Jean Charlot

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Jean Charlot
Born Louis Henri Jean Charlot
(1898-02-08)February 8, 1898
Paris, France
Died March 20, 1979(1979-03-20) (aged 81)
Honolulu, Hawaii
Nationality France
United States
Known for Fresco, Lithography, Mural, Sculpture, Visual arts
Movement Mexican Mural Movement
Spouse(s) Zohmah Day
Awards Guggenheim Fellowships,
National Council on the Arts,[1]
Living Treasures of Hawai'i

Louis Henri Jean Charlot (February 8, 1898 – March 20, 1979) was a French and naturalized American painter and illustrator, active mainly in Mexico and the United States.


Charlot was born in Paris. His father, Henri, owned an import-export business and was a Russian-born émigré, albeit one who supported the Bolshevik cause. His mother Anna was herself an artist. His mother's family originated from Mexico City, his grandfather a French-Indian mestizo,[2] his great grandfather had immigrated to Mexico in the 1820s shortly after the country's independence from Spain and married a woman who was half Aztec. Maybe because of this a myth developed around him that he was a descendant of Aztec royalty.[3]

Charlot had served in the French army and studied art in Paris, where he was often exposed to Aztec art and even started to learn the Aztec language, Nahuatl. He had one of his pieces included in an exhibition of religious art at the Louvre.[4]

Charlot spent an extensive period of his life living and working in Mexico. In 1921, he and his mother, a widow, left Europe to settle in Mexico City. He met Fernando Leal (1896–1964) and shared his studio with him. Charlot was deemed "a fine person who is doing important work" by Diego Rivera, the famous Mexican painter and muralist. Rivera introduced Charlot to other young artists, like Pablo O'Higgins (born Paul Stevenson Higgins and who came to live in Mexico in 1924, having grown up in Salt Lake City, Utah).[5] O'Higgins would later recall that he met Charlot at the former's studio, when he was painting a nude of Luz Jimenez, a very beautiful Mexican Indian woman model to Diego Rivera. Luz's native language was nahuatl and she used to teach it to Charlot as she posed for him. Charlot and O'Higgins shared interest in learning about Mexico and traveled together exploring the country, sometimes with Anita Brenner, a Jewish 19-year-old at that time with whom Charlot seemed in love and collaborated in several literary and illustration projects.[6]

Charlot married a close friend of O'Higgins, Dorothy Day, an artist who grew up also in Salt Lake City, Utah, and felt she never fit in that society. Her family was Mormon but later left the church. She had dark skin and brown eyes among all blond blue-eyed people; she recalled that one day some American Indians came to her door and she saw people who looked like herself for the first time, and connected with them. At age twenty, Dorothy had changed her name to Zohmah and traveled to Mexico. She got involved in the Mexican art movement of the twenties and thirties and became close friend to young Mexican and American artists in the circle of Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, like Jean Charlot and Pablo O'Higgins.[7]

The friendship of Charlot and O'Higgings lasted long, sharing their interest on each other's work even after Charlot went with his mother to live in New York in 1928. When in Mexico City, Charlot would stay at a humble room Pablo rented in downtown Mexico City on the roof of a dilapidated building on the street of Belisario Dominguez. In December 1930, to prepare for his solo exhibit in early 1931 at the John Levy Gallery, on New York, O'Higgins lived with Charlot for six months at his small un-heated apartment in Union Square and 14th Street, when Charlot taught at the Art Students League. At the very same time, mid-January 1931, only a few blocks away, José Clemente Orozco was painting the murals for The New School at 66 West 12th Street.[8] Charlot and Orozco had maintained frequent correspondence in previous years.[9]

Both commented on each other's murals in Hawaii in 1952.[10]

In 1940, Charlot applied for and was accorded American citizenship. A dual citizen of the United States and France, he retained passports from both countries.


Jean Charlot is generally recognized as having "discovered" José Guadalupe Posada, a Mexican printer who had produced more than 15 thousand prints and lithographs, devoted mostly to the popular readers of newspapers in pre-revolutionary Mexico, in which he would present political satires using cartoon-like skeletons. The original style and plastic language of Posada struck Charlot when he saw his prints being sold in 1922 on street corners, and went to find his forgotten printing blocks (woodcuts, leadcuts, zinccuts, etc.) in the workshop of Posada's former publisher. Together with O'Higgins and the son of Posada's publisher, Charlot participated in 1928 and 1930 in the publication of catalogues of Posada's prints, a project conceived by Frances Toor, that picqued the interest of the public in Posada.[11] Posada's skeletons and skulls, rooted in an ancient pre-Hispanic culture about the dead, were later taken sometimes in their own paintings by Rivera, Frida Kahlo and O'Higgins among many others, and are now an icon acknowledged worldwide at the heart of Mexican popular art and handcrafts. Jean Charlot himself was much interested in and also started avant-garde woodcut.

After the Mexican Revolution (1910-1917), the post-revolutionary governments looked forward to educate the people on the principles of social justice consecrated in the new constitution. Mural painting became an extraordinary visual vehicle, for occupying public spaces like government buildings, schools and markets where it was accessible to all people and spoke even to the illiterate, in contrast to traditional easel painting aimed at private art consumption by the educated. Mexican mural painting began to be actively promoted during the government of President Alvaro Obregon (1921-1924) by the Minister of Education, Jose Vasconcelos. Diego Rivera's strong personality and political connections obtained many important commissions for the first murals. His first commission by Vasconcelos was to paint a mural in the Preparatory School, where four young artists dared to accept Vasconcelos' challenge. Jean Charlot was one of them, and also his friend and roommate Fernando Leal who invited him to get involved. Actually, Charlot's fresco "Massacre in the Templo Mayor" (1921–1922) is in front of Fernando Leal's "The Dancers of Chalma" (1921–23). In his fresco Charlot portrayed himself, Leal and Diego Rivera. Charlot's was the first mural finished and the first in the fresco technique.[12] Thus, Charlot participated in the founding of Mexican muralism.

The next project Rivera took was in the Court of Labor at the Ministry of Education building, where other young artists including Charlot were assigned walls in the Court of Fiestas in the same building, what Charlot considered a first try at communal painting". The other young artists were Xavier Guerrero and Amado de la Cueva. Eventually, Rivera wrestled control of the project getting more space for himself and recasting the other artists to the role of assistants; Rivera even destroyed one of Charlot's finished murals, Danza de los Listones (Dance of the Ribbons) to make room for his own Market Place.[13] According to John Charlot, son of Jean, at the beginning only the young artists dared to undertake commissions for large mural paintings, and although Vasconcelos himself liked non-political allegorical works, he carefully avoided guiding the artists who increasingly became more political in reflecting the ideas of the revolution.[14]

In 1928, works of Charlot and O'Higgings were included together with those of other 20 artists (including the three great masters Rivera, Siqueiros and Orozco, and also the Guatemalan-Mexican Carlos Mérida) in an exhibition organized at the Art Center Gallery in New York by Frances Flynn Paine, a manager of a Rockefeller fund to sponsor Mexican artists. The exhibition had the co-sponsorship of the Mexican Ministry of Education and the Mexican National University.[15]

Jean Charlot also worked as an illustrator during the excavations at Chichen Itza under Sylvanus Morley.

'Work and Rest', color lithograph by Jean Charlot, 1956

He spent some time working for the Work Projects Administration's Federal Arts Project, including creation of murals for Straubenmuller Textile High School in Manhattan during 1934–1935.[16] In 1942 he painted an oil on canvas mural for the post office in McDonough, Georgia: "Cotton Gin", 4.5 ft × 11 ft (1.4 m × 3.4 m). In 1949, Charlot relocated to Hawaii to become a professor of art at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He continued to live and work there until his death in 1979. Abstract expressionist Kenneth O. Goehring and Jean's son Martin Charlot were among his students.

Charlot went to Colorado Springs, Colorado in 1947 to take the job as Head of the Art School of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. He taught fresco painting and worked with Lawrence Barrett on several editions of lithographs. While there he also taught art at The Fountain Valley School, an independent school for boys (at that time), founded in 1930. Charlot left the Fine Arts Center in 1949 under a cloud of misunderstandings between himself and the Arts Center's Board or Trustees and the Art Center's director, Mitch Wilder. Charlot then went to teach at the University of Hawaii where he stayed for over 30 years, teaching art. During the summer of 1969, Charlot worked with Tony Smith at UH and Smith thanked him by creating a piece in the For... series for Charlot; For J.C.

The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Hawaii State Art Museum, the Honolulu Museum of Art, the Isaacs Art Center (Waimea, Hawaii), and the University of Hawaii at Manoa library are among the public collections having works by Jean Charlot.

In 1940 he illustrated the book Tito's Hats (Garden City Publishing),[17] which was written by the future actor Mel Ferrer. Boucher and McComas praised his 1951 collection of captioned drawings, Dance of Death, as "superlative macabre humor in a welcome modernization of a great ancient art-form."[18] Charlot also illustrated the book 'Springtime, Tales of the cafe Rieu' by J.B. Morton in 1956.

In 1972, Charlot published "An Artist on Art: Collected Essays of Jean Charlot", which discussed Mexican art history [19][20]

Selected Works[edit]

1923,"Massacre in the Main Temple", 14 by 26, Fresco at the Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso.

1949,"Cargadores","Danza de los Listones", and "Lavanderas", Frescos at the Secretaria de Educación, México.

1924,"Shield of the National University of Mexico, with Eagle and Condor", 16 by 20 in., Fresco at the Biblioteca Pan-Americana, México.

1935,"Head,Crowned with Laurels", 16 by 20 in., Fresco at the Strauben-Muller Textile High School, New York.

1949,"Relation of Man and Nature in Old Hawaii", 10 by 29 ft., Fresco at the University of Hawai’i-Manoa, Honolulu, Hawaii.

1952,"Early Contacts of Hawaii with the Outer World",11 by 57 ft., Fresco at the Bishop Bank, Honolulu, Hawaii.


  • Department of Education, State of Hawaii, Artists of Hawaii, Honolulu, Department of Education, State of Hawaii, 1985, pp. 15–22.
  • Haar, Francis and Neogy, Prithwish, "Artists of Hawaii: Nineteen Painters and Sculptors", University of Hawaii Press, 1974, 42-49.
  • Morse, Morse (ed.), Honolulu Printmakers, Honolulu, HI, Honolulu Academy of Arts, 2003, pp. 31 & 40, ISBN 0-937426-58-X
  • Radford, Georgia and Warren Radford, "Sculpture in the Sun, Hawaii's Art for Open Spaces", University of Hawaii Press, 1978, 92.
  • Tuck, Donald H. (1974). The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Chicago: Advent. p. 98. ISBN 0-911682-20-1. 
  • Yoshihara, Lisa A., Collective Visions, 1967-1997, [Hawaii] State Foundation on Culture and the Arts, Honolulu, Hawaii, 1997, 16.
  • Charlot, Jean, "An Artist on Art: Collected Essays of Jean Charlot",p. 4.University Press of Hawaii,Honolulu,1972,ISBN 0-87022-118-3.
  • Morse, Peter, "Popular Art: The Example of Jean Charlot".Capra Press,1978,ISBN 0884960781, 9780884960782.


  1. ^ "NEA 1968 Annual Report" (PDF). National Endowment for the Arts. p. 75. Retrieved 17 August 2013. 
  2. ^ "Jean Charlot". Retrieved 3 June 2013. 
  3. ^ Vogel, Susan, "Becoming Pablo O'Higgins", pp. 61, 72. Prince-Nez Press. San Francisco/Salt Lake City, 2010, ISBN 978-1-930074-21-7.
  4. ^ Vogel, Susan, op. cit., pp. 61, 65.
  5. ^ Vogel, Susan, op.cit., pp. 48, 64.
  6. ^ Vogel, Susan, op.cit., p. 65.
  7. ^ Vogel, Susan, op.cit., pp. 48, 64.
  8. ^ "Orozco Murals at The New School". Retrieved 8 September 2014. 
  9. ^ Orozco, José Clemente. Artist In New York: Letters to Jean Charlot and Unpublished Writings (1925-1929). 
  10. ^ Vogel, Susan, op.cit., pp. 49, 94.
  11. ^ Vogel, Susan, op.cit., p. 94.
  12. ^ Vogel, Susan, op.cit., p. 59.
  13. ^ Vogel, Susan, op.cit., pp. 61-62.
  14. ^ Vogel, Susan, op.cit., p. 59.
  15. ^ Vogel, Susan, op.cit., pp. 88, 95.
  16. ^ The Jean Charlot Collection, University of Hawai'i at Manoa Libraries. "Murals and Sculptures by Jean Charlot"
  17. ^ "Illustrations – JC". Jean Charlot & The Jean Charlot Foundation. Retrieved 17 August 2013. 
  18. ^ "Recommended Reading," F&SF, April 1952, p.95
  19. ^ Charlot, Jean, "An Artist on Art: Collected Essays of Jean Charlot", p. 4. University Press of Hawaii, Honolulu, 1972, ISBN 0-87022-118-3.
  20. ^ "Books and Booklets – JC". Jean Charlot & The Jean Charlot Foundation. Retrieved 17 August 2013. 

External links[edit]