Louis Henri Jean Charlot’s background and experiences were truly international with time spent in France, Mexico, the continental United States, and Hawaii. He was a renowned muralist, teacher, and author with a keen interest in folk cultures.

Born in Paris before the turn of the century, Charlot’s heritage included a Russian-born father and a maternal grandfather who was a native of Mexico City. He was educated at the prestigious Lycée Condorcet and in 1912 won the national scholastic boxing championship for his division, while also studying informally at the École des Beaux Arts. In 1917, toward the end of World War I, he was drafted and served as an artillery lieutenant with the Senegalese Troops in northeastern France. On December 25, 1918, he entered Germany with French troops and during the occupation he was assigned to the area of Mannheim and Cologne.          

Jean Charlot, as he was known, was a precocious draftsman. While in the army he began a series illustrating the Way of the Cross which was converted into woodcuts and published in 1920 as Chemin de Croix. The fifteen prints were exhibited in a suburban Parisian church along with designs for vestments and a mural which was never completed. He later commented: “[my] first heartbreak at the realization that a born mural painter is helpless without a wall. . .” In short order he went to Mexico, and became involved in the mural movement there, even becoming an assistant to Diego Rivera for a short time. In 1923 Charlot completed his own project, The Massacre in the Main Temple, a colorful large-scale (fourteen by twenty-six feet) mural crowded with many figures and positioned along a stairway in the National Preparatory School in Mexico City (now Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso). Testing fresco, an unfamiliar medium, he wrote in his diary: “Start fresco! A day of anguish. This first batch of gray mortar looked to my naïve eyes as if it would never lighten. Lacking precedent, I painted blind, hoping for the best.”

The artist’s fascination with ancient civilizations led him to write several articles about pre-Hispanic culture as well as provide illustrations for pieces published by colleagues, and from 1924 to 1926 he was art editor of a periodical called Mexican Folkways.

Between 1926 and 1928 he served as the staff artist for the Carnegie Institution’s archeological excavations at Chichén Itzá in the Yucatan, and later noted that his drawings were the primary illustrations (rather than photographs) for the publication he co-authored, The Temple of the Warriors at Chichén Itzá, Yucatan. Charlot was also active as an illustrator and sometimes author, interests that continued throughout his career.

Subsequently he moved to New York and his work was included in group exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art, the Fogg Museum at Harvard, and the Art Students League, where he conducted classes in 1931–1932 and sporadically thereafter. Briefly visiting Mexico in 1931, he met his future wife, Dorothy Zohman Day, and they were married in 1939. Beginning in 1935 he taught fresco and lithography at the progressive Florence Cane School of Art at Rockefeller Center, as well as at the Chouinard School of Art in Los Angeles, Walt Disney Studios, Columbia University, and the Brooklyn Museum. He spent the summer of 1939 teaching at the University of Iowa and while there painted a fresco of St. Christopher.

One of his students at the League was Lamar Dodd, who invited Charlot to become artist-in-residence at the University of Georgia in Athens (1941–1944). He was active with several local mural projects, including one called Cotton Gin, for the McDonough, Georgia, post office under the auspices of the Federal Art Project. At the university he did a large-scale mural (nine by forty-six feet), Visual Arts, Drama, Music for the fine art building and three more for the journalism building. During the summer of 1942 he was an art history instructor at the University of California, Berkeley.

In 1944 Charlot was on the faculty at Black Mountain College near Asheville, for the inaugural summer art institute, with a theme devised by Josef Albers, “The Teaching of Art,” designed to attract art educators. Amédée Ozenfant and José de Creeft were also on the faculty, but Charlot was the only one in residence for the entire session. They were given room and board, and reimbursed for transportation, but no salary. Charlot taught classes in drawing, painting from nature, composition, and gave community lectures on the topic of “Masters and Their Epochs.” With student assistants he painted two murals on the pylons of Walter Gropius’ studies building. Inspiration holds a drafting tool and Knowledge (or Learning) a book; both show heavily draped robust figures cramped within the confines of the pylons.

The pattern of Charlot’s career continued with mural commissions for Arizona State University and the University of Notre Dame, artist residency at Smith College, 1944–1945, lecturing at Yale University, 1947, and serving as director of the art school at the Colorado Springs Fine Art Center, 1947–1949. With a Guggenheim Fellowship, he returned to Mexico in 1945 for two years to work on his volume, The Mexican Mural Renaissance, and produced a series about Mexican motherhood. Charlot was invited in 1949 to paint a fresco for the University of Hawaii, Manoa, using a subject based on local history: Relation of Man in Nature in Old Hawaiʻi Visual Arts, Drama and Music. He became a professor of art at the University and remained there until his retirement in 1966.

Truly a prolific and multi-talented artist, Charlot authored scholarly articles and books, and designed children’s picture books, usually around folklore and traditional subjects. He created several series of lithographs, ceramic and mosaic murals, and even some bronze and ceramic sculptures. His art was typically narrative, often colorful, and employed compact figures. Charlot was honored by the Royal Society of Art, London as a Benjamin Franklin Fellow in 1972, and four years later the Hawaii legislature awarded him the Order of Distinction for Cultural Leadership and soon after it designated him a “Living Treasure.”