Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Jean Charlot: Artist and Poet in the French Heavy Artillery

By Kimball Worcester

24 September 1919. Pencil and wash. 10 1/8" x 14 5/8"
© The Jean Charlot Estate LLC. With gracious permission.

Louis Henri Jean Charlot (1898, Paris – 1979, Honolulu) contributed to the visual and poetic arts of the 20th century with depth and talent, inspired by his deep Catholic faith, his love of folk imagery, and, early on, his experience in the Great War.

Upon his call-up in Feb 1917, Charlot was just 19 years old and had not completed his baccalaureate. This was the year of mutinies for the French, so he was moved into service fast as one of the replacements. Charlot writes of his motivation in the war —

And I will die not at all for a flag, for that cloth and that wood. Nor for those words where the
dream ricochets, those empty things, nor for France, that torch, that great nation, but because it is
Your Will that I suffer on this corner of earth, that I die for a carnal and imperfect France.

His son John writes in his biography of Charlot* that this is a "clear expression of Charlot's search for a religiously permissible attitude to making war." Submission to God was a driving factor for Charlot, more than patriotism or politics.

Sent to train in Orléans, Charlot created this ink lithograph celebrating the patron saint of artillerymen, Ste. Barbara. It was the first of a proposed series of saints that was not completed. “Those are actually my guns, copied directly from them,” states Charlot.* He explains further, "2cc at the top is canonnier conducteur; that is the boys who were on the horses. The only way of carrying our guns were horses at the time. 2cs at the underneath is canonnier servant, who were serving the guns, and the 2 means that it was the lowest possible rank in the army."*

Ste. Barbe
Lithograph 16.25" x 10.75" (41.3cm x 27.3cm) Smithsonian American Art Museum. Gift of Jack Lord 1971.291.1[]

Charlot's artillerist training gave Charlot the muralist a distinctive training as well:

The measurement of a painting is not physical but optical...In artillery, the unit is not physical but optical: whatever happens to be measured as one inch when seen at one mile. For a greater distance, a physically larger object will be needed to fill that inch, but for the artilleryman, that inch will still be the unit of measurement. What we have here is not a constant measurement on the ground, but a constant angle in the eye.

His next training post was Sézanne, in Champagne (which he charmingly misspelled "Cezanne" at first). Charlot's egalitarian nature welcomed this life with the common soldiers and his lowly rank due to his lack of a baccalaureate. 

Be blessed and thanked, you who have made me similar
to other men and without gold braiding or stripes;
blessed, you who have crushed me under the heels
of those men who are accountable for other men.

He was posted to the 105th Heavy Artillery, which deployed the celebrated 75mm cannon. In June 1918 his unit was in the center of the German Gneisenau offensive at the Battle of Matz. Charlot himself served as a radio operator during the battle. Once in combat he could draw only with limitation, with "a little pocket sketchbook," so he focused more on poetry for his artistic outlet.

Soon after, in July 1918, he was called to the artillery school at Fontainebleau for officer training, in spite of his lack of a baccalaureate and probably because of his social standing and apparent abilities. This kept him from the 2nd Battle of the Marne, likely saving his life. Once he acquired his lieutenant's rank (aspirant) he was posted to the illustrious Moroccan Division, in the 5/101st Heavy Artillery, in October 1918. With the Moroccans he served in the occupation of the Rhine from December 1918 until his demobilization in 1921.

This work with its confident solidity speaks to the murals Charlot would famously paint later in Mexico and the United States. It also conveys, appropriately enough, the occupier in the style of the ancient equestrian conqueror. Interestingly, Charlot had none of the anti-German bigotry so common for a Frenchman; his father had had extensive business connections in Germany and the family spoke fluent German. So Charlot was a benevolent occupier while in the Rhineland.

29 July 1919.  Pencil, wash, and gouache on paper, 10.25" x 14.75"
© The Jean Charlot Estate LLC. With gracious permission.  

Charlot's father, Henri, had died during the war, and he and his mother, whose family came from Mexico, emigrated to that country. Charlot began a rich and varied postwar artistic career there, becoming involved with the Mexican muralists, Rivera and Orozco, among others. Charlot and his mother moved to New York in 1928 where he continued his significant and prolific work. He lived briefly in Colorado Springs in the late forties and finally moved to Honolulu, Hawaii, in 1949, yet another place that inspired his art through folk imagery and artistry and their intercultural influences.

An immediate postwar self-portrait, in the Cubist style, reflects that questioning of identity and existence and survival suffered by so many veterans of the Great War —

Self-Portrait, Cubist Style
21–24 January 1919. Pen and wash on paper, monochrome
8.5" x 12"
© The Jean Charlot Estate LLC. With gracious permission.

The Jean Charlot Foundation is in Honolulu.
*For a thorough and scholarly treatment of Charlot's life and artwork see
the primary source for this post.
See also


  1. Fascinating post. Is there a place to read more of his poetry? Is there more to the "Be blessed" lyric?

    1. Thank you very much. I don't see more of that poem in my source material (, but it may be an excerpt. There are other citations of his poetry in his son's book (see source material).

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  3. I see that Jack Lord is credited as the donor of the Ste. Barbara to the Smithsonian. In visiting the Smithsonian I see that he has given quite a collection of Charlot’s work to this institution. Is this the same Jack Lord from the Hawaii 5O tv series, you know “book him Dano”? If so, I wonder if Lord met Charlot while filming in Hawaii? The Smithsonian collection is quite a few lithographs and from the dates appear to be in the artist’s Mexican period.

    1. It is indeed the same Jack Lord! I was spurred to investigate, and it turns out that he is a collected artist in his own right, even by museums. He may have known Charlot personally in HI, not sure. But he certainly appreciated Charlot's work and collected it.

    2. Thanks for the further information -- fascinating.