Notes on the theory of art—Jean Charlot



Editor's Note: These undated notes on the theory of art were probably written between 1932, when Jean Charlot was preparing an English treatise on painting, and 1938, when he delivered his series of lectures Pictures and Picture-Making at the Walt Disney Studios.  The notes can best be understood after reading that lecture series and Charlot’s Traité de Peinture of 1920–1922, published in his Textes Français on the web site of the Jean Charlot Foundation.  The notes are not presented in chronological order, which cannot be established, but from the sketchiest to the most developed.  Edited by John Charlot. 






Point of view.[1]

Sculptural form[2]––definition––not especially paintable. 

knowledge of form 

a) godlike = mathematical[3] formula for sphere, etc. (simultaneous all around knowledge) 

b) as far as reason (one-tracked) goes = blueprint (cluster of single points of views.) 

c) compromise between conceptual and optical = multiple points[4] of view––Cézanne, cubists. 

d) Single point of view–– 

i) incomplete knowledge of form with complete knowledge of relationship between Spectator and form. 

ii) half-shell (bas-relief) + routine knowledge of form within dead angle. 

                        form realized and form labeled only. 


Relationships between illusive (painted) point of view and spectator’s actual point of view: 

in small size easel painting: horizon = median horizontal axis.                                              point of vanishing = vertical median axis.  

Variations in triptychs (Diamante), in large easel or mural décors (Fragonard), in special cases (Mantegna’s Triumph.)  

How point of view affects form: level (growing child). (multiple level: cf. Greco.)  

But mostly affects relationships.  A simple planting of solids in space from lateral point of view (Fra Diamante: asymmetric on surface pix––symmetry understood from proper lateral point.) 

Point of view outside pix.  affects planting, i.e. finger of war poster “Uncle Sam wants you” following onlooker.  cf. Visitation. 





point of view––is both an hindrance and a lever to the understanding[6] of form:

a) hindrance because it brings a particular, an incidental to taint[7] a generic knowledge;

b) a lever, same as point of view in a story––telling of a battle, rooting equally for both sides, drains the story of sequence and sense––forbids the term “victory” or “defeat”––cf. (football game on those terms)––To be partial, one-sided,[8] assures a dramatic recitation.

In plastics, the form without point of view can be represented in the case of simple geometric shapes by mathematical formula, i.e.‚ a sphere = r is a constant.  Piet Mondrian confesses his pride in painting without a point of view. 

Introduction of point of view brings a relationship between shape and onlooker that replaces the consideration of the shape alone.  But relationship need not be accidental, but meaningful.  Growing up from babyhood in one’s house is dramatized by rising horizon line: i.e., as babies with the floor close to us, we live at ease in cubic spaces under tables, their legs columns, their underbelly our ceiling.  (Our own, truly ignored by grownups: cf. the silver I hid in the “rafters” under the belly of our dining room table; how long it took them to discover the cache.)  As we grow up, our level just level with the table top, both underbelly and top not quite real, one not anymore, the other not yet.  Cf. tantalized at that age by family playing billiards––nothing to be seen.  Further growth tends towards zenithal, eye as sun rising from table level.  Sense of pride as billiard balls come slowly into natural field of vision. 

Point of view thus corresponds to partisanship without which relating wars or tables becomes senseless. 



Point of view: observation of nature (victory garden), plant against pest: one must root for successful flower, fruit, and seed or for the satiated appetite of bug.  “Olympian” point of view dulls fight for life. 

Single point of view establishes a fixed system of coordinates that equalizes static and dynamic objects. 


Also multiplies shapes to infinite as a complex-object point of view[9] is created.  When sculpture gives you “a face,” painting gives you face + a point of view…face + b point of view, etc….to face + n point of view.  

Which explains that the painter tends to do with very few primary forms (cone, sphere, cylinder) as they are multiplied by infinite points of view. 




for each form, for each scale, the choice of point of view happens on the surface of a circumscribed[10] globe.  





Painting has made use from time to time of elements more at home in other arts: movement, which is more at ease in the cinema, and multiple points[12] of view, which is peculiar to sculpture.  Those attempts in the margin as it were of painting’s lawful means show that painters have not always been happy within the limitations of their medium.  Yet the major one, the comprehension of form from a single point of view, is not only a hindrance, as it seems, but a better comprehension of it shows its possibilities, such that it explains why painting is one of the major arts, instead of being merely a poor parent to sculpture and cinema, apparently less hampered by the limitations of their medium. 

A shape may be comprehended in itself, independent from the surrounding space and regardless of one point of view, much as the sculptor conceives a sculpture.  But once a point of view is granted, we admit also of a surrounding atmosphere, its layer spread between ourselves and the foremost point of the object considered, this layer thickening against the receding sides of same. 

While the object alleged free of space may still be suggested for tactile experience, the introduction of a single point of view and its corollary, atmosphere, exclude tactile experience and exalt optical connaissance, thus bringing the object properly into the realm of painting.  This impossibility of searching the form with the fingers but only with the eye adds another postulate, light, without which the object thus under consideration[13] could not be said to be.  Thus the existence of one point of view presupposes Poussin’s triad: 


One single point of view means an imperfect knowledge of the form considered.  The parts seen are distorted by perspective while the parts unseen remain out of reach of our limited means of knowing.  One point of view adds, however, an important factor, a clear definition of the relationship between spectator and spectacle in terms of distance, horizontal and vertical levels, that the most elaborate composite description by blueprints of plan, slice, and elevation fails to give.[14] 

An ancient sailor’s yarn speaks of an island of beautiful women coming towards the shipwrecked man.  As he embraces one, his arms close on nothing.  Those women are only an empty forward half.  Thus painted shapes, unlike natural shapes, are not defined in the round;[15] they remain bas-relief forms at most, half-shells.  However convincing[16] the suggestion of recession at the edges and that of airy space at the back that a master’s brush may manage, however convincing the half seen, the unseen one is at best prejudged in terms of the eye’s everyday routine, but[17] remains unsubstantiated in painter’s terms. 

Cézanne defines the utmost realism possible as concerns painted shapes: “The edges of the object meet on a horizon line,” that is, at a right angle to the plane of the picture.  What is behind these edges remains perforce terra incognita.  Thus also Goya’s statement on painted forms becomes more inclusive than it appears at first: “Things advance or recede.” 

We must distinguish between form fully realized and form suggested by association with everyday optical knowledge.  The latter is written in paint with but little more plastic resemblance to the object than the word that also stands for it.  In a bouquet of flowers by Monet, for example, the attachment of sepals and petals to the stem is taken for granted because the word “rose” is written in paint by a few of its attributes, the most obvious one its color.  A breast painted by Renoir is, however, truly represented, and breast-like also are the clusters of foliage he uses as background, though here no routine association helps define the spherical form.  The ideal paintable form [is] the one that can be truly represented, as contrasted with a process of mere labeling that is outside a legitimate range of means.  That is why paintable form is perforce more simple than sculpture, a bulging or scooping the picture plane.  This plane may be represented, for example, as the backdrop of Giotto’s Death of St. Francis,[18] but more often exists simply because volumes once painted become semi volumes, embedded in a plane that may be unseen but remains as inescapable an assumption as is ether to radio. 





A shape comprehended regardless of point of view may be considered in itself, irrelevant of a surrounding space, much as the sculptor conceives a sculpture—may answer sculpturesque approach but lacks to be paintable.

Once a point of view admitted, we admit a surrounding atmosphere, a layer of it, between ourselves and the foremost point of the object, layer thickening against the receding sides of same.  While the object considered freed of space may still be an experiment in tactile experience, point of view and its corollary, atmosphere, exclude tactile experience, exalt optical connaissance.  Thus brings the object into the realm of painting, adding another postulate, light, that alone may reveal form to the eye.  Thus point of view presupposes Poussin’s triad: solid, light, color.

Point of view means imperfect knowledge of form considered: seen parts distorted by perspective, unseen parts out of reach of our knowledgeable means. 

Adds however one important knowledge: relationship between onlooker and object in terms of distance, level, that most elaborate plan-elevation complex could not give us.

An ancient sailor’s yarn is of an island of beautiful women coming towards the shipwrecked man.  As he embraces one, his arms clasp at nothing.  They are only an empty forward half.  Thus painting shapes, unlike natural shapes, defined by point of view as bas-relief forms, half-shells, not in the round.  However subtle the suggestion of recession at the edges and that of airy space at the back, however convincing the seen half, the unseen one is at most prejudged in terms of routine outside-of-painting knowledge, but in the painted world remains unsubstantial.  Cézanne defines the utmost realism possible as to shapes: “The edges of objects meet on a horizon line,” i.e. at right angle to the plane of the picture.  What is behind this edge is terra incognita.  Thus Goya’s statement on painters’ form more inclusive than appears at first, “things advance or recede.”


 Much is said of “plastic form,” “sculpturesque form,” as a virtue of modern painting.  The purpose of this paper is to consider form in relation to the painter, its legitimate use as filtered through eye and means. 


Thus we must distinguish between form painted in full and form suggested by association with everyday eye knowledge––that is, written in paint with little more plastic resemblance to the object than the word that also stands for it.  In a flower bouquet by Monet, for example, the attachment of petals and sepals to stem we take for granted because the world “rose” is written in paint by a few of its attributes, the most obvious[20] one, color.  A breast painted by Renoir is, however, truly represented, and breast-like are the clusters of foliage that surround it, though here no routine association would help to presuppose[21] their form.  The ideal painting form is that which can be truly represented as opposed to mere labeling that is outside legitimate range of means.  Painting form is perforce very simple, a swelling or scooping from a plane parallel[22] to the picture plane, which may be represented (cf. Giotto Death of St. Francis), but more often exists simply because volumes minus unseen parts become semi-volumes, embedded as it were in a plane invisible[23] but as inescapable an assumption as in radio is ether.[24]




Painting from the Artist’s Point of View[25]

Painting is a paradox, as much so as man himself.  The building up of a painting is comparable to the building up of any other object, table,[26] hats, etc.  Considered as a builder, the artist takes his place readily besides the other artesans, carpenter, hatter, etc.  His very attitude when watched at work, his smock, which is the overalls of his profession, his tools, brush, mahlstick, knife––the training of wrist and fingers specialized to certain movements as are the hands of most artesans––brand him as a manual worker.  The better the painter, the more brazenly will he flaunt his worker’s mentality, delight in[27] the grain of canvas and the density of pigment.[28]  As a builder weighing brands of sand or lime, he will attribute often his success to physical formulas,[29] which he guards as jealously as a chef guards the receipts[30] of his specialties.  

And the object he produces is really an object, a canvas nailed[31] in a drum-like way on a wooden stretcher––subject, as is the skin of a drum, to temperature and humidity, weighable, and, at least during its making, smellable.  

The paradox begins when we try to put this object to use.  While we sit on a chair, eat from a table, live in a house, and establish in thus doing a clear social intercourse between ourselves and the carpenter, the mason, our debt of gratitude to the painter is not so marked. 

For most people paintings on a wall have a way of getting in the way, as would a piano if we did not know how to use it.  So a painter who refuses to climb into his ivory tower, who wants to mingle with the people as other workers do, is quite certain to receive the cold shoulder, because his product is, not only not straight useful, but slightly embarrassing. 

A painting is an object only in appearance.  A painting in a dark room: - - - - - -  It is not then the painting but its projection into the mind through the eye which is the real product of the painter’s craft.  So that this “ghost-picture”[32] or mental image is the painting proper,[33] and the “object-picture” manually produced by the painter is only the conjurer of this picture.[34]  Though the painter is an artesan by trade, his true fabrication[35] is removed from the physical to a spiritual, rather spiritualist, plane, but his ghostly produce, unlike others, vanishes in the dark. 

As one uses distilled water for laboratory experiments so that microbes will not get in the way, we could handle at first abstract art,[36] unnaturally[37] separating representation from plasticity though both thrived[38] well together in ordinary circumstances.[39]  That pigment on canvas…cows grazing…may not be satisfactory to the purist…yet, this fact being a human routine[40]…we may as well take our art as is, as[41] representational art. 

A representational painting is not unlike a big doll, and those who look at it are playing dolls.[42]  A doll, this inanimate object, will be clothed and fed and put to sleep and emoted upon by the child.  In the same way, the Venus of Milo or the Mona Lisa are being petted and adored by grownups in whom[43] they do arouse some other human instinct as magically as the doll arouses the mother instinct.  There  is a touching naïvety in the passion burned[44] by Mona Lisa into bewhiskered Victorians who dreamed of “playing house” with her.  

The artist having tried to perform abstract art and finding that the[45] human eye imposes even to abstract forms a naturalistic interpretation had better check up on this phase of his trade as he does on harmonies of color, relations of line, given that he cannot deny it.  If he does, representation makes a vengeful comeback.[46]  One will look at a Picasso intently until one deciphers the guitar or fruit bowl; then one is satisfied and leaves the painting alone, missing its plastic beauty.  In a Kandinsky painting, piled up lines become little performing acrobats, his circles unchecked suns playing eclipses.  So it is a reasonable attitude on the part of the artist to clarify the laws that govern representation, so as to keep it within bounds.  To do so, the artist goes to the source, natural vision. 

We have a tendency to take natural vision for granted and to accept a certain brand of academic painting as based on natural vision.  Yet if we approach it with a blank mind, we find ourselves in a bafflement of facts, very few of which may be transported within the limitations of the painter’s trade––binocular vision…focusing…scale according to space…time element (movement)…onlooker’s movement.[47]  If we add to this that this physical image is glosed[48] upon mentally, the difference between things as seen and things as known, we see that any kind of painting is a convention arrived at according to times, philosophy, and personality, and that academic painting is barely more “realistic” than the most exalted brands of modernism.  In fact, the world as we know it is better represented by...relativity…approximate laws.  

However, scientific requirements are sometimes heartless.  Starting with the simplest form, a dot, which corresponds to the organic cell, · , things begin to happen . . . hole . . . fly . . . space . . . volume . . .  Nature gets all mixed up in our diagrams.[49]  This  magic of representation[50] is not quite as absurd as it seems.  Our eyes are trained on natural…accustomed to gauge distance, volume…read character…Even a[51]…–––…ê  

The more complex the design, the more illustrative residue it carries.  So that representation is as inherent a quality of pigment as the oil in it, its density, its viscosity.  We could of course imagine a nonhuman being, untrained to our planet’s ways, innocent too of the very practical uses for offense and defense[52] to which our bodies since babyhood have trained our eyes.[53]  Such a being could enjoy line and colour as such.  They would be drained even of their emotional implications, those being narrowly linked to practical experience––(red has a strong emotional value, being linked to blood and danger, blue as sky-like).  Such illustrative or emotional connotations would not exist in the vacuumed eye that we suppose.  Clipping representation from painting is rather a barren achievement, comparable to that of the atheist that empties the heavens or, in his own words, snuffs the stars. 



[1] Manuscript is a loose half sheet of stationery with the address “15 William St./New York.”  Edited by John Charlot. 

[2] Original: for. 

[3] Original: math. 

[4] Original: point. 

[5] The manuscript, written on small cards, is in the Jean Charlot Collection.  On the verso of the first card is written:


(Spanish cochinella, scarlet colour)


Edited by John Charlot. 

[6] Replaces: description. 

[7] Replaces: into. 

[8] Original: one-sides. 

[9] Original: complex object-point of view. 

[10] Original: circumscribe. 

[11] The original typescript is in the Jean Charlot Collection.  Edited by John Charlot. 

[12] Original: point. 

[13] Replaces: limited. 

[14] Replaces: does not give us. 

[15] Replaces: are defined by point of view not in the round. 

[16] Replaces: subtle. 

[17] Cut in original. 

[18] Original: Frances. 

[19] The manuscript is a single sheet written on both sides, now in the Jean Charlot Collection.  Edited by John Charlot. 

[20] Replaces: often. 

[21] Replaces: define. 

[22] The word parallel is represented in the manuscript by two parallel vertical lines.  The separation between the two lines probably indicates that the visual plane is slightly behind the physical plane. 

[23] Replaces: unseen. 

[24] Charlot cut the following note: bring here the sphere as ideal knowledge.  painted forms tend to the spherical. 

[25] The five-page pencil manuscript is in the Jean Charlot Collection.  Edited by John Charlot. 

[26] Cut: house. 

[27] Original: into. 

[28] Replaces: be choosy about canvas and pigment. 

[29] Replaces: tricks of the trade. 

[30] Charlot uses an old word for recipe; he was probably influenced by the French recette. 

[31] Replaces: stretched. 

[32] Replaces: painting. 

[33] Replaces: picture. 

[34] Replaces: only the conjurer, not the picture. 

[35] Replaces: aim. 

[36] Replaces: Modern art launched this fad of so-called [space] invented a label for abstract art.

[37] Replaces: sharply. 

[38] Replaces: had thrived. 

[39] Cut: It can be only personal conceit that can make the modern artist so positively proud of this negative tendency.

[40] Cut: of centuries. 

[41] Replaces: start talking of. 

[42] Original: doll. 

[43] Original: which. 

[44] Replaces: aroused. 

[45] Replaces: our. 

[46] Replaces: the painting becomes a problem of pure representation. 

[47] Cut: The best any painter can do who wishes to reproduce nat[ure]. 

[48] Again Charlot uses a rare form of gloss, influenced by its closeness to the French gloser. 

[49] Cut: The more complex the design, the more illustrative residue it carries: …–––…ê 

[50] Replaces: representational art. 

[51] Cut: dot. 

[52] Replaces: optical experience. 

[53] Abstract art is the inhuman one of the two.