Although Jean Charlot was born in Paris and descended from parents he later described as “sundry exotic ancestors” – his father, a French businessman reared in Russia, and his mother, with her French, Mexican and Jewish lineage – Charlot was drawn to the Mexican part of his heritage. From the age of two, he was surrounded by pre-Hispanic antiquities. He studied in the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, exhibited in the Autumn Salon, and made the usual training tour of Brittany. During this time, Charlot painted small landscapes in oil on paper and pursued what was to become a lifelong interest in folk imagery. In 1920, his mother introduced him to Mexico where he sketched for archeologists excavating Mayan ruins. In 1922, after fighting in the First World War he decided to move to Mexico. He shared a studio with the painter Fernando Leal and became involved in the booming artistic scene promoting wood engraving and lithographic techniques. He quickly established himself in the art community of Mexico City and befriended Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Jose Clemente Orozco, main figures in the Mexican Mural movement of the early twenties known as the Syndicate of Painters and Sculptors. The movement quickly spread to the USA. Charlot is credited by Rivera for reviving and refining the art of true frescoes. His own composition, “Massacre in the Great Temple,” is the first mural painted as a fresco with a critical and historical subject, in what is called the Mexican Renaissance. Charlot and the others visited the US and taught – mostly in New York – this true fresco technique. After working from 1929 with lithography printer George Miller in New York, Charlot began a lifetime collaboration in 1933 with Lynton R. Kistler, master lithography printer in Los Angeles, reputedly making the first stone-drawn color lithographs in the United States. In 1947, he moved his family to Colorado to take over the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center Art School. He resigned over a dispute concerning tenure and moved to Hawai'i to teach at the University where he remained for about thirty years until his death in 1979. While in Hawai'i he continued to create monumental murals, produce large numbers of lithographs and illustrate many books.
Jean Charlot devoted himself to themes of family and the working class, revealing the universality of human nature. He was known as the “Champion of the Everyday” showing people doing things which were important to them – the simple, everyday activities that make up living. He wanted to make art popular, even useful and felt that could be accomplished by making art that was reproducible. His muses were Daumier, Posada, and the Images d’Epinal de Francois Georgian. Charlot felt that “art is to thought what man’s voice is to man – a fast and faithful means of communication”. He created art for the people – art that instructed, edified and amused. He is best known for his extraordinary sense of color and for the sublime simplicity of his compositions.