A 20th-Century Deposition (by artist Carl Schmitt)

13 12 2010

I recently saw this Deposition by Carl Schmitt (1889-1989). Schmitt was a classically trained American artist who was a friend of Hilaire Belloc, who owned work by him, and who contributed a weekly column to Chesterton’s Weekly Review when Belloc was its editor. He was much travelled around Europe, but spent most of his adult life living in Connecticut. I like his still lives particularly. (see www.carlschmitt.org). He was a faithful Catholic all his life and had 10 children who all kept the faith and one of whom was a priest.

Amongst his religious works was this deposition. This is a good example, in my opinion, to study when considering how to balance the general and the particular characteristics of the person. For good sacred art, that balance has to be right.

Some time ago, I wrote an article (Is Some Sacred Art Too Naturalistic), about the tendency amongst modern naturalistic artists to paint sacred art in which the rendering, especially the faces, is too naturalistic and too particular to one person, like a portrait. The result is paintings that look like the next door neighbor dressed up in old-fashioned clothing in a staged Victorian tableau. In my assessment there was too much emphasis on the particular and not enough on the general human characteristics of the saint or person depicted. It is the general characteristics that enable us to relate to those aspects that we are supposed to be inspired by and imitate, such as virtue. By definition, we can only aspire to imitate those aspects that are common to us. It is not possible to imitate something that is particular to someone else.

The sacred art of baroque of the 17th century (in contrast to 19th century naturalism) always plays down the individual characteristics with skillful use of shadow, depletion of color and variation in focus. This is not to exclude the particular altogether; we must know enough to know who is depicted. It is a question of balance. An example of how a baroque artist described this is given here.

In a very 20th century way, Carl Schmitt has done the same here. I like also the way that he has set up the composition. The circular sweep that contains the main forms is well handled, ntroducing enough variation (for example in the tilt of the heads of the women) to stop them looking to rigidly bound by the compositional form.

Some might feel that there is too much ‘general’ and not enough ‘particular’ for their taste (it is something that crosses my mind). Regardless, I think it is a useful thing for today’s artists to see how Schmitt has approached this problem, and at the very least avoided the pitfalls of so many current naturalistic artists.

Photo courtesy of the Carl Schmitt Foundation



3 responses

14 12 2010
Matthew James Collins


An great post, as always. Schmitt is definitely an interesting artist that both rebelled against and reflected his times. After reviewing his religious works, I would also pick the Deposition as his most powerful piece. The chiaroscuro and the design definitely carry the picture.

You bring a good point up on the conflict of the ‘specific’ and the ‘general’ in sacred figurative art. The Sacred is the ‘essence’ which is revealed through a distillation of Nature. Deriving the essence is much more difficult than abstracting the obvious.

Schmitt, in my opinion, has erred in doing the latter. The strength of design and the pathos of light are undermined by a schematic contour and a geometric repetitiveness.

Regardless, I definitely prefer this work to the saccharine images produced in the 19th century.

14 12 2010

Very interesting, as always Matt, thank you.

3 03 2016
“Just look at it!”: Deposition (c. 1933) – Carl Schmitt: The Vision of Beauty

[…] Reprinted from the CSF News, Fall 2010.  This painting was also featured in a post on the blog The Way of Beauty. […]

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