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Emilie Charmy.

Emilie Charmy

Edited by Matthew Affron, essays by Sarah Betzer and Rita Felski

The Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia, 2013

With a loaded brush and vivid palette, the French artist Emilie Charmy (1878-1974) painted striking landscapes, still lifes, portraits, and nudes during the first seven decades of the twentieth century. From provincial origins, Charmy launched her career in Paris, became aligned with the Fauves before the First World War, and gained considerable renown during the interwar period. Critics acclaimed her work, noting, in particular, the sensual quality of her nudes. Her bold and subversive depictions of the body are still impactful today. In 1926 Charmy was awarded Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, then promoted to officer twelve years later. She was a member of FAM (Femmes Artistes Modernes), the woman's exhibiting society in France.

Charmy's first United States retrospective, at the Fralin Museum at the University of Virginia (UVA) and the Arts Club of Chicago, is documented in this excellent catalogue. (Her work was last seen in the U.S. in the legendary Armory Show, a century ago.) On view were Charmy's most notable works, many of which were on loan from private collections. Well-researched, eloquent catalogue essays by three scholars from diverse fields highlight different aspects of Charmy's art.


Matthew Affron, a modernist (formerly at UVA), provides in-depth contextual analysis of Charmy's life and art. Tracing her career from its beginnings in Lyon under the mentorship of the artist Jacques Martin, he documents Charmy's move to Paris in 1903, relationship with the gallerist Berthe Weill, growing prominence during the interwar period, and later years as she continued painting into her nineties. Affron covers her exhibition history and critical reception, threading this with lucid analyses of her work.

Charmy employed models but also did nude self-portraits, and early on, her daring approach to the body was evident. The Salon (1900), for example, depicts nine nude females, some wearing stockings, in an interior that could be either a bourgeois living room or a brothel. "[T]hat Charmy, as a young female artist working in a provincial city, would have chosen to make a major statement using the image of the prostitute is remarkable," writes Affron (18). She continued to push the boundaries of propriety during the 1910s and 1920s. Erotic works like Nude on Red Sofa (ca. 1925; Fig. 1) have not lost their capacity to shock. Painted in a sensual and provocative manner, using luscious brushwork and striking applications of color, these paintings are both visual and tactile representations of the body. Affron aptly describes the haptic nature of her work, saying, "Charmy's overarching concern in painting the nude is the bond between seeing and feeling" (28). In discussing the predominant role that gender played in Charmy's career and critical reception, he notes that "the language of gender would be used repeatedly to define the qualities of Charmy's work and to situate it in a system of aesthetic values" (30). Charmy approached the body without reserve, and critics viewed this as masculine. Like other critics of the time, Roland Dorgeles was struck by the daring boldness of her work--deemed uncharacteristic for a female painter--writing, "Charmy, it appears, sees like a woman and paints like a man" (31). (1)

Sarah Betzer, an art historian at UVA specializing in eighteenth and nineteenth century art, offers a close analysis of The Salon in her essay, situating the painting between the tradition of the rococo interior, as seen in works by Boucher and Fragonard, and the realm of the modern nude, such as Manet's Olympia (1863). Charmy would have seen Manet's nudes at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900. Like him, she created The Salon as a picture of ambition that disrupts convention; hers defies categorization by genre. Betzer describes The Salon as "an extraordinary picture, less for the obvious fact that it was painted by a woman than for the remarkable combinations wrought by Charmy, who here brings into contact the domestic interior, the artist's studio, and an army of naked women suggestive of a brothel" (53).

Finally, Rita Felski, an English professor at UVA, explores possible frameworks within feminist theory for better understanding Charmy's work. Insistent that Charmy's art should not be reducible to her gender, Felski suggests other ways of seeing and analyzing her paintings, such as the "phenomenology of viewing" (63).

With high-quality color images of Charmy's paintings, cogent art historical analysis of the work, and biographical information and photographs of the artist, this publication serves as a vital resource and invites further study of Charmy's compelling oeuvre. Each essay tactfully negotiates issues of gender in relation to the work, while also looking beyond it. Emilie Charmy provides a salient example of how we might examine the work of other modern women artists of the early twentieth century.

Lauren Jimerson, is a doctoral candidate at Rutgers University and a Fulbright Scholar in France. Her dissertation concerns women artists in early 20th-century Paris and their representations of the nude.


(1.) Emilie Charmy, Toiles, Galeries d'Oeuvres d'Art (1921), n.p. (Four authors are listed including Roland Dorgeles, so the authorship remains ambiguous.)
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Author:Jimerson, Lauren
Publication:Woman's Art Journal
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2016
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