliminating all shadows, and revealing flatly colored yet vibrant shapes that curve and undulate, forming a tapestry of bright patterns across the picture surface. Schmitt turned to different variations of yellow for this first phase because of its inherently natural lyrical nature, and made it a mainstay of the lyrical palette.

Though in many ways immature, a lyrical work remains capable of great beauty and is fundamental to any further development. Schmitt says: “All art is born in lyricism, begins in color and must never lose its lyrical impulse no matter how far sustained.” By this, he did not intend to belittle a lyrical work simply on the ground of “immaturity,” but his vision showed him that a truly great work—of the caliber of a Michelangelo or a Rembrandt—has much more than the simple lyrical expression can offer. Realizing the limits of lyricism, he followed the dictates of his own aesthetic vision and continued searching into the mysteries of painting and the arts.

The epic dimension

Schmitt found the secrets of the next stage to lay in the spatial ideas of the late Medieval painter Giotto. He perceived that if a painting was to become more mature and true—two qualities of great art—the objects in it must gain a greater foothold in space. In Giotto, he found the color blue conveying this sense of space—just as yellow possesses an inherent lyricism. Therefore, blue came to be the dominant color of what Schmitt termed the epic stage—the second phase.

In producing this effect, Schmitt also added light falling across the forms to create shadows and space. Furthermore, he composed the objects in a space consisting of horizontal and vertical planes. These individual effects—the color, the light and the composition—combine for an overall effect of solidified forms, and thus expand the poetic impulse—without loss of the lyric—into a larger realm where shapes are more substantial, and forms (real or abstract) gain in import.

But Schmitt’s aesthetic vision directed him towards still higher ends. He was searching for the best solution to the problem of incarnating his vision. He had always pushed each stage to its utmost, hoping to understand as much as possible in preparation for his entrance into the third stage. In a 1928 letter to a friend, Schmitt touches on this process: “I have aimed at preparing myself for the transcendental—technically anything beyond the three dimensions.” Here Schmitt explicitly reveals the heights to which his vision was pulling him. He was not painting simply to make “pleasant pictures” but was searching to portray the fullness of beauty in his aesthetic vision.

In this same letter, Schmitt also spoke of “investigating everything possible” that would prepare himself for an eventual artistic expression of a more advanced stage. Included within this investigation was the exploration of various chemical compositions of paint that would render his work more lasting. In envisioning the physical world as representative of the transcendental, which necessarily embodies permanent traits, Schmitt believed his painting should also have the qualities of permanency.

The most durable medium that Schmitt found was beeswax, which, when mixed with paint, produces a unique, lasting quality. Even though in his early stages he experimented with a technique of blending layers of color, Schmitt then began to perfect a new technique of scraping or “sculpting” the various layers of paint to achieve the desired effect. This, in time, became his signature technique.

Still, he intuitively recognized there to be more to unleash beyond the epic phase. A great painting possesses a certain joie de vivre, an aspect of the lyrical, while delving into the very core of creation. This is an impossible task on the mere level of the epic.

Schmitt’s vision took him to that more profound level of the transcendental, spoken of above. He knew that this journey toward forms would also lead into the interior life of things. To paraphrase Gerard Manley Hopkins, the “inscape” is what matters most. “The vision,” Schmitt once wrote, “comes only with exact balance of form.” The fine arts thrive off the artist’s attempts to materialize this sense of form in various media, but to carry out this act involves a certain level of maturation in both art and artist. With this perseverance comes maturation, whereby the artist can achieve the third and final stage, which Schmitt called the “dramatic” or “dynamic” phase.

A vision fully realized

With the dramatic phase, the artist has reached the full flowering of his aesthetic vision, arriving at what Schmitt called the “climax of the picture.” The light that once was flat, then directed, is now internal and seems to illuminate the forms from within. The content of the picture, even if abstract, begins to reveal its inner beauty. “The dramatic essence is form per se, tangible, explicit,” explains Schmitt. This phase fulfills the intuitive longing of all artists, and he or she begins to understand something of the eternal. “It may be defined as the eternal…reality,” he says.

An amazing characteristic of Carl Schmitt’s paintings during this period appears in the dark, shadowy areas of his still lifes and the use of the diagonal or conal composition. Looking closely, one can see elements of red rising through the dark sculpted surface layer of modeled paint, giving the painting an overall glow and beauty that is unique. The color red, then, exemplifies and characterizes this last and most dynamic stage, with deep shadows playing a fundamental role, giving a dramatic existence to the forms.

“Void” is Schmitt’s name for the “area”—the nothingness—between the object (or form) and the space around it. Schmitt realized the void in his painting by “limiting colors and values.” Through such “limiting,” a painter can reach the “components” of the dramatic—“rhythm and characterization”—and achieve in his work an almost transcendental character. “[The major artist] has set off the form of lyricism with the form of the dramatic, which is void.”

With the discovery of the “void” and how to recreate it in paint, Carl Schmitt felt that he had begun to realize in his painting the vision that was his from the beginning. He knew that he would never rest until he had achieved some sort of success. Not success by the standards of the world. That mattered little to him. He was looking for artistic success as viewed by the Muse of Painting and thus success was on a transcendent level.

These three planes or phases of the artist, though they may sound separate, are really one. They differ only in degree not in kind. The three realities of the imagination—the lyric, the epic and the dramatic—are unified, wrote Schmitt. It is the strength of this unity that sustains all great art through the ages, allowing them to survive the changes of cultures and times by grasping the eternal.

In speaking of his theories, Schmitt admitted that his differed from most of what had gone before. Despite a wife and ten children, with no income other than that derived from his art, he stayed firmly on course. His convictions about “vision” were strong and his desire to reveal in paint that vision that he saw in the early 1920s was unalterable. “Beliefs,” he once wrote, “not opinions. No artist can be sustained for creative effort on such thin stuff as opinions.”

© Copyright 2004 Carl Schmitt Foundation