Remembered by Frank Sheed


I first met Jean Charlot in a fresco.  Naturally, you think.  Not at all, I answer.  It was rather improbable. 

The year was 1933.  After a short absence I had returned to the Sheed & Ward office in lower Fifth Avenue.  High up on the high wall of the front room I found a stag, superbly colored.  They told me it had been done by a French artist who had called to visit a member of  the staff.  He had thought it a pity to waste all that white space and had put the stag there—dipping a pointed metal instrument into little bottles of colored ink.    

Now, a stag was the firm's emblem, from an etching David Jones had given us in payment for some of our books he happened to want.  Stag differed from stag in glory—Charlot's caught the eye of passengers on the top deck of buses running up the Avenue.  Sometimes they got off at the next stop and came in to look at it closer.  We loved it, but we did not have it long—a cleaner washed it off, thinking we would prefer to have our nice white wall unsullied. 

 Charlot and I met soon after and went on meeting for most of half a century.  He had been born in France, won a boxing championship as a schoolboy, was an artillery lieutenant in the First World War with African troops under him.  Yet he was not a fire-eating type, but had an inbuilt serenity I have not often met.  He had some Mexican Indian blood, went to Mexico as a young man, went on archaeological expeditions to Yucatan, making drawings of the art objects uncovered there.  And he was one of the first of the Mexican Muralists. 

I found him endlessly interesting.  To begin with he is the only artist I have ever come to know well.  In a chapter he contributed to one of our books, Born Catholics, he tells what his art meant to him: nothing could interfere with his painting what he saw as he saw it.  I had not to wait for that chapter to know how deep this necessity was rooted in him.  A man I knew had arranged for him to paint the portrait of a well-known society woman.  Charlot seemed pleased; he needed the money; the portrait would bring him into the full awareness of America's art world.  But when the appointed time came he did not go.  He knew what she would have wanted in a portrait and he would not provide it.   

Art meant everything to him.  It meant considerably less than that to me—Charlot's art, anybody's.  Only now and again did I admire his major painting.  There would have been no point in pretending.  I remember telling him that Mozart had walked through the Louvre, not looking at the great paintings.  Charlot's comment was silence.  I think he did not hold it against me that in this area I was blind. 

But how was it that I came to admire the man himself as I did, while not sufficiently admiring the work that was life to him?  I had never asked myself the question; indeed I should not be asking it now if Zohmah Charlot had not honored me by asking me to write something on him for the family archives. 

To an extent the admiration flowed out of the differences between us, one difference especially—what the body meant to him, flowing out of what the eye did for him.  My eyesight was better than his, but what that spectacled eye of his showed him was outside my world altogether.  When he says that the Christian belief in the resurrection of the body “included both resurrected eyeballs,” I saw what he meant, but it would not have occurred to me either to say it or to feel its urgency.  Yet I am stirred by his hope that in eternity “the eye will come into its own.” 

In the chapter of Born Catholics I have already mentioned, he writes: “I have seen more women stripped than even Casanova saw, and as many nude men as a bath attendant.”  This reminds me of an incident I have recorded elsewhere.  As a young man I came to know an old man, Professor Howley of Galway.  As a young man he had been in Gerard Manley Hopkins's class at University College, Dublin.  He told me of a day when Hopkins, reading some passage to his students, paused a long moment and said, “I have never seen a naked woman.  I wish I had.”  The class was stunned by such words from a Jesuit. 

What was in Hopkins's mind is anybody's guess.  What was in Charlot's mind he tells us: “Nudity was at first intended to convey the quality of purity.”  What the Church calls modesty is, therefore, “a transitory affair, a human compromise brought about by the original accident.” 

We published the American edition of Pilgrim's Progress by C. S. Lewis.  We sent it to Charlot, who was to illustrate an article about it in our house organ.  In the allegory, one of the characters—The Enemy—rather upsets the Pilgrim by reminding him of the revoltingness of so much that is inside our bodies, not only the excrement of which the body rids itself but so much of what is permanent in it.  Another character quiets him with the reminder that the unpleasantness is not under our gaze, and that anyhow “It will do you no harm to remember from time to time the ugly sights inside.” 

Charlot was more indignant over this than over anything in any other of our books.  He denied that the sights inside a healthy body are ugly—the colors are beautiful.  As I write this I wonder why I never sent this comment to Lewis. 

This intense concern with the material order, with what the eye can see and the brush can paint, did not mean that “no flavor of spirituality intrudes.”  The phrase is his, but “intrudes” is so very much the wrong word.  In every line he drew there was spirit; he was drawing spirit all the time.  I do not feel that he always brought it off, so to speak.  But splendidly or less splendidly, that was what he was doing.  He did not simply summon up spirituality when he was picturing Christ or Christ's Mother or the saints.  It did not have to intrude; it did need to be summoned up.  It was there, inbuilt. 

I had not known him long when I found myself telling a friend of his and mine that I had not often known a more fully balanced Catholic mind than Charlot's—spirituality wedded with rich insights into the material order, the Church seen both as the pillar and the ground of truth and as we its members have variously distorted it.  We both saw that to abandon the Church because one felt that Pope or Curia or our parish priest had acted badly was to attach too much importance to parish priest or Curia or Pope.  Christ is the point: if He can put up with them, we can. 

We had other agreements, all discovered casually, in conversation.  I cannot remember that we ever had any lengthy talk on religion.  I spent little time looking at his pictures, he did not read my books.  But about  the Faith we saw through to each other admirably. 

To the faith his approach was, as we might expect, through the eye.  “All in all it is perhaps the spectacle displayed, the stage sets—naēve, sumptuous, pompous, comical—the hazards of taste in visits to every Church or Chapel or Churchman, that bind me irretrievably to the Church militant”—Pope John's “pilgrim church” in fact. 

“Irretrievably”—the word reminds me of what Franćois Mauriac said of himself, that he was of the sort which could only be Catholic.  Charlot's faith must have been rockbuilt, invulnerable, or it could not have survived his work with the Mexican Muralists, who were not much given to patience with religion.  I used to wonder how his faith stood up to them, how they tolerated a man so Christ centered.  That it was no matter of toleration on either side I learnt from a single incident.  Charlot and I emerged from lunch one day and were walking back to my office when we almost ran into Rivera, one of the greatest of those Muralists.  They hailed each other in a kind of ecstasy.  I slipped away, my departure unnoticed. 

But, as we have seen, his faith's firmness was tested from within the Church as well, and this test was not only in the mind but in the eye, where it would hurt him most.  He saw the ship of St. Peter loaded with “its Satanic cargo of plaster junk, saints ą la mode, polychromed in all colors of ice-cream.”  But junk on Peter's ship disturbed his faith no more than corruption in Peter's successors.  Christ remained the point, and there was more to his reaction than that.  These evil things not only did not weaken his faith; in some manner I can but glimpse they helped to “bind him irretrievably.” 

In fact, of course, mere ugliness, mere corruption, could not have bound him irretrievably, could not have bound him at all, if there had not been the inner vision.  When Paul, quoting Isaiah, speaks of mysteries which eye has not seen nor ear heard, he does not mean that we have no access to them at all.  Faith has its own way of seeing and hearing, and its certainty is greater than the body's eye or ear can give.  This certainty Charlot had, but, as he says, “Where the path branches away towards the invisible and the untouchable, I lack means of expression.” 

True enough.  He was a painter, not a theologian.  But there are theologians who could not have expressed or even thought some of the things he did see and did manage to express.  Dozens of times he made black and white drawings to accompany articles written, by me among others, in our house organ.  Again and again his few lines went deeper than my words. 

In a book of drawings he made on phrases in the liturgy, the captions he added were often of a superb penetration, sermons in themselves.  His eye was really seeing the words we all have under our gaze.  This was not because of an element in his eye itself, denied to the ordinary run of us.  It was in the mind which used the eye he looked with; and the same mind used the eye that he read with, read Scripture with. 

His life work was in form and color.  But his skill with words had a similar depth and precision.  I marvelled that anyone could write a second language as he wrote English.  But he told me that English was not his second but his third; his Spanish was better.  Perhaps it was.  I find it hard to believe that even his French was better.  He sometimes used a phrase that an Englishman would not have used—as when he told me of a staircase so narrow that he had to come down it “in profile.”  One smiled, not as at an error, but with pleasure at the new possibility he had found for the word. 

When he was reading Scripture, he saw it as he saw a scene he was painting, saw it in itself, saw it in its context.  But his mind was doing its own kind of seeing too.  He once drew Joachim and Anna walking with the small child Mary.  And he has Joachim saying, “And to think I wanted a boy.”  St. Alphonsus Liguori, a doctor of the Church who wrote a book on Mary's Glories, never uttered them more gloriously, or so effortlessly. 

I await impatiently the “Life and Times of Jean  Charlot.”  This minuscule study will at least show why I see him as part of my own education. 


Bibliographical note:

After Jean Charlot’s death in 1979, his widow, Zohmah Charlot, asked Frank Sheed to write this essay for the use of students and scholars.  The Jean Charlot Estate LLC is grateful to Mr. Sheed and to Sheed & Ward Publishers (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group), which has affirmed that it has no objection to the publication of the essay.  Please do not reprint or copy without the permission or use without acknowledgment.