Elsa Schmid: Capturing Spirit in Stone

The story of German American artist Elsa Schmid, whose masterful mosaic work reveals her passions for the craft and for people.

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Published on
November 15, 2022
Elsa Schmid, Composition in Red and Blue
Lot 4 | Elsa Schmid, Composition in Red and Blue

In a 1945 letter from Albert Einstein to Elsa Schmid, the famed physicist wrote: 

"The viewing of your mosaic portrait [of me] has been an artistic experience for me that I shall never forget. I am happy that through my very existence I have been the inspiration for the origin of such a work. In this portrait is perfectly expressed exactly that which is so completely missing in modern man -- inwardness and contemplation, detachment from the here and now. It is a riddle to me how it is possible to achieve such a delicate and strong expression with this inflexible material."

Einstein's words encapsulate what is so remarkable about the work of the German American artist: her ability to communicate the metaphysical qualities through rigid matter via her mosaics, several of which are featured in Capsule's upcoming Postwar and Contemporary Art, C2: Contemporary Art and Photography, and 20th Century Design sales. 

Lot 9 Elsa Schmid, Untitled (Abstract in Orange and Blue)
Lot 9 | Elsa Schmid, Untitled (Abstract in Orange and Blue)

By the time Schmid immigrated to the United States from Germany in the 1920s, she was an accomplished artist of many mediums. Having spent considerable time during her youth at an artist's colony in the Italian hilltown of Anticoli Corrado and studying further in Rome, she developed talents in photography and painting. However, even at the early stages of her career, she was most appreciated as a mosaicist. Schmid's method of mosaic work was unconventional: she laid her stones face-up in their sandy ground rather than face-down, allowing her to experiment with the bounds of the medium. Via this unique practice, the artist explored an interest in light, specifically light progression. This is an interest that is readily visible, especially in her abstract works. The mosaic above, coming up for auction in Capsule's Postwar and Contemporary Art saletrades the rigidity traditionally associated with mosaic work for buoyant scintillation.

After a few years spent living in Manhattan's Greenwich Village with her husband, esteemed gallerist JB Neumann, she relocated to Rye, New York in 1934. Here, Schmid began teaching, drumming up a loyal following of mosaics students in the Westchester area. In the mid-1940s, Albert Einstein's stepdaughter, Margot, became one of these students. It was out of this relationship that Schmid developed an enduring friendship with Albert Einstein, eventually creating the portrait of which he spoke so highly, which is currently held in the collection of Boston University. 

Elsa Schmid, Portrait of John Dewey
Elsa Schmid, Portrait of John Dewey. This work comes up for auction in our December 20th Century Design sale.

Over the course of her career, the artist was commissioned to create a number of religious mosaics and stained-glass installations, including work for St. Brigid's Catholic Church in Peapack, New Jersey and a series of windows for the Church of St. Paul the Apostle in Nassau, Bahamas. She also completed a mosaic portrait of Jesuit leader Father Martin D'Arcy, currently held in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and a portrait of philosopher John Dewey, coming up for sale in Capsule's 20th Century Design sale. 

Elsa Schmid, 2 Portraits
Elsa Schmid, 2 Portraits. These works will come up for auction in our December 20th Century Design sale.

Viewing these portraits, it should come as no surprise to know that Elsa Schmid made a habit of befriending her subjects, including John Dewey. In fact, the artist seemed to make friends wherever she went, developing close relationships with art world giants such as Georgia O'Keefe and Paul Klee. This passion for people, which of course intermingled with her passion for art, is an integral part of the celebrated artist's enduring legacy.

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