The Charlot Frescos at Saint Mary's College


by Dr. Marcia Rickard, Professor Emerita, Saint Mary's College

When we think of mural painters in this country, we focus on the tradition of Mexico in the 20s and 30s that inspired WPA projects during the Depression. Jean Charlot was one of those artists who came from Mexico to the US and continued painting frescos well into the 1970s. He was enormously influential in the development of fresco in both Mexico and the US.

 

(Right:  Jean Charlot, Jean Charlot Collection, University of Hawaii)

 

Fresco is an ancient technique in which water-based paint is applied to wet lime plaster to form a bond. If the plaster dries or the artist makes an error, the plaster section must be removed and reapplied. The original 4’ x 4’ scale drawings, or cartoons, executed in black crayon with white highlights are at the University of Hawaii. The artist copied them onto tracing paper, then with a nail, incised the outlines into the wet plaster.

 

(left:  Jean Charlot creating a fresco, Jean Charlot Collection, University of Hawaii)

Sister Madeleva Wolff


Moreau Center construction 1955

According to John Charlot, the artist’s son, Charlot enjoyed his discussions with Sister Madeleva about the subjects to be depicted—the sacred and secular fine arts. There was much give-and-take. Sister Madeleva wrote him on July 29, 1955:



“...Thank you for sending me the sketch of Saint Hilda...You are making Saint Hilda a tremendously strong and positive person. Won’t you put some laughter somewhere in her face? I would wish that Chaucer, too, would reveal the humor and the elfishness for which he is so inimitable...”

 

While teaching fresco painting at the University of Notre Dame during the summers of 1955 and 56, Charlot came to the attention of Sister Madeleva Wolfe, president of Saint Mary’s at the time. She commissioned him to paint 14 murals outside the entrance of the Moreau Center for the Arts, still under construction. Charlot was a meticulous recorder of his personal and professional life; his daily diaries tell of the progress of the cartoons, responses by Sister Madeleva, the day-by-day progress of the individual paintings, and thumb-nail sketches. The building was incomplete at end of the summer of 1955 when Charlot, had to return to the University of Hawaii where he taught. As a result, he created the murals in aluminum frames in an off-campus studio so that they could be inserted into the façade of O’Laughlin Auditorium when the building was ready.

Saint Hilda of Whitby fresco, Moreau Center for the Arts

According to John Charlot, the artist’s son, Charlot enjoyed his discussions with Sister Madeleva about the subjects to be depicted—the sacred and secular fine arts. There was much give-and-take. Sister Madeleva wrote him on July 29, 1955:

 

“...Thank you for sending me the sketch of Saint Hilda...You are making Saint Hilda a tremendously strong and positive person. Won’t you put some laughter somewhere in her face? I would wish that Chaucer, too, would reveal the humor and the elfishness for which he is so inimitable..."

They agreed on fourteen subjects here described by Charlot:

Sophocles-Drama
“In giving metric voice to the deep currents of his time, Sophocles unconsciously revealed what dim longings shook the pagan soul that were to be soothed in full only after the Incarnation.”

Our Lady of Guadalupe-Painting
A "Lady from Heaven" appeared to a humble Mexican peasant and her image is imprinted on his cloak."

Hilda, Abbess of Whitby-Poetry
“In her hand the slain bird she brought back to life, according to legend.” Hilda of Whitby was Sister Madeleva’s role model of a woman leading a community of scholars and artists. Hilda is an abstracted portrait of Sister Madeleva

Gregory the Great-Vocal Music
“In ambush behind his tiara, the oldster gives voice, as a model and as a command. The Holy Dove conducts the performance with its wing-beat, at a rhythm that the gloved bejeweled hand spreads in turn to the whole Church.”

Jean Charlot Collection, University of Hawaii

Saint Genesius-Drama
“Genesius, spilling a martyr’s blood on the pagan stage, hallowed it, bringing Sophocles et al into the Church as Saint Thomas was to do later with Aristotle.“

Veronica-Painting
“All pictures should...be a likeness of God either explicit or implied.”

Chaucer Poetry
“Perhaps it was while saying his beads with his eyes closed that Chaucer learned so much about celestial bodies of which he could so sagely discourse.”Sister Madeleva was a Chaucer scholar.

Negro Singers- Vocal Music
“The anonymity of folk art
guarantees the selfless impulse that gives it birth, underlies its urgency.”

Jean Charlot Collection, University of Hawaii

Saint Paul, Needlework
Saint Paul is the tentmaker

Theresa of Avila, Dance
"Distrusting sadness, she made sure that superiors did not forget to store the tambourines. to help nuns make merry at recreation time."

Jubal, Instrumental Music
"Genesis tells us that Jubal was the inventor of music."

Jean Charlot Collection, University of Hawaii

Adam-Ceramics
"...man in the making, before God breathed a soul into him.”

Hopi Indian-Dance
“The Hopi snake dance is meant as a form of propitiation and worship.”

Flute Player-Instrumental Music
“The child guiding the herd of giant water buffaloes by the sound of his reed flute is a Far-Eastern motif symbolizing the power of imponderables over even the grossest of bodies.”

Jean Charlot Collection, University of Hawaii

When Charlot returned the following year, 1956, to receive an honorary degree, he noticed that the murals were in the wrong order; they had been inserted incorrectly, an error that was corrected soon afterward. He was asked by Sister Madeleva to paint another fresco—“The Hands of Creation”-- at the entrance to Little Theater Gallery in Moreau Center for the Arts which he completed in three days. The frescos were the contribution of the graduating class of 1956. Charlot’s daughter, Anne, graduated from Saint Mary's College three years later.