Though one of the most compelling female voices in French modern art, Émilie Charmy (1878–1974) and her work remain largely unrecognized in America.
Matthew Affron, until recently the curator of modern art at The Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virginia, hopes to change that with the first U.S. retrospective of Charmy’s work. The exhibition, which opens Aug. 23 at the museum, presents one of the most provocative female artists in Paris during the first half of the 20th century.
The exhibition will feature nearly 40 of Charmy’s most important works – most of which have never appeared in the United States – drawn from distinguished private American, British and French collections as well as from museums in both France and the United States. It will run through Feb. 2 before traveling to The Arts Club of Chicago for a three-month show.
“Charmy’s painting engaged with major artistic currents before World War I – from impressionism and post-impressionism to fauvism,” said Affron, who curated the exhibit and will begin new duties on Sept. 1 as Muriel and Philip Berman Curator of Modern Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.Thereafter, Affron said, Charmy pursued an expressive, sensuous and modernist naturalism.
Indicative of her engagement with some of the most important art movements of her time, Charmy was also an exhibitor at the legendary 1913 Armory Show, which also included works from the likes of Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso.
In the 1920s, she was also a friend of Colette, the literary icon and novelist of modern female experience.
From the beginning of her career, Charmy was defined according to the notion of the femme-peintre, or woman painter, a term whose currency in the early 20th century signaled a relative expansion in the visibility of women artists among dealers, collectors and critics interested in modern French art.
“What made Charmy’s art distinctive and provocative in its own time was that it seemed to elude simple gendered expectations,” Affron said. “The critics were unanimous in finding both feminine and virile qualities in her expressive, physical and rough style, but surely they were also reacting to her handling of subject matter, particularly in the nudes, some of which developed a remarkably frank and complex presentation of sexuality.”
Charmy’s success continued through the 1930s until World War II swept away most of her personal and professional networks.
“Though she continued to develop her work in new directions, notably with self-portraits that featured a curious and compelling fusion of self-revelation and masquerade, Charmy fell out of the public eye,” Affron said.
Only recently have Charmy and her work started to resurface. Developed with the support of major collectors and museums in the U.S., France and Great Britain, the first U.S. retrospective of this provocative painter is a distinct and significant event for The Fralin Museum of Art.
To accompany the exhibition, the museum will publish a fully illustrated catalogue written and overseen by Affron, the first English-language publication devoted solely to Charmy. With contributions also from Rita Felski, William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor in the U.Va.’s Department of English, and Sarah Betzer, assistant professor in U.Va.’s McIntire Department of Art, the book will present a compelling occasion for reconsideration of the artist’s oeuvre in the light of new scholarship.
Distributed by Penn State Press, the catalogue will be available for purchase at the museum.
All tours and lectures at the museum regarding Charmy will be open to the public and will offer a chance to engage more deeply with her art. Saturday Special Tours will take place on Aug. 24 and Nov. 30, from 2 until 3 p.m. Affron will lead the first and museum director Bruce Boucher the second.
Anne Higonnet, Barnard College’s Ann Whitney Olin Professor and a visiting professor at Columbia University, will lecture Oct. 24 at 6:30 p.m. on Charmy and issues in the interpretation of women’s art. The location for this lecture will be announced on the museum’s website.
The museum also will offer a Family Art JAM, “Émilie Charmy: Painting with Purpose,” for children and their families on Sept. 21 and 22. Each day, the programs will take place from 1 to 3 p.m. for children ages 5 to 7, and from 3 to 5 p.m. for children ages 8 to 12. For information and to register, call 434-243-2050.
The Fralin Museum of Art, located at 155 Rugby Road, one block from the Rotunda, is open Tuesdays through Sundays from noon to 5 p.m. Admission is free. Its programming is made possible by support of The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation.
The Charmy exhibition is made possible through the support of Pamela K. and William A. Royall Jr.; The Jefferson Trust, an initiative of the U.Va. Alumni Association; Mrs. Frances Massey Dulaney; an anonymous donor; the U.Va. Center for International Studies; Albemarle Magazine; and Ivy Publications LLC’s Charlottesville Welcome Book.