Have you ever heard of the American Catholic painter Carl Schmitt? I imagine that of the thousands of people reading this article, the vast majority would have to say no. And that is why I am writing about him. Because he deserves notice.
Among the many signs of the truth of our faith, one must certainly be the beauty it has engendered throughout the centuries, through the work of Catholic men and women in all spheres of the arts. In music, consider Gregorian chant and the works of Mozart, Beethoven, and many more composers; in architecture, Romanesque, Gothic, and Baroque cathedrals by the hundreds; in literature, among countless authors are Dante and Cervantes; and of course in painting, Rubens, Raphael, Michelangelo, Giotto, and Velazquez, among many more.
You get the point. All of these and innumerable more in every category are products of God’s gift to mankind, giving us insight into the world that awaits us. Now what has the Catholic Church in the United States produced of perennial artistic value in its approximately 250 years of existence?
In the area of literature, it has produced some fine writers, as Russell Shaw points out in his latest book American Church. The post-war boom in fiction was a moment of hope for the state of Catholic culture. Catholic writers such as Flannery O’Connor were being sent up the same flagpoles that flew pennants for Saul Bellow and John Updike. Catholics even managed to capture back-to-back wins of the coveted National Book Award with Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer (1962) and J.F. Powers’ Morte d’Urban (1963). And, yes, we have novelist Ron Hansen today, but in general we have little likely to last for centuries, and this is true generally for the world of music, sculpture, and architecture.
Which brings us finally to Carl Schmitt.
Here, I will only sketch his early years (the rest you can find on his website).
Schmitt’s fierce pursuit of the arts began early. Born in 1889 in Warren, Ohio, to Prof. Jacob Schmitt, an accomplished musician and music teacher, and Grace (Wood) Schmitt, the young Carl was encouraged to further his artistic interests and evident gifts. These found wider scope through his friendship with a Youngstown photographer, Jimmy Porter, and with Zell Hart Deming, the owner of the Warren Chronicle. As a patroness of the arts, Mrs. Deming held an informal salon for local writers and artists. Quickly recognizing the talent of this spirited teenager, she encouraged his ambitions and helped finance his formal studies in New York at seventeen.
Schmitt first attended the Chase School, where William Merritt Chase was still giving classes and Robert Henri was the dominant figure. The following year he switched to the National Academy of Design to study for several years under Emil Carlsen. Schmitt excelled at the Academy, studying intensely the fundamentals of color, line, and form, and gaining an intimate understanding of their individual properties and relations. He won a best picture award each of the years that he was there. He had great respect for his teachers, but especially Carlsen, keeping for the rest of his life several pages of notes from his class. Nonetheless, Schmitt was determined to be his own man in art. Carlsen had offered to teach him privately, but Schmitt’s strong convictions soon headed him in a different direction.
He wanted to understand the “energy that is behind the arts” and which “no one can in terms of science explain.” Later in life, he explained the three principles that motivated him: “My philosophy may be summed up thus: First, to receive from God gratefully everything possible that I can get. Second, to give back to God through my neighbor everything which I can give. To give gifts to my neighbor I must use art, because a gift must be made – hence I must be an artist.”
And he delivered concretely in his paintings what his words described. As Terry Teachout, a Protestant drama critic for the Wall Street Journal and culture critic at Commentary magazine, has put it:
Of course the sheer quality of the work is beyond question. I don’t think that you could possibly look at his paintings, especially those extraordinary late still lifes, without feeling the visceral excitement of having discovered an unknown master, a modern Chardin, I was stunned – there is no other word for it.
If you like the several pieces of his art displayed here, you can see one in person in Washington, DC, at the National Portrait Gallery. And you can learn more about Carl Schmitt by purchasing the coffee-table book Carl Schmitt: The Vision of Beauty published by Scepter, which includes over forty of his works accompanied by biographical data and commentary.
Yes, Catholic America has produced an artist of genius and his name is Carl Schmitt. Get acquainted with his art and the deep Catholic philosophy and theology that lay behind it.