A Painting by Carl Schmitt
Carl Schmitt, Jr.
At first, it strikes viewers with its richness of color, with the light, the mysterious subject. Then they grow perplexed: “What is it?” It might be the Annunciation. But where is the archangel Gabriel? What is the Virgin doing? If it is not an Annunciation, what is it?
Eclipse by Carl Schmitt (1889-1989), private collection.
Carl Schmitt never explained his paintings: “Just look at it,” he would say. Looking is the start of understanding. He produced beautiful works for our enjoyment—though not merely for the superficial appreciation of beauty for its own sake. For Schmitt, beauty sprang from the enjoyment that comes with the contemplation of being: the Scholastics’ id quod visum placet. But that turn of phrase barely introduces us to the mystery of beauty. The artist’s task is to put that mystery before us. True art and true beauty invite us to look again, to see deeper, to contemplate.
But how can a single painting, a created thing, encompass this whole? A true work of art is more than paint and canvas. In showing us some aspect of reality, it presents a set of particular and finite beings—angels, saints, suns, moons, bowls of fruit—but all therein are artistically composed into a single proportional unity. It may be finite, a “something,” but by showing the mystery of beauty that is founded on the mystery of reality, it is truly unique.
Schmitt devoted his life to this task. Beauty’s mystery lies in its universality, for we only first perceive it in the particular and specific. Things are signposts pointing to the beauty that is the divine reality of heaven. Schmitt believed he had to deepen his vision of reality in order to “see a world in a Grain of Sand / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,” as William Blake once wrote.
Schmitt’s was no easy life. He lived in an age in which art and culture had lost this vision. As Schmitt’s eighth son, I grew up seeing a penniless artist struggle to balance his duties to a large family and his pursuit of beauty. It was heroic. And unlike many other artists, he drew his strength from his equally heroic wife, the mother of his ten children: my mother.
Unlike his other works, Eclipse specifically speaks to the artist’s search for beauty. The small eclipse shown in the painting, to the Virgin’s left, serves as a sign for the eclipse of the Incarnation. Mary is shown after the Angel Gabriel has delivered his message, at the moment when the Son “emptied himself of his glory” and entered into the Virgin’s womb, eclipsing his divinity by his humanity for our sake.
Artistic beauty is only possible because of the Incarnation. In this world, we cannot see God’s supreme beauty: We can only find our way to it through the light of faith. Through the Incarnation, we may now experience God in this world through our own discovery of the beauty in people and things.
All efforts of the artist to achieve beauty in his work are carried out under this eclipse. Christ, who draws all things to himself, is mediator between God and man, and also between man and the beauty of creation. Love of Christ helps us see the world’s beauty anew. This multiform beauty, illuminated by the Holy Spirit—shown in the painting as a triune blaze of light—is most potently illustrated by the varied colors of the Virgin’s raiment. Rather than her traditional blue and red, the light on her cloak is split into varied shades and shadows. And there is a touch of Lenten violet on her sleeves: We move from Incarnation to the second eclipse of the Crucifixion, and we may even glimpse the rent curtain of the temple down below, if we look closely enough.
Yet there is a third eclipse, that of the artist—and with him, all men. We find this third eclipse in the collection of shapes that surround the Virgin.
As a child, I wondered why my father often depicted dark clouds fringed with light. On looking deeper, I realize we see in them a third eclipse, that of art itself: the death of pride inherent in true art. We might recall the great achievements of pre-Christian art, not only those of the Classical epoch, but of all pre-Christian art down to the magnificent primitivism of Lascaux. These artists all groped towards the beauty of heaven. Man is naturally religious, and Schmitt could see in this honest struggle the worth of their work.
Schmitt once remarked that in the muddled modern world, the artist must become a disciple of the best of his forebears. Drawing from wherever he could find beauty, he sought to take the best of these pre-Christian masters and bring it to God’s service. Even if they had known nothing of the God-Man, there was some truth in their myths of gods and men. For Schmitt, Christ had redeemed even their stories, and so he even dared to call Christ “the perfect myth”—the God who became the pro¬totypical (and sinless) man in his love for creation itself.
The clouds that surround the Virgin in this painting drift about the sky, in contrast with the humble shapes below that make their way towards the torn curtain. The clouds are blessed with natural movement and natural light from God. Falling on the humble forms below is the divine light of grace, that same light that falls on Our Lady, even if much diluted. These forms are the rest of us, making our way in faith, not aimlessly but purposefully, towards the void that is Christ's death. It is a more humble way than that of the clouds, for it involves the eclipse of pride—the third eclipse—that opens us to charity so that we may be one with Christ in his eclipse. The forms share the same natural aspiration that moves all men, but they are sustained by the grace of hope.
Schmitt knew his salvation took absolute priority over his art. But it was only in Christ that he could love all things and put their beauty into his art. He once confided to me that while we all have to struggle, his particular struggle was to keep his eye on Christ first. He couldn’t paint unless he learned to love Christ. But he couldn’t love Christ if he did so only to paint. It was this passion for putting beauty into his work that drove him to strive for holiness in life. Even when going through his studio notes, mostly dealing with the technical side of things, I come across brief remarks such as, “Take and you take from God, give and you give to God.”
Pride in its many forms was the great enemy of his struggle to see Christ in everyone, in spite of their fallenness. In this quest for charity, he relied on the virtue of hope. We fail to struggle as we should, and thus so rarely see any deep need to put our hope in God. I once asked him about this, and he responded, “You don’t really know Christian hope until everything seems hopeless, for short of that you are still hoping in something other than Christ—usually yourself.” And this is why that strange assortment of shapes is slowly moving its way toward the void in the torn curtain, the third eclipse. It is the eclipse of personal pride that points us, if we accept it, to charity and hope. In his eclipse of pride, Schmitt was able to look charitably on his fellow men and overlook whatever faults others might see.
He was so unaffectedly se¬cure in this that he seldom resented or even protested. He would often say we had to learn to be victims with Christ and enter that void. Schmitt’s humor in the face of anything and everything—even the decadence of modern culture—sprang from a patient optimism about the providence of God. It was in this spirit of charity that he looked hard to find whatever shadow of beauty existed in a work of art. Schmitt saw modernists like Picasso and Kandinsky as lost in the prison-like subjectivity of self-expression. He once said the only path for the artist was instead to “step on one’s own subjectivity” and thus step outside of oneself. In his notes he put this in a quite simple and radical way: “Art is vision, not expression.” The pursuit of beauty, like the pursuit of truth, means learning to look at reality objectively. Yet I once found in his notes the cheerful remark, “What a gift for lyricism Kandinsky has!” It is the only reference to Kandinsky I have found there, an outgrowth of Christian charity that allowed him to respect what good the modernist possessed.
One of Schmitt’s typical dicta was, “Religion is not the same as art, but all art comes out of religion and serves religion,” whether it be the worship of Yahweh or Zeus. This was most manifest in the first period of great Christian art, when the awe-inspiring images of the Byzantine Christ moved the faithful to worship. At the height of the Middle Ages, with the preaching of St. Francis and St. Bernard, men came to discover especially the humanity of the God-Man. Rather than grandeur, they saw the vulnerability of Christ, moving the viewer to piety. Baroque art brought this even further into the inner world of the viewer and out to the world from Poland to Peru.
Schmitt saw himself as continuing what Renaissance and Baroque art had already begun. He struggled to carry all this into the third eclipse of pride. That eclipse includes all of us as we nose into the void of Christ’s death, the basis of our hope.
Schmitt’s art is art for everyone, no matter where that viewer stands in relation to Christ. Because of the beauty he strove to put into his work, all of it—still lifes, portraits, more canonical religious works—stands as an invitation to discover through contemplation the path to Christ’s sacrifice.
In this sense, all of his art is religious, whatever the superficial subject matter may be. It is art for the home—any home—where it can be contemplated as part of ordinary life. “The artist bears witness to the truth,” Schmitt once wrote. He saw this as a necessary if modest service to God and man, no different from the ordinary duty of any Christian. One of my brothers lay on his deathbed not long ago, and one of the things he said to me was, “Just remember, Dad painted only for the glory of God.”
Let us return to the torn curtain and to the hands of the Virgin that touch it so lightly. They show that the temple where that torn curtain once hung has now been replaced by the Church. For Catholics, the title of this painting might just be Mary, Mother of the Church, or perhaps Mary, Mediatrix of All Grace, or even Mother of Us All. I myself, however, prefer Eclipse.
Carl Schmitt, Jr. directs the Carl Schmitt Foundation, which was launched in 1996 with the purpose of making known his father’s achievements as an artist, as a thinker, and as a man. The foundation’s website can be found at www.carlschmitt.org.
Carl Schmitt, Sr. (1889-1989) studied at the National Academy of Design in New York City and the Florence Academy in Italy. He served in the army in World War I and married Gertrude Lord, with whom he had ten children. His work was exhibited widely in top galleries and museums around the country. A marvelous friend to many and a wonderful conversationalist, he who lived to celebrate his hundredth birthday surrounded by 110 descendants and many friends.