Émilie Charmy ("shar-mee") (April 2, 1878 – 1974) was an artist in France's early avant-garde. She worked closely with Fauve artists like Henri Matisse, and was active in exhibiting her artworks in Paris, particularly with Berthe Weill.
Emilie Charmy was born on April 2, 1878 in Saint-Etienne, and passed away in Paris in 1974. Orphaned at the age of 5, her older brother Jean becomes her guardian. Charmy was interested in music and painting, for which she showed much talent. Her brother, conscious of this gift, encouraged her to continue. At the turn of the century, Emilie and Jean moved to Lyon, where she makes the acquaintance of Jacques Martin and becomes his student. A few years later, Charmy and her brother leave Lyon for Saint-Cloud. During this period, she participated in various shows, such as the "Salon des Independents" in 1903, 1904 and 1905, and the "Salon d'Automne" in 1906.
Berthe Weill quickly appreciated Charmy's work and exhibited it very early on. Around 1909, Charmy settled into two artist studios at 54, rue de Bourgogne in Paris, moving there permanently in 1910 and remaining there for the rest of her life. In 1912, her first major solo exhibition was held at the Galerie Druet. The same year, she met the painter George Bouche, whom she ended up marrying nearly 20 years later; they had a son, Edmond, in 1915. A second exhibition of her work is held in 1919 in the Galerie André Pesson, a gallery founded by several artists. The exhibition catalog is prefaced by Enrique Gómez Carillo.
Also in 1919, Charmy makes the acquaintance of the Count Etienne de Jouvencel, who becomes a patron of her work and shares his enthusiasm for her painting within the literary and artistic circles of the time. He furthermore organized several high profile exhibitions of her work in the Parisian art world. "Canvas", a major solo exhibition of Charmy's work, was held at the Galerie Œuvres d’Art, rue du Faubourg Saint Honoré, in 1921, with catalog texts written by Louis Leon Martin, Henri Béraud, Roland Dorgelès and Pierre Mac Orlan.
Around 1922, Charmy met Colette, whom she befriended. Colette, at that time at the height of her popularity, wrote the introductory text for the catalog of a major exhibition of twenty pictures by Charmy, held in 1922. The same year, Charmy participated in another major exhibition at the Styles Gallery, on the theme of the "Female Nude", which included paintings by Ingres, Delacroix, Corot, Manet, Renoir, Rouault and Matisse, and a catalog prefaced by Louis Vauxcelles. Both the French and the foreign press praised Charmy's work.
In 1926, another major solo exhibition was held at the Galerie Barbazanges. Thanks in part to Eli-Joseph Bois, Director of the Petit Parisien newspaper, Charmy was awarded the Legion of Honor. Bois also introduced her to several political figures, including Edouard Daladier, Aristide Briand and Louise Weiss, with whom she became close. After the war, Charmy exhibited very little, and when she did it was usually at the Galerie Jeanne Castel, spending her last decades in solitude, concentrated on her work but forgotten by critics and the public.
Charmy received a bourgeois educational training at a Catholic private school, and qualified to become a teacher. (Perry,21) However, she refused jobs in teaching in the late 1890s and moved to Lyon in 1898 (Perry,23) to work in the studio of Jacques Martin. This was a critical moment in the further development of Charmy's career. Martin was involved with a number of other Lyon artists who became influential in Charmy's artistic development. The artists included Louis Carrand and François Vernay. These artists had developed a local reputation in Lyon because they had created a unique approach to flower painting. (Perry,21)
The artists delved into spiritual realms in their paintings by relying on color to capture the essence of the object, rather than focusing on delineating details in mimetic form. For male artists, flower painting was a reputable genre because it followed in the 17th century Dutch tradition of flower painting, which relied heavily on symbolic and allegorical meanings. For women artists, it was common for their flower paintings to be aligned with the decorative, rather than the allegorical traditions of painting. Charmy, however, blurred these boundaries by creating powerful images of flowers and still-life through her distinctive painterly technique. Later on, Charmy began to experiment with landscape painting, female nudes, and bourgeois women as subjects of her paintings, and never abandoned her distinctive technique.
Charmy had a peculiar career for a woman of her time. Many women were shunned from the art world, and most women regarded it as a hobby, rather than a career. But for Charmy, "painting was an obsession which dominated many other aspects of her life." (Perry,85)
She was consumed by her work and was entirely financially dependent on her art. Her paintings were very marketable because flower paintings and still-life paintings were considered decorative, and were sought after by the middle class. (Perry,52) Yet curiously enough, Charmy refused to sign contracts with art dealers and gallery owners, save for one unsuccessful contract with the dealer Pétridès in the early 1930s. (Perry,89)
Instead, Charmy kept her loyalties to Berthe Weill, a famous art dealer. Weill was committed to exhibiting the artworks produced by women artists, but her financial instability made it difficult for artists like Charmy to be solely dependent on exhibitions there. While other women artists sought alternate dealers to contract them, Charmy was patronized by Katia Granoff.
Later on in her career, four of Charmy's paintings were exhibited at the Armory Show in New York City, two of which sold for $135 each.
French novelist Roland Dorgelès described Charmy as "a great free painter; beyond influences and without method, she creates her own separate kingdom where the flights of her sensibility rule alone." (Perry,100) Indeed, Charmy's style is unique. Her bold use of color and her unapologetic brushstrokes have been deemed as "appropriating...a ‘masculine’ language of art production," according her contemporaries. (Perry,55)
Charmy uses bright, colorful lines and strong abstracted color planes to create cropped images. This mode of fragmenting the image demands careful observation on the part of the viewer to parse what is being depicted, how the image is being executed onto the canvas, and how the canvas demands the eye to absorb the image. These were all pertinent issues for the Impressionist artists preceding Charmy's work.
Charmy primarily painted women in domestic or bourgeois settings, as well as focusing on flower and still-life paintings. (Perry,25) There is a great sense of abstraction in her images, and a number of different art critics have offered multiple perspectives. In regards to Charmy's nude paintings, Gill Perry proposes that Charmy is intentionally trying to restrict the viewer from the intimate scenes that she depicts; (Perry,25) hence, the use of abstracted lines and suggestions of color are meant to bound the subject to an alternate realm from reality. Perry cites Interior at Saint-Etienne and La Loge as two examples. According to Perry, Charmy was essentially at the fore in creating a new iconography of the female nude, within a new, modern context.
Charmy was also unconventional in her painting style because she left parts of her canvas unpainted. This daring was in suit with other Fauve artists, but again, these artists were male. Hence, it would be an especially bold choice for a female artist like Charmy to reject the idea of painting in the entire canvas space.
Charmy and "Les Fauves"
Charmy's style has been closely aligned with the Fauve movement (literally translates to "wild beasts"), which was a term applied to a group of loosely associated artists. Hence, "Les Fauves" did not work as a structured artistic alliance, but it was carried out by the efforts of Henri Matisse. It has been confirmed that Charmy was friendly with Matisse and other artists in the Fauve movement, but again, it is difficult to establish what type of connection she had with the artists. In any case, it is obvious that Charmy was influenced by the aesthetics of other Fauve and Expressionist artists.
Charmy and early 20th century gender roles
Shari Benstock recounts that early 20th-century French women's lifestyles "lagged far behind their American and English peers in their efforts to gain political and legal equality." She notes that French women did not enjoy voting or equal pay rights until 1944, and explains that the most influential factors in a woman's life were the church, and Rousseauian ideals of a traditional family unit. (Perry,85) If a woman were to have a career, it was limited to education. (Perry,23)
In this regard, Emilie Charmy was an exceptional artist. Interestingly enough, her pursuit of art led people to describe her in gendered terms, the most famous quote being from Roland Dorgelès:
- "Émilie Charmy, it would appear, sees like a woman and paints like a man; from the one she takes grace and from the other strength, and this is what makes her such a strange and powerful painter who holds our attention." (Perry,100)
Of course, these gendered readings are extraordinarily problematic in our contemporary, 21st century context. Yet it is precisely this recognition of Charmy's resistance to traditional gender roles that makes her unique for her time.
In fact, Charmy was almost scorned by her art dealer, Berthe Weill, because she viewed Charmy's relationship with her son Edmond as distant and unnatural. (Perry,83) Edmond, like Charmy, was placed in the care of paid nurses and carers until the age of fourteen. Although this was acceptable during Charmy's childhood, this practice was becoming increasingly rare as traditional roles of motherhood were becoming more popular. In one biography, Edmond notes that "while some mothers glory in their offspring, Charmy hid hers jealously. This newly born knew neither the disorder of the studio nor the smell of paint." (Perry,84) What is particularly interesting to note is that despite Charmy's interest in using female models as subjects for her paintings, she avoided the mother-and-child theme that was becoming increasingly popular, especially with contemporary artists like Mary Cassatt. (Perry,85)
Women artists were generally banned from art studios or academies during sessions with live models, so many women painted bourgeois life by default. Yet, Charmy's work exhibits an interest in painting female models and prostitutes. Such images of women are common among male artists like Degas, but were rare among women artists. Most women artists were interested in painting an idyllic view of women and their children.
Although little is referenced, Charmy is known to have met considerable success in the Parisian gallery scene principally in the 1920s. At a time when women artists were shunned from the art market, Charmy exhibited her works a number of galleries.
Her first documented show was at the Indépendants gallery in 1904, and it is likely that it was through this show that she befriended other Fauve artists, like Henri Matisse, Charles Camoin, and Albert Marquet. In the following year, she exhibited two still-life paintings titled Dahlias and Fruit, at the Salon d'Automne. (Perry,46)
In 1906, she showed 5 flower paintings and one still life titled Prunes, also at the Salon d'Automne.
Charmy is remembered in the United States as being one of the artists who exhibited at the 1913 Armory Show, where she exhibited 4 works, Roses (which could have been purchased for $108), Paysage, Soir, and Ajaccio.
In 1921, Charmy enjoyed a solo exhibition at the Galeries d'Oeuvres d'Art, and showed paintings of flowers, women, and female nudes. The show caused quite a stir in the Parisian art scene, and sparked a number of critical issues concerning the debate of "feminine" art. (Perry,98) This show was particularly impressive because it was organized by Count de Jouvencel, who had discovered her at Berthe Weill's gallery several years earlier, in 1919. (Perry,96)
- Linda L. Clark Women and Achievement in Nineteenth-Century Europe 2008 - Page 97 "In such circumstances, Émilie Charmy and Jacqueline Marval, both first trained for schoolteaching in the provinces, appreciated Berthe Weill's promotion of their work. Weill opened a gallery in Paris in1901 and was one of the few women art ..."
- Petteys, Chris, ‘’Dictionary of Women Artists’’, G K Hill & Co. publishers, 1985
- Brown, Milton W., ‘’The Story of the Armory Show’’, The Joseph H. Hirshhorn Foundation, 1963, p. 231
- Perry, Gill. Women Artists and the Parisian Avant-Garde. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, distributed by St. Martin's Press, 1995.
- Valadon, Marval, Charmy, Agutte: Les Femmes Peintres et L'avant-garde, 1900-1930. Paris: Somogy editions d'Art, Musee Paul-Dini, VilleGranche-sur-Saône, 2006.
- Emilie Charmy estate. ARCHIVES ÉMILIE CHARMY. 123, Rue Vieille-du-Temple 75003 Paris France +33 (0)1 42 72 60 03