The Arts Club of Chicago celebrates the vision of Émilie Charmy.
In art, the “new” is usually the work of a young gun just beginning to establish a reputation. But occasionally, the past still offers up an artist whose imagery hasn’t been emblazoned on items in the museum gift shop, or been maxed out by Madison Avenue. Take Émilie Charmy. Born in 1878 and active into her 90s, this French painter did not invent a new vocabulary or deploy color in a strikingly unusual manner. The old standards — still life, portraits, landscape and genre scenes — were her stock-in-trade. Yet she exercised the true artist’s prerogative: to paint what she wanted the way she wanted. From Feb. 27 through May 17, the Arts Club of Chicago presents the first U.S. retrospective of her work.
Initially curated by Matthew Affron for the University of Virginia’s Fralin Museum of Art, the exhibition enables one not only to experience the individual sophistication of Charmy’s visual strategies, but also to reconsider the status of the female painter in the early 20th century. “She belonged to a generation of women who reformulated notions of gender and art at the same time,” says Affron, now a curator of modern art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “And the study of an artist who is not well-known is as interesting for what we learn about the conditions of art-making, the nature of the art market and evolving interests in the art world — not least for women artists — as it is fascinating in terms of rediscovering the paintings themselves.”
Charmy’s paintings form a telling chronicle of an imagination deeply informed by the past and always wise to emerging trends. “Charmy was admired for her bold approach to painting the traditional subjects,” Affron says. “And within an art world that tended to devalue the contribution of women as painters, her bold style made her a kind of maverick.” To wit: Despite some eye-pleasing hues, a landscape of 1913 is no charmer, but a dynamic, almost documentary take on nature and the built environment. The palette and rendering in “Banks of the Seine at Ablom” manifest an Edvard Munch-like mood. But the best of her paintings exhibit vehemence in both attitude and execution — most particularly, the frankly sensual nudes she produced in the early 20th century. “Charmy was recognized as an artist who shook up standard ideas of the difference between men and women, the idea that men look and women appear, or that the bodies of women exist solely for the pleasure of the heterosexual male viewer,” Affron says. But gazing at Charmy’s canvases it’s clear — sexual politics are never paramount; the eye’s delight comes first.
‘Émilie Charmy’: Feb. 27-May 17, the Arts Club of Chicago, 201 E. Ontario, (312) 787-3997; Artsclubchicago.org. A public gallery talk about the exhibit and the artist will be held on Saturday, March 1 at 1 pm. with special guests Elizabeth Hutton Turner (Terra Foundation for American Art) and Yasmine Seale (London-based writer working on a biography of Charmy).
Pictured: “Portrait”, 1921 (Collection of University of Virginia Art Museum; Courtesy of Pamela K. and William A. Royall, Jr.)