Émilie Charmy (St. Etienne, 1878 – Paris, 1974)

Click the picture to read Patrick Seale’s chapter about Émilie Charmy, as published in Émilie Charmy (1878-1974) : une destinée de peintre, Exhibition Catalogue, Villefranche-sur Saône, Musée Paul-Dini, Musée Municipal, 12 October 2008 - 15 February 2009, ed. Musée Paul-Dini, 2008.

Click the picture to read Sandra Martin’s Chronology of Émilie Charmy in French, as published in Émilie Charmy (1878-1974) : une destinée de peintre, Exhibition Catalogue, Villefranche-sur Saône, Musée Paul-Dini, Musée Municipal, 12 October 2008 - 15 February 2009, ed. Musée Paul-Dini, 2008.

Click the picture to visit the French website of the Estate of Émilie Charmy.

Life and Career

Born in 1878 in the town of St. Étienne, Émilie Espérance Barret de Charmy was orphaned at five and sent to live with relatives in nearby Lyon. Resisting pressure to become a school teacher, she took up private art lessons under Lyonnaise painter, Jacques Martin (1860-1937). During this period Émilie painted respectable scenes of domestic life in the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist styles. However, she also began painting more daring subjects such as brothel interiors and prostitutes, themes associated with the male avant-garde.

In 1902 Charmy left Lyon for Paris settling into a studio in the Rue de Bourgogne. In Paris she produced a series of technically innovative paintings using intense colors, thickly applied paint, seemingly crude brushwork and a tendency towards abstraction that would persist throughout her career. She became friendly with Henri Matisse and Charles Camoin, exhibiting with the Fauves at the Salon des Indépendants and Salon d’Autumne. Berthe Weill took notice and invited Charmy to exhibit at her gallery regularly.

In the summer of 1908, while painting in Corsica with Charles Camoin, Émilie Charmy met painter and future husband, George Bouche and together they would have one child, Edmond.

In 1913, Charmy was one of only 50 women invited to participate in The Armory Show, exhibiting four paintings in Gallery H alongside Henri Matisse, Henri Manguin, Albert Marquet, Charles Camoin, and Georges Rouault.

From WWI onward, Émilie Charmy’s work moved away from avant-garde interests and closer to the School of Paris style. Critics were both adoring and confounded by her. In 1921 Louis Vauxcelles called her “one of the most remarkable women [artists] of our time,” and novelist Roland Dorgelès commented that Charmy “sees like a woman and paints like a man,” declaring her “un grand peintre libre; sans influences, sans procédé” or “a great free painter; beyond influences and without method, she creates her own separate kingdom where the flights of her sensibility rule alone.” (1921)

Her artistic collaboration with French novelist Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (1873-1954) inspired Charmy to paint several bold nude portraits of the writer, with Colette and Charmy launching a joint show of compatible art and literature at the Galerie d’Art ancien et moderne, Paris in 1921 entitled, Quelques toiles de Charmy, Quelques pages de Colette. Charmy’s depictions of the female nude throughout the 1920s developed as particularly modern and powerfully erotic. Colette described the experience of beholding Charmy’s work as that of, “the shock and anxious pleasure one feels in the throes of a romantic encounter,” “… on en reçoit le choc, l’anxieux plaisir qui accompagne une rencontre amoureuse.” (1924)

The ensuing years immediately following WWI saw Charmy exhibiting regularly in Paris’ and Lyon’s most prestigious galleries, Druet, Charpentier, Raspail, Marcel Bernheim, and Katia Granoff. In 1963 Gallery Paul Petrides held a retrospective of her work in Paris, but in the decades to follow, recognition of her importance to the French avant-garde and School of Paris movements grew fainter. London’s Patrick Seale Gallery and Stuttgart’s Kunshaus Bühler continued to exhibit Charmy’s paintings after her death in 1974, however it was not until this millennium that her importance gained sufficient ground for the academic community to take notice.

At last, Émilie Charmy is enjoying a long overdue revival. The 1995 publication, Women Artists and the Parisian Avant-Garde by feminist scholar, Gill Perry, together with a highly publicized exhibition, ‘Les femmes peintres et l’avant-garde, Valadon, Charmy, Marval, Agutte’ at the Musée Paul Dini, Villefranche-sur-Saône in 2006, followed in 2008 by a comprehensive Charmy exhibit also in Villefranche, have brought immense rewards, reversing her relative obscurity, and advancing her prices in the market.

Émilie Charmy leaves an authentic record of social and creative bravery. A true Fauve with an impressive exhibit history spanning six decades, she lived and worked among the greatest French painters of the 20th century including Matisse and Rouault. Charmy’s paintings are authoritative, vibrantly sensual, and willfully abstract in their moodiness. Sustained by what Louis Leon-Martin called a ‘fiery sensibility and penetrating intelligence,’ Émilie Charmy died in Paris in 1974, still actively painting at the age of ninety-seven.

Tracy Bernabo, Friends of Émilie Charmy, 2010