Miriam L. Lesley and Alice W. Hollis
 (Archives of American Art)

Interview with Jean Charlot

at the Detroit Institute of Arts, 
August 18, 1961[1]



The following oral history transcript is the result of a tape-recorded interview with Jean Charlot on August 18, 1961. The interview was conducted at the Detroit Institute of Arts by Miriam L. Lesley and Alice W. Hollis for the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Also present were Paul Hendrickson and Brother James Roberts. 



MIRIAM LESLEY: I would like to welcome Mr. Jean Charlot to the Archives of American Art. We are here in the Detroit Institute of Arts on the 17th of August, 1961 [sic: 18th of August]. Mr. Charlot has been working in Farmington at the church of Our Lady of Sorrows which was built in 1959. With him are Brother James Roberts and Paul Hendrickson, both of whom have been assisting with his work in Farmington, as well as Alice Hollis of the Archives and myself, Miriam Lesley. Mr. Charlot, is this your first visit to Detroit in this area––your first work here?

JEAN CHARLOT: No, I have been here before. I did the fresco in the Church of Christ the Good Shepherd in Lincoln Park for Father Torzweski. That was done some six, seven years ago, I think. So I have been here before. 

MIRIAM LESLEY: We were wondering how you took the subject for the mural that you have just completed. 

JEAN CHARLOT: Well, you usually use the title of the church, and this was the church of Our Lady of Sorrows. Already the windows have given the story of the sorrows of Mary as they are known, and I had to think of another one that would be a little more general and less anecdotal than things like the Flight into Egypt, for example. So I thought that by making the center theme Christ, which is what liturgically we should do, especially on the apsidal wall on the back of the main altar, I could tie Christ and Mary together in some way. I chose the Ascension of Christ. It is, of course, one of the Glorious Mysteries, but from the point of view of Mary, it is the separation from her Son––that is, in His body––and must have been a sort of, if not a sorrow, at least a strain. It shows that particular Ascension of Christ combined with the relationship to Mary at the time. So Christ ascends, and there are angels around him that hold some of the instruments of the Passion, VeronicaÕs veil, and so on, as a remembrance of that other sorrow of Mary, which was the Passion. And underneath some angels are bidding the Apostles go on their missions all over the world, which is, of course, the text in the New Testament. And Mary remains the center of attention. Christ ascends in a white, very white robe that is tinted with yellow as sort of a glorious effect. Mary remains on earth in black, holding a chalice, which is symbolic of sorrow usually. For example, in the Garden of Olives, the chalice is mentioned as the symbol of sorrow. And the Apostles James and Peter make ready to go on their missions. Then there are in the background, in the distance, two figures that symbolize the Old Testament. ItÕs a prophet––I am not sure which one––but it is a prophet with a scroll, which suggests the antiquity of the text of the Old Testament. And the New Testament is symbolized by John the Evangelist holding a book. And that is the subject matter. Also a great number of angels that people the ceiling––angels in flight. 

MIRIAM LESLEY: We were wondering whether you went ahead with the first design or the first plan for the mural or if you perhaps submitted several suggestions to the parish priest. 

JEAN CHARLOT: Yes and no. That is, Monsignor Beahan, who is the parish priest, knew my work. He is very conscientious man. He went and he studied whatever frescoes of mine there were in churches. I think he has seenÉof course, Lincoln Park here, but he went to Atchison, the Benedictine Abbey, saw the fresco there. He went to Centerville, Ohio, where I did the fresco for the Franciscan Friary. I think that at the beginning at least, he may have had a few reservations about the art that I make, which is, of course, original and may surprise if you are not acquainted with it. But very soon he realized, I am sure, that the things were sincerely thought out and would be better than standardized art. So he just wrote me a little note and said that it was fine and that I would do the job. From then on we have had an easy relationship. He has told me what he thought of the first sketches. We have changed, in fact, from the idea of a Pietˆ of Christ dead and Mary mourning at the foot of the Cross to this idea of an Ascension, which includes a more complex mood, including the glorious mood. And then in the details he has also made suggestions that have proved, in fact, very useful about certain refinements in the expression of the picture. 

MIRIAM LESLEY: One thing we were wondering about yesterday was some of the technical details that must have presented themselves with the way the light came in the clerestory windows and the general arrangement of the ceiling of the apse, which in a way is hidden from the body of the church when you are further back. I was wondering just how you overcame some of those difficulties.  

JEAN CHARLOT: Well, I think difficulties are always fruitful if you face them frontwise. I received a three-dimensional model of the church when I was in Hawai`i in which the difficulties were indeed very obvious. One of them as you mention is that most of the ceiling is invisible from the church, from the point of view of the parishioners––that is, when they are in the pews. And the other one is that the apsidal wall itself is partly invisible. The top part of it anyhow. I think that is what started me on that idea of the Ascension. It wasnÕt a choice that was just entirely pious or religious, but I would say nearly mechanical. One of the phrases in the report of the Ascension, I think, is that one of the Apostles mentioned that Christ disappears in the heavens. There is a cloud, and then he disappears in the heavens. And I was quite sure that the top part of my fresco would disappear, perhaps not in the heavens. So I thought that was the only respectful way of presenting the figure of Christ disappearing, which was the theme of the Ascension. It really started on that difficulty that I had to hurdle, of part of the wall being invisible. 

MIRIAM LESLEY: And then what effect did the lights in the clerestory windows up there have on the colors that you used? They seem to be in greens and yellows. 

JEAN CHARLOT: Well, the lights themselves are made of what is called church glass, which is a translucent affair, and they are very faint, actually much fainter than they appear to the eye. And I donÕt think it does very much to my picture. 

MIRIAM LESLEY: Were the colors in the glass before you started your painting or did you specify what they should be? 

JEAN CHARLOT: No, the colors were there. It was built that way, and if I had specified anything, I wouldnÕt have specified that. But actually it isnÕt offensive in the least. In fact, while we were working up there, it was very hot, and I suppose that white glass would have been worse than colored glass, so we were grateful for the semishade that the color afforded. As far as visual effect goes, I think it doesnÕt influence the fresco colors. 

MIRIAM LESLEY: Did you find that the pattern, the strong pattern, in brick at each side of the mural made any difference or detracted in any way? 

JEAN CHARLOT: Again, it is one of those difficulties that usually result in something positive. Monsignor Beahan is very fond of his brick work, and the pattern is a functional pattern because he plans to put an organ behind those open bricks. So I decided to be nice to the bricks and to meet them at the bottom of the ceiling and wall with actual brick color so that the picture ends a little before it touches the wall.[2] Then we have a suggestion of a border line, which, as I said, is brick color, and the whole thing melds in value with the bricks themselves. Sometimes I can be pretty strong and destroy an architecture. It is one way of making a mural, not a very valid one. But here I thought I should be gentle and work with the architecture as I found it. I think also that I like brick very much. I like natural textures. I like a sort of a lack of affectation. I think that is why I like fresco painting, because it is really lime and sand––that is, materials that in themselves are not luxurious but that are rather humble and very sincere. The bricks did work with that philosophy of material that is true, that is natural. If there had been some polished marble, perhaps I would have done something very different.  

MIRIAM LESLEY: It was very interesting the way the colors went from the greens and yellows of the clerestory lights down into the brick. That was one of the first things we noticed on looking at it. When you were speaking of the lime and mortar and all that went into the fresco work, we were wondering about the help that you may have had. Did you have students or apprentices or formal help of any sort? Just how was that done?

JEAN CHARLOT: Well, I think that Paul Hendrickson here could answer the question very well. He is the fellow who has done the plastering for many of my major jobs, and I made his presence, in fact, a condition of the work here, because I knew that plastering of ceilings is very difficult. And he was nice enough to take the time and come and help us on the job. He has done among other things the Benedictine Abbey in Atchison with me. He has done Centerville, which was a rather difficult problem. Mostly it was a round wall, a hemicycle. When we work together, we know that the wall will not fall down. IsnÕt that so, Paul? 


MIRIAM LESLEY: Does he come by himself or does he bring someone else with him? There were several people out there yesterday, and we were wondering just what part you all played in this. 

PAUL HENDRICKSON: I came up by myself from Ohio. 

MIRIAM LESLEY: And did you have someone here to help you with it? We noticed several young men out there yesterday and werenÕt sure whether they were actually part of the project or just cleaning up afterwards. 

JEAN CHARLOT: Well, Brother James Roberts came specially to do the job with me. Of course, when he paints on his own, he is a mature, seasoned painter. He does paint in his own style, but he wanted to learn the technique of fresco among other things, so that he also came specially from San Francisco, I understand, to work with me. And I think that he knows more about fresco than he did at the beginning. IsnÕt that so, Brother? 

BROTHER JAMES ROBERTS: I certainly will agree with you there. 

MIRIAM LESLEY: I canÕt imagine a better teacher. 

JEAN CHARLOT: Also I had my son Martin, who came with me from Hawai`i. He is of high school age. He has already worked in fresco with me. And another son, John, came from Harvard to help me with the job at the end. He has also done work with me. It is rather pleasant to have groups of people that work in union with my intentions or, if they are not in union with my intentions, are obedient enough so that they do the things I ask them to do. And it is really team work. It is impossible to do a fresco 1300 hundred square feet all by myself with a little brush simply to preserve my personality. I think the thrill of fresco is working as a team. I always like to remember the cathedral of the middle ages where one man would have been incapable of doing the whole thing, and yet which stands as a unit, and we think of the cathedral as a unit of art. It is the same thing with those large fresco jobs. 

MIRIAM LESLEY: Well, it all goes together in making the church. I mean your architecture, your brick layer, your stained glass man, and so forth. 

JEAN CHARLOT: ThatÕs right. 

ALICE HOLLIS: Could we go back to this matter of the plaster? How would your plastering work differ, for instance, in preparing for this than it would in any plastering job? 

PAUL HENDRICKSON: It is a whole lot different mixture than you use in commercial work plastering. It is designed specifically to have a sort of porous effect where the paint can soak right in through it. It is harder plaster than is used in commercial work. It has got a lot more sand in it. If you have more lime than sand, it will close the pores of the wall itself to where the paint itself canÕt soak through the wall. 

ALICE HOLLIS: Then is that sized in some way before the paint work is started? 

PAUL HENDRICKSON: It has a coat of plaster underneath it that is prepared for the wall itself. 

ALICE HOLLIS: So that it would be sort of like a shell that is over the softer plaster or something of that sort? 

PAUL HENDRICKSON: Well, the plaster isnÕt really softer, but is made for a specific job. 

ALICE HOLLIS: Then what would be the next step after the plaster? Do you take over at that point? 

JEAN CHARLOT: I have been working, of course, on the design long before we arrived here. The whole job took us six weeks or, as we divide it into daily pieces, I think we have twenty-seven daysÕ tasks as far as fresco is concerned. But since last summer I have been working on all the problems as far as I could see them from Hawai`i, which is a far distance, and solved them as far as I knew. For example, I had a three-dimensional model of the church, and I built up paper dolls the size of parishioners and put them in the different places where they would be in the traffic, we could say, of the church––kneeling at pews, kneeling at the Communion rail, taking in the extreme side view so that the angels that they would see from there would be looking at them. And what you call the dead angle on the ceiling is, of course, seen from the Sanctuary––that is, by the priest at Benediction––and is centered on the Tabernacle and the Blessed Sacrament, so that it should also be decorated. There was a suggestion that it could be left blank, but I felt it wouldnÕt be the proper thing in a church, which is the House of God, not to do the same work for God that we would do for man. I would put it that way. 

MIRIAM LESLEY: Is there much in the way of fresco work going on in the Hawaiian Islands? 

JEAN CHARLOT: Yes, there is quite a lot being done there. There has been a film that has been done by George Tahara, who is a very good technician, on fresco in Hawai`i. It is mostly centered around two frescoes that I did: one for the University of Hawai`i Administration Building, the other for the First National Bank in Waik”k”. Both of them are quite large things and related to Hawaiian themes. Now there have been many other murals done by other artists there. Perhaps the technique of fresco comes a little bit from my being there and having trained some squads of people to fresco painting. But even before I was there, there were muralists of note like Juliette May Fraser for example. 

MIRIAM LESLEY: Does the warm climate and the consistent summer out there make any difference? 

JEAN CHARLOT: Well, the difference is that the mortar sometimes dries a little quickly and you have to be careful about cracks in your wall. But I donÕt believe that fresco is a very delicate affair. I think that if you nurse your mortar through the first days of drying out, it becomes very quickly tough. One of the toughest mediums. And I think that there is a little bit of affectation when you read the books about fresco painting––about people saying that they cannot paint fresco in such and such place. I read, for example, that in Pittsburgh a fresco would disappear in two weeks because of the soot in the atmosphere. Well, I would like to try––I am going there now. I think the worst example of that sort of precious approach to fresco was Puvis de Chavannes, the French muralist. We are grateful to him because he is one of the few muralists who truly was born a muralist in the nineteenth century. But all through his life he was afraid of fresco painting, and he imitated the effects of fresco in oil. The French government in that sense was very enlightened, and they pushed him to do fresco. They asked him to do fresco, so he had all sorts of excuses. He said, I cannot do fresco unless we bring Italian masons here. They are the only fellows who know how to do fresco. So they said, we will bring Italian masons. And then like all those other people, he said the climate of France is not suitable to fresco. So instead of having true frescoes by Puvis, we have imitation frescoes. And great as they are, they are still a fake of a sort. 

MIRIAM LESLEY: They probably wonÕt last as long as the true fresco method, will they? 

JEAN CHARLOT: Well, we will speak of that in 1,000 years. 

MIRIAM LESLEY: And how about some of your other work in Hawai`i? Your graphic work and the work that you do with your students there? 

JEAN CHARLOT: Well, of course, I am really a professor of history of art. This is what I do now. I give lecture courses. I have retired a little bit from studio work because I am not sure that I can give a keen criticism of abstract expressionism, though I do like very much to have some of my students do abstract expressionism. There is a moment where the eye gets dull about it, and I wouldnÕt know quite what to say. On the other hand, those young people, of course, consider me like what I am, a much older man. But they also consider that my insistence on storytelling in art is a certain sort of disaffection from a purely subjective approach to art, is old fashioned. Of course, they prefer people who, in their opinion, are more progressive than myself. I speak purely from their point of view. I donÕt consider myself as an old fogy in the least, and I believe that storytelling in art is nearly an obligation of great art. I think that anybody who has visited the museum realizes that, anyhow, storytelling is nothing against art. In my opinion they go together. 

MIRIAM LESLEY: There again the 1,000 years perhaps will be the judge.

JEAN CHARLOT: No, I think ten or fifteen years is enough to see a reversal of the values. I may live that long. 

MIRIAM LESLEY: But there is a great interest in the Islands in art history and in the practicing of art? 

JEAN CHARLOT: Well, it is a very interesting art department because we have there, of course, many people who are from Asiatic backgrounds. Mostly Japanese, but we have also Chinese there. And when we speak of the history of art, we speak both of the Eastern art and Western art. We have courses in both, and they are on the same footing really. And it is one of the best places I think, though I know many colleges and universities here, to learn about Chinese art and Japanese art. I have learned myself to consider Asiatic art as simply part of the human heritage. While in the work I did before on the mainland in universities, I still felt that Chinese art was far away. It was something beautiful, something picturesque, but I didnÕt see it in the same great tradition, we could say, of my favorites––men like, for example, Poussin in France. But I do now consider it as very much a part of my own make-up. Probably because since I have been in Hawai`I, I have befriended Chinese artists, for example, and had among my students Chinese and Japanese people. 

MIRIAM LESLEY: I should think that would be a very great advantage for your students––to be able to look both ways, East and West. 

JEAN CHARLOT: Yes, sometimes it makes them a little cross-eyed, but that is something that happens to some of them. They donÕt quite know if they are coming or going. But the very young people have a way of holding the brush, for example, which is so much more able than the same young Americans here of the same age. I hope that that doesnÕt fade out. There is a danger, as they learn to be Americanized, that they get a little shy about their own racial background, and we are doing our best to avoid that––to make them proud, in fact, of their own racial background. 

MIRIAM LESLEY: You have been there now for––is it close to seventeen years, did you tell us the other day? 

JEAN CHARLOT: Thirteen. 

MIRIAM LESLEY: You had done teaching in this country, hadnÕt you? 

JEAN CHARLOT: Yes, I have been teaching in many parts of this country. I suppose my earlier teaching was in New York. I taught summer courses in Columbia and so on. Well, there are so many places. I suppose, my most glorious assignment as a teacher was a series of lectures at Yale on the subject of Mexican art. I like teaching. I never felt that it got in the way of my painting. I have managed to move forward. 

MIRIAM LESLEY: YouÕre very fortunate in that respect, I think, not to let one take place over the other when both can give you the satisfaction that they do. 

JEAN CHARLOT: Yes, of course, one thinks of the paycheck. But I do think that even if I was a millionaire, which I am not, I would go on teaching. I like very much to see the succeeding generations, and it makes me feel a little settled to see their successive conclusions. 

MIRIAM LESLEY: Yes, and there is something about the contact, too, with young people who have so very much to learn and so much to get from you. 

JEAN CHARLOT: Well, I donÕt know that, unhappily. But as for the last generation that we have been training, I would say, the great majority of the art that the students contact at the University, as in any other college or university, the great majority is abstract. They see mostly abstract expressionism, abstract impressionism. They themselves are taught to paint within those schools; and it is very amazing to see the younger men who have just arrived at the university contact, sometimes by accident, representational art. It is for them an amazing discovery that art can represent something beside themselves, I would say. I was speaking the other day of my son Martin, who is a good example. He is of high school age. He has been, of course, trained in the kind of artistic milieu in which we live naturally, being artists. But his discovery of American art was something wonderful for me. His worship of Hopper is a very good example of that amazement of the very young people when they find out that there is some other way of doing art than the fashionable way of today. I would like to live up to ninety or so just to be sure that I am right about what I am saying. 

MIRIAM LESLEY: Well, you may very well. 

JEAN CHARLOT: Not from those high scaffolds on which we have to paint these days. 

MIRIAM LESLEY: I am sorry that your son wasnÕt able to be in here today because we would like to have had him listen to our Hopper tape. 

JEAN CHARLOT: He may have another fortunate time. 

MIRIAM LESLEY: Well, I hope so, and I hope that it wonÕt be too long before you come back. 

JEAN CHARLOT: Well, I donÕt know. There are still churches being built, and some of them need some sort of decoration. So probably all three of us, Brother, Paul, and myself will be back. 

MIRIAM LESLEY: Yes, there is so much activity in building going on in Detroit today that there should be a lot more opportunity for you here. 

JEAN CHARLOT: Well, I donÕt know. They think they love marble. IÕve seen those new buildings by the river side, and once you have polished marble, it is the saddest thing because you canÕt put mortar on top of that thing. It would slide down and itÕs finished. Now I think marble is a luxurious covering, but I think that art is a little more human. 

MIRIAM LESLEY: Yes, the marble is cold and not as personal. Although, donÕt you feel that as long as there is church architecture that there will be room for the work that you do? 

JEAN CHARLOT: Well, I donÕt know. I have been fighting since I was eighteen-years-old. It was in this century, but long ago. I fought for good liturgical art. There have been great progresses made. And certainly in architecture the freedom nowadays in the forms of churches is amazing compared to the old idea that Gothic was the best but that you could use perhaps Byzantine. ThatÕs all there was around 1910. So there is progress. Only my hand is beginning to be a little wobbly, and I may not be the one to carry the torch when the decoration of churches will be absolutely freed. 

ALICE HOLLIS: You seem to have been quite a biblical scholar and liturgical scholar. Do you do much research in that way, particularly for these various things relating to the symbolism? 

JEAN CHARLOT: Well, I donÕt know. Since I was a small boy I kind of mixed up a sort of scholarship––a scholarÕs approach, I would say––with an artistÕs approach. I really have worshipped, visually anyhow, the old masters, and I was always interested in the storytelling in their work. For example, when you looked at reproductions of Giotto in the time when cubism was the last word in art, people would speak of the form of Giotto and the significant form of those drapes, and they were quite right. But I never like to drain out a picture of its purpose. Now Giotto was a fellow who worked for the Church, and he was a pious man, and he wanted to put certain feelings in his pictures that would make them devotional. I think itÕs no compliment to an old master to simply use him from the point of view of modern art and forget his own aims. I was speaking of cubism; well that is, of course, of the 1920s. But there are other masters who have been reassessed in our day in terms of surrealism, let us say, like Bosch, or perhaps abstractionism, like Turner, and I think itÕs not a compliment. They are more complex. They are not men who are good because they are close to the fashion of the day. There are men who are good because of an extreme complexity, and I donÕt think we have the right to separate the different elements that make their own complex person. 

ALICE HOLLIS: We just touched lightly on this business of the architect and the artist working so well in the Gothic times. Do you think that that is getting to be more so now than it was say through the Ō20s in the church work. Do you think that this liturgical movement, for instance, has added anything to that? 

JEAN CHARLOT: Oh, I donÕt know. I donÕt think that there is a progress in the arts. There are changes. I donÕt think there is very much progress in human nature. I think we are not perfect, but I wouldnÕt like to present the Ō20s as simply a springboard for the sixties. It was a time when at least a few liturgical artists were rather heroic about it because they were going against the grain much more than liturgical artists do now. And I think they were heroic also because all the liturgical work that they did that was really good was never commissioned and very rarely eventually put into a church. Nowadays, with the relative success of what we could call modern liturgical art, I suppose some people will do it because there are commissions, and perhaps the heroic quality of the earlier work may be lost. 

MIRIAM LESLEY: Have you done much work in nonliturgical buildings in recent years? 

JEAN CHARLOT: Yes, I have. I have done quite a lot of work in universities, in schools and colleges. My last job was done at the University of Syracuse in New York, and we have already there things like the large Descent from the Cross from Rico Lebrun, which is in the library and was saved, I would say, from destruction by Laurence Schmeckebier, who is the head of the Department. 

MIRIAM LESLEY: My old teacher. 

JEAN CHARLOT: Lebrun was getting desperate about storing the thing, and Schmeckebier really gave it a very correct setting in the Library. I have known him, of course, since about 1928 when he was working on his history of Mexican painting, one of the first published in English. He came to see me at the time, and some of the data I gave him was incorporated in his book. Since then we have seen each other rather often. And he wanted to add to the Lebrun mural a sample of my own fresco murals. So when I was in New York he phoned me and said that if I accepted immediately, there would be the commission of making a large mural––it was about fifty feet long. He had only four weeks, I think, before he left on his vacation. So I said, ŅI accept if I have the right to do just what I want and choose the subject matter that I want.Ó He said, ŅAll right,Ó so I went there. I did a Mexican fiesta. For a long time I had wanted to do one of those village fiestas with girls dancing that IÕll call malinches or malintzins in Indian with their little wooden swords and their rattles and so on. I have done many of these pictures of the subject, but I wanted to do a mural of it. And I put it there on the wall of one of the dining rooms to the great astonishment of everybody concerned, who asked me what relation there was between those little girls dancing and the University of Syracuse. Well, it was the dining room for the girls whose dormitory adjoined. So I said that there were girls in the dining room and there were girls on the walls, and that was fine. Everybody liked it. It has nice colors and is a pleasant thing to look at. 

MIRIAM LESLEY: Do you get back to Mexico nowadays? 

JEAN CHARLOT: The last time I was there was when I got that two-year Guggenheim fellowship to finish writing on the history of Mexican murals. That was already a long time ago. It must have been at the end of the Ō40s, and since then the work has been finished and is to be published very soon by Yale University Press. 

MIRIAM LESLEY: That book of Schmeckebier, I think, did a lot toward making us aware of what was going on in Mexico. That, in addition to the work that Rivera was doing here and in New York in the Ō30s. Although I think SchmeckebierÕs book was about Õ39, Õ40? 

JEAN CHARLOT: No, it was ten years before, around 1930. There is only one book that was published prior to that, and that was Anita BrennerÕs Idols Behind Altars, which was an excellent introduction to the spirit of the renaissance in Mexico. 

MIRIAM LESLEY: And then you did an earlier book, didnÕt you? 

JEAN CHARLOT: Well, you have a little list of my books there. There is quite a number of them. I did certainly many articles that pinpointed certain facets of the movement and so on. 

MIRIAM LESLEY: I think that probably was another case of peopleÕs not being aware of what was close to them––in the same sense that students feel they have to go back to Europe to study. They werenÕt, before the Ō30s, aware of what had been going on in Mexico over the centuries. 

JEAN CHARLOT: Well, most probably, but also the Mexican tradition and the American tradition are quite distinct. 

MIRIAM LESLEY: They were so far apart. It was, though, rather strange that our appreciation of what was being done was so late in coming. 

JEAN CHARLOT: I tried once to boil it down to a very simple statement. I said that art in the United States is a question of buying and selling, and art in Mexico is a question of making it. And it is very true. I have been astonished. For example, I have been on the advisory board to a museum where it is always the question of buying and selling that comes in. I think there is no secret in saying that was the Museum of Modern Art in New York. And I remember presenting to them a project which was to keep the documentation of the murals that were being done at the time. That was in the Ō30s––Rivera, Orozco, Siqueiros and so on, who were doing their large murals––and there was so much being done that could be saved: the cartoons on butcher paper, the architectural models with the first sketches. I gave a detailed project in which I suggested a mural department that would keep those different things plus photographs, of course, of the murals in place. There was not much reaction because the Museum of Modern Art divided its departments into oil painting, watercolor, drawing, prints, and photographs. And my own suggestion would have bypassed all those different departments. Furthermore you canÕt buy or sell murals. And really that counts very much against mural painting. 

MIRIAM LESLEY: Well, of course, what we are trying to do here in the Archives is the same sort of thing. To save what went into the preparation for any sort of work of art, whether it is a mural or a portrait or a landscape. And to try to get some idea of what was in the artistÕs mind as he was making the foundations for it. The same sort of thing that you have been telling us this morning about your preparations for the work at Our Lady of Sorrows. 

JEAN CHARLOT: But I think also that you are a little afraid of stepping on the toes of museum people, and if you were offered the drawings that were really spectacular drawings that museums may want, you would hesitate in accepting them, I think. 

MIRIAM LESLEY: No, we are more interested in the preliminary sketches and things for study purposes rather than anything that would be of value as an exhibition piece in a museum. 

JEAN CHARLOT: Actually, some of my mural cartoons done on brown paper have been accepted by Agnes Mongan at Harvard. They are very glad to have them there, because otherwise those things get destroyed so easily. 

MIRIAM LESLEY: Yes, they have to be in a library with a dragon keeper to be sure that they do exist fifty or a hundred years from now. 

JEAN CHARLOT: They are not the size that you can put on a wall. If you want to frame them, they are too expensive framed because they are too large. We mural painters are really very unhappy as far as preserving our art goes, with the exception of the actual mural, because only that remains. 

MIRIAM LESLEY: Yes, and then, too, they canÕt be shipped around for exhibition in other places. That is another disadvantage. But at the same time I think that a mural in a church, or whatever its setting, can in a way be appreciated and felt and experienced more than an easel painting. At least that has always been my experience with architecture and murals. 

JEAN CHARLOT: Well, I love to work for nonartists. I think that the business of the artists is really to work for nonartists, and I am always a little doubtful of people who know all about art. First, they never know all about it, they just think they do. Secondly, they make sort of snap judgments. And in every mural that I have done, if I could please, let us say, the janitor of the building where I did the mural, I knew that I had achieved my aim. I mean it very seriously. Nonartists are more able to see the impression that the artist would like to give. I donÕt believe in art for art really very much. That is, I donÕt see the point. It is a magnificent means, but it should be a means to some end that has to do with that word that people nowadays use so much––communication. 

MIRIAM LESLEY: That probably is one of the reasons for your success as a muralist, donÕt you think?
Because in a work that is exposed on a wall to peopleÕs view, the majority of whom are not artists, there you have to consider more the approach of the nonartist, whereas your easel painting is exhibited in a museum to which people come specifically to see that painting rather than being exposed to it whether they will or not. 

JEAN CHARLOT: Well, itÕs a rather difficult thing to say, but there are some people, for example, who like to be with children and to play with children. We could say that the nonartist––for the artist, anyhow––has kept a quality of sincerity and that na•ve quality of the eye that people who are trained––so-called art lovers and, even worse, collectors and museum people––have lost. They have lost it long ago and cannot recapture it. 

ALICE HOLLIS: We havenÕt touched on your book illustration. I think it probably ties into your ideas about art, that you like to see a story and so on. How do the two work together? Did one come before the other? 

JEAN CHARLOT: No. They came pretty much at the same time. I think my first illustrations were in Mexico, in the Ō20s, at the same time that I was doing my murals there. And they were done mostly because they were illustrations of Indian stories that I had heard told by my Indian friends, and I wanted very much to bring out a visual equivalent of the words that I had been told. And from then on I have been labeled by publishers as the fellow who does illustrations of brown people. So if there is a story with brown people in it, they ask me to illustrate it. It doesnÕt matter where the brown people are. It can be perhaps Cuba, Peru, or Mexico sometimes. IÕm the fellow who is in charge of the brown people. It is a good thing because I like to do it. 

MIRIAM LESLEY: When you are given a book to illustrate, do you read it through several times to find just the places that you think will be best for the pictures or does the author sometimes feel there are some points he would like to be brought out in illustrations? Just how do you go about that? 

JEAN CHARLOT: Well, it depends what the bulk of the text is. Sometimes I have been illustrating books that were very bulky and I forgot to read them. But in the case of stories that I prefer, which are for children age four to six, I read every word of the text because there is so little of it. Usually I receive two sheets typewritten in those short lines––that is the whole book––and a note from the publisher saying, ŅDo thirty-two full-page drawings in full color.Ó So I have to mull over the text to find out how I can make those drawings. I remember one little line that read––it was in the Good Night Book––ŅAll the animals on all of the earth go to sleep.Ó That was the only thing there was for text; and the publisher had added a little note to show all the animals on all the earth going to sleep in full color. I was a little mad at the author for that particular page. 

ALICE HOLLIS: You have done several things for Paul Claudel. Is he a friend of yours? 

JEAN CHARLOT: Well, of course, he is dead now, but he was a very good friend of mine. I knew him when I went to Washington. He was French ambassador then. Of course, I had read his work. I was an enthusiastic Claudelian, as we say of the people who are friends of Claudel, when I was in my teens. It was a great treat for me to meet him. And even though he was French ambassador and a great eminence there, he met very few artists in his political rounds. So in spite of the difference of age, we really became close friends, and I illustrated quite a number of his works. 

MIRIAM LESLEY: And he wrote introductions to several catalogs of your exhibition? 

JEAN CHARLOT: Well, he wrote an introduction to the exhibition at the John Becker Galleries in the Ō30s. 

ALICE HOLLIS: Do you still find time for easel painting? 

JEAN CHARLOT: Yes, indeed, I do. Before I came here I just had a rather large one-man show of easel painting and mural cartoons, but mostly easel pictures, in Hawai`i. I think oil painting is a very nice thing for easel painting, and fresco is a very nice thing for mural. Two distinct things. 

MIRIAM LESLEY: Tell me, do you do your easel paintings as the spirit moves you, do you wait for a commission, do you do it in demonstrating to your classes, or what is largely the motivating factor behind your starting a new picture? 

JEAN CHARLOT: Well, if I waited for commissions, I would wait a very long time. Though I have had a few commissions of portraits, which were very interesting. I wouldnÕt quite say that I do my easel pictures as the spirit moves me. IÕm unusual in that sense that I think I prefer discipline to freedom. I remember how young painters come to my studio and see pictures that arenÕt finished and they say they are so happy to see that I am getting a little freer in my old age and so on. And I look at the picture and say, ŅWait a minute, I see a few free forms in there that I have to modify till they disappear.Ó So they give me up in despair. I donÕt like freedom as such. At least I like a sort of limited freedom. I would say even in my inspiration IÕm not wild and woolly, but the inspiration is a sort of ordered inspiration. I think in my easel pictures as in my mural painting there is a quota of architectural thought, and that is the link between the two. In mural painting you receive an architecture; you have to cope with it. In easel painting you create your own architecture. 

MIRIAM LESLEY: Was there anything else you would like to tell us while you are here? Because I think that with all of the different sorts of work you have done and in so many different surroundings that your career perhaps has been more varied than most artists. And I think that has shown up very well in what you have been saying. 

JEAN CHARLOT: Well, I have never been bored, I would say. 

ALICE HOLLIS: Could we go back just for the last couple of minutes to very early days, perhaps to your education, and how you got into art rather than something else. 

JEAN CHARLOT: Well, my mother was a painter, and she had a little studio in our summer house where she painted. She was an easel painter, of course, and as I grew up she would make portraits of me. I was a model, an artistÕs model, before I became an artist. But I really didnÕt know better. She had the brushes and the paint there, and when I found which end of the brush to use, I did use it.

MIRIAM LESLEY: Well, I must say that you are very generous in having come to speak with us today. 

JEAN CHARLOT: You are welcome. 

MIRIAM LESLEY: And I think that this recording will be one that will be used and quoted from, I hope, if we have your permission for that. 

JEAN CHARLOT: Well, I think that some people from Farmington probably will come to hear the recording when they know that it is in existence. 

ALICE HOLLIS: I think one of the articles in TIME said that you had the best of both worlds in being both the artist and the critic––which you can confirm or deny. 

JEAN CHARLOT: Yes, but I have a blind spot about my own work. I never criticize it. It is always the work of my fellow painters. 

MIRIAM LESLEY: Will you come see us next time you are in Detroit? 

JEAN CHARLOT: I will indeed, and I hope to be able to send you a few things for the Archives. 

MIRIAM LESLEY: Oh, that would be grand, and if you have any sketches that are not of museum caliberÉ 

JEAN CHARLOT: I may find some sketchbooks and so on that are mixed up with writings so that it will be right for you. 

ALICE HOLLIS: What is this commission you are going to do in Pittsburgh, did you say?

JEAN CHARLOT: No, I am just going to see my son there, who is going to become a monk in the Order of the Oratory––to see him and to say goodbye to him. 


This transcript is in the public domain and may be used without permission. Quotes and excerpts must be cited as follows: Oral history interview with Jean Charlot, 1961 August 18, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Edited by John Charlot with pencil changes by Jean Charlot. 

[1] This transcript is in the public domain and may be used without permission. Quotations and excerpts must be cited as follows: Oral history interview with Jean Charlot, 1961 August 18, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.  

Edited by John Charlot with pencil changes by Jean Charlot. 

[2] Original: so that the end of the picture is a little before we touch the wall.