Although Jean Charlot (1898-1979) was born in Paris, and descended from parents he later described as “sundry exotic ancestors” – his father, a French businessman reared in Russia, and his mother, with her French, Mexican and Jewish lineage –, he was especially drawn to the Mexican part of his heritage. From the age of two, Charlot was surrounded by pre-Hispanic antiquities. He studied in the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, exhibited in the Autumn Salon, and made the usual training tour of Brittany. During this time, he painted small landscapes in oil on paper and pursued what was to become a lifelong interest in folk imagery.
In 1922, after fighting in the First World War, Charlot decided to move to Mexico. He shared a studio with the painter Fernando Leal and became involved in the booming artistic scene promoting wood engraving and lithographic techniques. He quickly established himself in the art community of Mexico City, befriending Diego Rivera, David Álfaro Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco, all of them central figures in the Mexican Mural movement of the early 1920s known as the Syndicate of Painters and Sculptors. The movement quickly spread to the USA.
Rivera credited Charlot with reviving and refining the art of true frescoes. Charlot and the others visited the US and taught – mostly in New York – this true fresco technique. After working from 1929 with lithography printer George Miller in New York, Charlot began a lifetime collaboration in 1933 with Lynton R. Kistler, master lithography printer in Los Angeles, reputedly making the first stone-drawn color lithographs in the United States. In 1947, Charlot moved his family to Colorado to take over the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center Art School. He resigned over a dispute concerning tenure and moved to Hawai’i to teach at the University, where he remained for about thirty years until his death in 1979.
While in Hawai’i, Jean Charlot continued to create monumental murals, produce many lithograph series, and illustrate books. He forged a close friendship with Madge Tennent, in whose work he found "a strength in the Hawaiian people visually that wasn’t there at first sight, that people tried to avoid somehow letting me find," and collaborated with Juliette May Fraser on mural commissions in and around Honolulu. His work largely focused on themes of family and the working class, revealing the universality of human nature. Known as the “Champion of the Everyday,” he depicted people doing things which were important to them – the simple, everyday activities that make up living. Charlot felt that “art is to thought what man’s voice is to man – a fast and faithful means of communication.” He created art for the people, art that instructed, edified, and amused. He is best known for his extraordinary sense of color and for the sublime simplicity of his compositions.
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