Jean said his family came to Mexico in 1820.
His grandparents: Victor Joseph Goupil 1805–1884 and Marie Benita Meléndez.3 The Frenchman and the Aztec princess were married in the Cathedral of Mexico City in 18364 and had nine children beginning the Franco-Mexican line.
Jean had a kinship to his Aztec ancestors and a cultural affinity to paint rich skin tones whether in Mexico, Arizona, Hawai‘i, or Fiji, and a delight in primitive arts.
His son Peter, born in Mexico, felt the connection: when a child, if he got cut, he would cry, “I don’t want to lose my Aztec blood.”
Jean’s grandfather, Louis Goupil, was a bullfighter who could throw a bull by the tail. His charro uniform was used by Manet for painting The Death of Maximilian,5 whose arrival in Mexico was an embarrassment for longtime French residents. Even so, Louis Goupil saved Carlotta’s life, stopping her carriage and advising her to go another way to miss the waiting assassins.
Jean grow up with the folk art, tiny toys, and saddles his grandfather brought back to France—a collection I saw in his sister’s house, still displayed in the antique cabinet.
Charnay was a family friend who gave Jean a whistle from a grave he had excavated, but his mother wouldn’t let him blow it.
Jean’s uncles were collectors of Aztec manuscripts and sculptures. Those that went to the Musée de l’Homme—Jean wrote to the director, who was surprised when Jean arrived still young enough to hardly be able to see over the desk.6 Jean’s own books are in the Jean Charlot Collection, Hamilton Library, University of Hawai‘i. The things given to the National Museum of Mexico City Jean saw when he wandered around that city, often in the company of Orozco.7
Jean’s father was French-Russian.
Jean’s French education very much included the Louvre, walking along the left bank of the Seine, collecting prints by Daumier and Images d’Epinal, and a trip to Brittany.
After serving in the French artillery and two years with the army of occupation in Germany, he returned to France. There—his father dead, his sister married, and the disappointment of having a mural commission cancelled—he and his mother decided to move to Mexico, where they went on a first trip in 1920 when Jean was 22, and a second trip in 1921,8 after showing a self-portrait L’Amitié in the Salon d’Automne. Jean returned in 1921, bringing with him his Chemin de Croix woodcuts and some small oils.9
Jean said that although he was born in Paris…that his paintings “speak perhaps more strongly than even facts in favor of my being classified with the Mexican school of painting, whatever my nationality.”
His first oil was of Luz Jiménez,10 and his paintings continue to illustrate his explorations and esthetic experiments as he was getting to know Mexico, which continued to be his subject matter, with the exception of portraits, until 1931 when he painted La Grande Boulangère: Homage to Adget.11
The artistic circles in Mexico were hanging on to shabby Spanish traditions even in the aftermath of the revolution.
Jean enrolled in the outdoor School of Coyoacán, where he shared a studio with Fernando Leal and made his first woodcuts.12
From the gutters, he picked up penny sheets by José Guadalupe Posada and in 192413 wrote his first article about him, rediscovering Mexican tradition.
Jean describes the streets at 6 o’clock in the morning, the low, cubic, painted houses, beautiful people in the streets—there are numberless Ladys of Guadalupe—and the article finishes with a description of Jean, “feather tongued,” boyish, whose mind is “filled with ancient knowledge.”14
Jean was one of the helpers for Diego Rivera15 on his first mural painted in encaustic, but soon received a commission of his own to paint the stairwell of the Preparatoria School, which he chose to paint in fresco. He started October 2, 1922, and finished January 31, 1923, signing that it was the first fresco painted in Mexico since Colonial times, which no one could deny, but his name is still gouged out even to this day.
He instructed the masons when other painters wanted to paint in true fresco. He became a member of the Syndicate of Painters and Sculptors, a Marxist group, whose output blazed the trail of the Mexican Renaissance. Rivera said, “If Charlot were less intelligent he would have been another Saint Louis Gonzaga.”
Weston16 writes that he met Charlot in 1922:
when he visited my first Mexican exhibit…his interest in photography brought us closer…and an account of dinners that were French, no matter if the recipes were Mexican, the expression, the “air,” was entirely French, the violet laden tables were presided over by his mother, a woman I consider a privilege to have known—cultured, distinguished in bearing, with fine critical judgement...
He also tells of choosing Jean to be his opponent in a boxing match, not knowing he had been a champion boxer in France.
Jean did woodcuts, illustrated poems, and wrote scholarly reports for Parisian and Mexican periodicals. With Siqueiros,17 he collaborated on articles and a cartoon strip. Rivera painted him as The Artist.
Orozco wrote --------------
Jean won first prize at La Exposición del Libro in 1924. His first show outside of Mexico was in 1923: the Independents in New York. In 1925, he participated in the Mexican section of the Pan-American show in L. A.
At first there was Rivera and Charlot, “A case of two eagles soaring over a lot of sparrows! The question as to Prize winning could only be between Rivera & Charlot.” Only later was Orozco added and then Siqueiros, and this changed to “Los Tres Grandes,” and Jean was dropped as a foreigner.
Tina Modotti worked together with Jean to document for Orozco his paintings. See The Painter in New York, letters from Orozco.18
His friends of these days lasted, Siqueiros, Mérida, Orozco, Xavier Guerrero—and even his admiration for Rivera didn’t cease, though he destroyed Jean’s mural in the Ministry of Education—also the younger painters, Tamayo, Pablo O’Higgins, Zalce, Weston. These friendships lasted into the next generation, including Luz Jiménez and her family. Many have visited us in Hawai‘i.
In 1926 Jean went to Yucatán for three seasons to work at Chichén-Itzá, where he made copies of the Temple of the Warriors. To get the shadows right, he sat under the blazing sun and was cold enough afterwards to even wear a wool sweater in Hawai‘i.
Anita Brenner19 writes in January 1930 for an Exhibition of Mexican paintings what had happened after Diego Rivera took over all the mural work.
Diego…settled back heavily into the throne built by the Syndicate of Painters and Sculptors; Alfaro Siqueiros fled from artistic intrigue subsequent to the acclamation of the new school; Merida was hailed as a new value in Paris; Orozco rose to grandeur in N.Y.
Charlot, for three years after the political crash of the now famous Syndicate, has been engaged in artistic-archeological work for the Carnegie Institution Expedition to Chichen-Itza. He arrived in New York to find himself in the anomalous position of the man without a country…
It is not recalled that it was he who first arrived at the process of true fresco subsequently adopted by the other mural painters; that if a great number of Mexican school children and teachers express themselves delightedly in woodcuts, it is because Charlot prophetically revived that art in Mexico; that he discovered and studied the great revolutionary Mexican engraver, José Guadalupe Posada; and that most important of all, his mind and skill aided in no small degree the process of analysis and synthesis to define the peculiar structural values now accrued to modern Mexican art.
In 1927 Jean witnessed the violence against the Cristeros. He was nearby when Father Pro and his followers were killed.
In 1928 Jean and his mother left Mexico.
Jean had work to do in Washington to correct the book for the Carnegie Institution of Washington. He must have looked very poor and cold because when he was praying in church, someone offered him a warm coat.
Jean went to see the French ambassador, Paul Claudel,20 asking the driver to let him off in the street. But Claudel was waiting at the front door and had to run all the way down the driveway to meet him. This began a long friendship and collaboration.
The apartment in New York didn’t have heat, and his mother died in 1929 of pneumonia.
Jean was befriended by Orozco and introduced to studios where he could make prints. He was in a summer show at the Museum of Modern Art, was nominated for Hall of Fame by Vanity Fair, and in 1931 he had an exhibit at the plush 57th Street Gallery of John Levy.
This is where I first saw his pictures, while walking from where I lived to the Arts Students League, where I was studying art. I didn’t think of them critically but just simply, “That is how I want to paint.”
The reviews said he was very much in the present fashion but whether he is much more is a question. Mexican Art was already “old hat.”
Jean returned to Mexico in the summer of 1931 and roomed with Pablo21 on a rooftop. Emily Edwards22 had a room on the same roof.
Ione Robinson23 was going on a Guggenheim Fellowship to Mexico and persuaded my father to give me $60 a month to go.
It was at the house she rented in Coyoacán that I met Jean. Many other people came too, and all hated the dinner we gave them of boiled carrots. But Jean was the only one who complained. He suggested that we go for a walk, which we did along the cobbled stone streets, with him holding my arm. I thought, if I ever have a boyfriend, it will be like this. When we got back the others were getting ready to take the bus into Mexico City and get some dinner!!
Charlot, as I was calling him, came often, and I thought he was sweet even though he said mean things. One of them was that he would take me out if Ione wasn’t home. But I didn’t take that seriously as Ione was seldom there, though she hung on Jean and asked how she could become a great painter, and he suggested she could pull out her teeth.
Mexico City had a population of 250 thousand when Jean came there first. Now ten years later, he was happy to show me this beautiful city.
Ione moved, and my cousin came to stay with me.
She was so excited she considered becoming a communist, though it was many churches Jean was showing us.
We went with him to Taxco to see Siqueiros and Blanca Luz.24
1 After Jean Charlot’s death in 1979, his widow, Zohmah Charlot, attempted to write several articles about him, none of which progressed beyond notes. This set is the most finished, although it contains errors.
The reader can consult Karen Thompson, “Jean Charlot: Artist and Scholar”, and my posted biography of my father, Jean Charlot: Life and Work.
The notes have been lightly edited, and quotations are given as written by Zohmah Charlot. All endnotes are by the editor.
2 Pierre Nicolas Goupil (July 4, 1771 – February 22, 1850). Marie Anne Adelaïde Simon (died February 12, 1859).
3 Joseph Victor Ferdinand Sénateur Goupil (March 8, 1806 – May 4, 1884). Anna Benita Meléndez (July 26, 1811 – September 4, 1875).
4 Actually 1830.
5The costume was used, not by Edouard Manet, but by the academic painter Jean-Paul Laurens in Paris for a salon painting, The Last Moments of Emperor Maximilian (1882).
6 It was the Bibliothèque Nationale. Charlot was short, but sixteen years old at the time, 1914.
7 José Clemente Orozco (1883–1949), major Mexican muralist. I do not know of Goupil materials being donated to the National Museum of Mexico. The author is probably connecting with Goupil Charlot’s visits to that museum.
8 Charlot and his mother started their first trip in December 1920 but arrived in Mexico on January 20, 1921. After deciding to move to Mexico, they returned to France on May 6, 1921, to settle their affairs. They arrived back in Veracruz on November 24, 1921.
9 Charlot had brought the Chemin de Croix on his first trip and donated a copy to the Academy of San Carlos library, where it was discovered by young Mexican artists, who became anxious to meet Charlot on his return.
10 Luz Jiménez (1897–1965), model, Náhuatl author, and linguistic informant.
11 1931. Checklist 252.
12 That is, in Mexico. Charlot had made woodcuts in France.
13 “Un precursor del movimiento de arte mexicano: el grabador Posadas.” Revista de Revistas (Mexico City), August 30, 1925, 25.
14 The author seems to be referring to “Mexico de los Humildes,” ca. February 1922, later published as “Art Interpretations,” Mexican Life, March 1926, 16–17. Jean Charlot Foundation. 2011. http://www.jeancharlot.org/english-texts.
15 Diego Rivera (1886–1957), major Mexican muralist. The mural was Creation, finished in 1923.
16 Edward Weston (1886–1958), the great American photographer.
17 David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896–1974), major Mexican muralist.
18 Orozco, José Clemente. The Artist in New York: Letters to Jean Charlot and Unpublished Writings, 1925–1929. Foreword and notes by Jean Charlot, letters and writings translated by Ruth L. C. Sims. The Texas Pan-American Series. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1974. Jean Charlot Foundation. 2011. http://www.jeancharlot.org/books-booklets.
19 Anita Brenner (1905–1974), writer on Mexican art, close friend of Charlot.
20 Paul Claudel (1868–1955), French poet and playwright, friend and collaborator of Charlot.
21 Pablo O’Higgins (1904–1983), American artist active in Mexico.
22 Emily Edwards (d. 1980), writer on Mexican art.
23 Ione Robinson (1910–1989), American artist and writer.
24 Blanca Luz Brum (1905–1985), poet.