Born in Paris, Louis Henri Jean Charlot was descended from “sundry exotic ancestors.” His father, Henri, was a French businessman, free-thinker and Bolshevik sympathizer born and reared in Russia. Anna, his mother, an artist and a devout Catholic, was the daughter of Louis Goupil, a native of Mexico City.
Goupil, of French and Mexican Indian stock, married Sarah Louise (Luisita) Melendez, a Jewish woman of Spanish descent and subsequently moved from Mexico to Paris in the late 1860s. (Thompson)
Charlot admiringly describes his maternal grandfather in his earlier years as “… a fine rider, a coleador who could hold a running bull by passing its tail between his knee and the saddle of his galloping horse”.
Also living in Paris was Jean Charlot’s great-uncle, Eugène Goupil, a collector of Mexican works of art. Jean, who began to draw around age two, grew up surrounded by pre-Hispanic antiquities. (Thompson)
In his teens, Charlot had become one of a Catholic group that called itself Gilde Notre-Dame (“Parisian adolescents (who) used to gather in a crypt”) made up of sculptors, stained glass makers, embroiderers and decorators.
The resumption after the war of what Charlot calls his “career as a French liturgical artist” was cut short by the cancellation of the commission for the church mural just after he had completed the scale drawings.
This “first heartbreak at the realization that a born mural painter is helpless without a wall ….” was one of the factors that precipitated a journey to Mexico in 1920. “On this first trip to Mexico I did nothing at all. I was stuck aesthetically in 18th century France.” (Thompson)
“My life in France was on the whole rational, national, obeying this often heard dictum that a Frenchman is a man who ignores geography. There were though, simultaneously, un-French elements at work. Russian, sephardim, Aztec ancestors, warmed my blood to adventure.” (Charlot; Thompson)
After this Mexican trip, in 1928, Charlot and his mother moved to New York where he rented a small apartment on the top floor of 42 Union Square from the artist Morris Kantor. The apartment was unheated, which probably contributed to the death of his mother from pneumonia in January, 1929.
On a brief trip to Mexico in 1931, Charlot met his future wife, Dorothy Zohmah Day. During a visit to Zohmah in Los Angeles in 1933, Charlot met the printer Lynton R Kistler and produced Picture Book, “a repertory of motifs I had used up to then.” Returning to New York, teaching and lecturing occupied much of Charlot’s time.
In May 1939, Jean Charlot and Zohmah Day were married in San Francisco. “It was a long courtship,” commented Charlot. “Eight years. We were always in different places”.
The years from 1941-44 were spent as artist-in-residence at the University of Georgia, Athens, and instructor in art history at the University of California, Berkeley and artist-in-residence at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. (Thompson)
Then he had a chance to come to Hawaiʻi – and he stayed. An invitation to create a fresco at the University of Hawai’i, Manoa, brought Charlot to Honolulu in 1949 where he painted Relation of Man and Nature in Old Hawai’i at Bachman Hall.
He accepted a position as professor of art at the University, and Hawai’i became the Charlot family’s permanent home. Attracted to the culture of the native Hawaiian, just as he had been interested in the folk aspects of the residents of rural France and the indigenous peoples of Mexico, he studied Hawaiian history, customs and religion, and learned the Hawaiian language.
From 1949 to 1979 Charlot created almost six hundred easel paintings, several hundred prints, and thirty-six works of art in public places in fresco, ceramic tile and sculpture. He taught summer sessions at several schools, among them San Diego State College (1950), Arizona State University (1951) and the University of Notre Dame (1955 and 1956). In 1950 he was made faculty advisor to the Newman Club, the Catholic student organization of the University of Hawai’i. (Thompson)
Charlot retired from the University of Hawai’i as Senior Professor Emeritus in 1966. Two years later, he traveled to France for the first time since 1921 and, at Malzéville and Paris, created a series of lithographs.
In 1968 the Jean Charlot Foundation was established in Honolulu to collect source materials relating to the life, work, art, philosophy, and values of Jean Charlot and promote publication of Charlot material – and, the “development of interest in the arts, encouragement of artists, and study of art.” (Thompson)
There are very few artists of Jean Charlot’s caliber in Hawaiʻi or the world. From 1958 until his death, Jean Charlot lived in Hawaiʻi in his ‘dream house’ on Wai’alae Country Club. Here, he conducted most of his work in this house and more particularly in his 2nd floor studio.
This was the final period of Charlot’s life, when he reached the peak of his artistic powers and was able to synthesize the esthetics of Europe, Mexico and Pacific Islands, the places he lived and influenced his art. His career spanned these places.
He was an early participant in the revival of liturgical art in France. He was a pioneer of the Mexican Mural Renaissance. He also worked as an archaeologist, moving to Washington D.C. to complete the publication of the report of the Carnegie Institution’s Chichen Itza expedition.
He completed numerous monumental art works in Hawaiʻi, Fiji and elsewhere. His artwork in public places number 74 in his lifetime, over 30 planned in the house, including the large ceramic tile mural on the School Street facade of the United Public Workers Building in Honolulu.
Jean Charlot was primarily a muralist and was also a prolific writer, producing numerous scholarly books and articles along with poetry and drama. He also illustrated over 50 books. Many works and scholarly resources are now housed in the Jean Charlot Collection of the Hamilton Library, University of Hawaiʻi. (NPS)
Among the honors bestowed on Charlot was the election by the Royal Society of Art, London, as a Benjamin Franklin Fellow in 1972. In 1976, the Hawai’i State Legislature presented Charlot with the Order of Distinction for Cultural Leadership. As well as being recognized as a ‘Living Treasure’ by Honpa Hongwanji Mission.
In 1974, Charlot was diagnosed as having cancer of the prostate. Radiation treatments and chemotherapy would keep the disease under control for the next four years. Confined to a wheelchair during the last months of his life, Charlot remained active as an artist and a scholar until his death on March 20, 1979. (Thompson)