Carl Schmitt (1889-1989) was a profoundly religious American painter and writer. While still a student, he visited Silvermine, Connecticut, then home of the Silvermine Group of Artists, an artists' colony with whom he became identified. After service in the First World War, he married and settled in Silvermine with his wife and ten children. He deliberately sought a reclusive life, because he was profoundly unconvinced by the materialism of interwar America.
The Catholic activist Peter Maurin, a co-founder with Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker Movement, gives us some insight into Schmitt’s thinking in 1934. ‘Carl Schmitt the artist does not want his ten children to be super salesmen, he wants them to be cultured peasants … [he] is far from thinking that all America needs is a good five-cent cigar, as Vice President Marshall was in the habit of saying. Carl Schmitt the artist thinks that America needs to be revitalized with healthy peasant blood from those parts of Europe where the rugged individualism of bourgeois commercialism has not yet penetrated’. So Schmitt was a socially engaged artist, concerned both to communicate with his work, and to witness in his life to an alternative, religiously based value system. He wrote in 1933: ‘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’. A number of patrons respected his commitment, and bought his pictures. These patrons, as he observed, enabled him ‘to bring up a numerous family in circumstances of poverty and to make it possible to paint’.
Peter Maurin published a series of articles about Schmitt in 1934. Another member of the Catholic Worker Movement, Donald Powell, remembers Schmitt saying that ‘social justice could be obtained only by starting with the individual; that is, when the individual was just, society was just, and that the Catholic could do the most by example. Which means, in effect, that Catholics must be converted to Catholicism before attempting to convert non-Catholics to it’. Powell and Schmitt kept up a vigorous correspondence into the 1960s, and Schmitt’s letters can be found in the Donald Powell Papers at Georgetown University in Washington.
He developed a painstaking technique of layering and scraping multiple underpaintings in various colors and then scraping away the top layers to reveal those colors in the combinations he needed. The technique began from observing the way renaissance masters built up forms with underpainting in a neutral brown, and developing so that, with the multiple underpaintings in different colours, he was actually building forms with colour. It is this which gives his paint surface that curious luminosity.
After the war, he worked on in Silvermine, exhibiting only locally or by invitation, though there was a large retrospective show in 1980. His great-granddaughter Bridget Skidd, who came to Oxford to study the Catholic literary revival, had the pleasure of discovering the painting. The painting was presented to the Hall by Janet Cavanaugh, the wife of the sculptor John Cavanaugh, a good friend of Schmitt’s, and like him, a Catholic artist.
There is a website devoted to his life and work, http://carlschmittvisionofbeauty.com/
-- Jane Stevenson