Émilie Charmy defied convention with her masculine style

“Portrait,” 1921 is included in the first U.S. retrospective of Émilie Charmy’s work currently on view at the Fralin. “Portrait,” 1921 is included in the first U.S. retrospective of Émilie Charmy’s work currently on view at the Fralin.

Born in 1878 in the town of Saint-Étienne near Lyon, France, Émilie Charmy was groomed for the proper profession of teaching. But Charmy, whom I had never heard of before the Fralin show, had other ideas, taking up painting instead. Initially, she focused on traditional scenes of domestic life in an Impressionist style. But, she soon began painting subjects that had been the province of male artists. One of the first paintings in the show, Charmy’s shimmering “The Salon,” c. 1900, features naked prostitutes in a brothel—though you might never know it, given the decorous soft focus with which they’re painted.

Charmy must have been something to set up her easel in a house of ill repute at age 22. At the time, female artists were banned from art classes with live models, so her behavior would have been deeply shocking. But from Charmy’s perspective, painting in a bordello was practical in that it provided access to the nude models she yearned to paint. One of the impressions that bounces off the Fralin walls, and that is borne out by this example, is how very ambitious Charmy is. Not in an obnoxious, dog-eat-dog way, but you can see how she constantly challenged herself. She wanted to be a really good painter and achieve equal footing with her male counterparts.

So instead of enchanting studies of women and children that would have been her expected lot, Charmy gives us a morphine addict. The figure in “Woman in an Armchair,” c. 1897-1900, reclines in a narcotic fog. A whisper of a handkerchief is clutched in her hand, and the tools of her addiction are on the table beside her. Charmy’s brushwork matches the mood. In the sitter’s daringly strapless dress, the paint has a leaden quality. Pushed across the surface with a palette knife it adeptly conveys the texture and weight of the velvet.

“Young Girl in an Armchair,” c.1900 presents a striking portrait of a child wise beyond her years. With an appraiser’s eye, she sizes up the viewer. The delicately rendered face is captivating, but what I like are the broad expanses of pigment, the scumbled gray of the dress, the vertical brushstrokes that compose the fabric of the chair and the lively treatment of the floor. There’s also an audacious blotch of scarlet in the background, a sketch of something—a saint, perhaps—under a Victorian bell jar. The color choices in this painting are so unorthodox—about as far as you could get from Mary Cassatt—and the bold treatment of the paint is, dare I say, masculine.

In 1902 Charmy moved to Paris. Here she encountered Matisse and his circle of Fauves (A.K.A. “wild beasts”) with whom she would work closely. Their influence can first be seen in Charmy’s “Still Life,” and “Flowers and Fruits,” both of 1904. In the former, paint is applied with joyous abandon to produce a rich pastiche of color. “Flowers and Fruits” is an exuberantly splashy painting that combines a heavily painted foreground against a blurred, almost watery pattern signifying background wallpaper.

Then there are Charmy’s infinitely appealing landscapes of Corsica where she travelled with her Fauves cronies. “Piana Corsica—Stone Pine,” 1907-10 conveys that hard-edged quality of the sun when a storm has passed through or is coming. The clarity of the townscape contrasts with the blurred indistinct middle ground of sea where agitated brushstrokes suggests choppy water. “L’Estaque,” 1910, one of four Charmy paintings exhibited at the famous Armory Show of 1913, is a paradigm of a South of France landscape. It gives you everything you need, sparkling light, lush palette, and vista of ocean. With very little, Charmy describes the distinctive vegetation, tiled-roofed architecture, and topography. Stripped down to essentials, the quite abstract “Corsican Landscape,” c. 1910, provides an interesting stylistic contrast and demonstrates that Charmy was in synch with the latest art trends.

There follows a wonderful assortment of paintings of women, both clothed and nude. While I love the chic fashionistas Charmy depicts (especially “Self-Portrait with an Album,” 1907-12, featuring herself in a striking navy dress against a terra cotta background), the nudes, which run the gamut from erotic to matter-of-fact, are fascinating—done from a woman’s perspective, as opposed to with the “male gaze.”

Seemingly caught with her mouth open as if in midsentence, “Self Portrait in an Open Dressing Gown,” 1916-18 is a remarkable depiction of sangfroid. “Nude Holding her Breast,” 1920-25 uses a calligraphic treatment to render the expressive face and also, in an elegant flourish, to describe the pubic hair. “Portrait,” 1921, featuring a clothed model has striking color and a wonderfully austere composition. Here, Charmy allows the woman’s arm to dissolve into her dress and I realized that she doesn’t spend a lot of time on hands in any of her paintings. Maybe she didn’t like to draw them, but it doesn’t really matter because she’s very good at suggesting them.

What I admire about Charmy is her inspired palette, her superb compositional sense, and her dogged determination to succeed as a painter on equal terms with male artists. I concur with novelist, Roland Dorgelès’ assessment: “Émilie Charmy, it would appear, sees like a woman and paints like a man; from the one she takes grace and from the other strength, and this is what makes her such a strange and powerful painter who holds our attention.”

The Émilie Charmy exhibit runs at UVA’s The Fralin Museum of Art through February 2.