In 1999, Jacksonville resident Yvonne Charvot Barnett approached the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens with a simple question, “Would the Museum be interested in exhibiting the work of her father, the French artist Eugène-Louis Charvot?”
“Charvot? Who is Charvot?”
This quiet beginning resulted in a 20-year project at the Cummer Museum to research, reevaluate, and resurrect the work of Eugène-Louis Charvot (1847-1924), a distinguished painter and printmaker.
The museum’s publication of Eugène-Louis Charvot and the accompanying exhibition that opened at the museum on February 11, 2020, highlight the work and life of this accomplished artist. Recognized in his own time but unnoticed by art historians, the rediscovery of Charvot’s art provides an opportunity to examine prints and paintings formerly lost to history. His surviving letters and diaries are reflections on his art, the artistic milieu of Paris, different ways of working with oils and etching, and observations of life in French colonial North Africa. Viewed together, these documents offer a first-hand glimpse into a significant era of artistic transition and change.
Eugène-Louis Charvot was a fascinating 19th-century Frenchman. A distinguished physician and surgeon, Charvot spent his professional career in the military, serving his country in the Franco-Prussian War, in colonial Tunisia and Algeria, and during World War I. As a military physician, he attained prominent leadership positions, published scientific articles in medical journals, and was awarded the medals of Chevalier and Officier de la Légion d’Honneur and the Tunisian Commandeur de l’ordre du Nicham Iftikar.
Despite the rigors of his prestigious medical career, Charvot professed that his first love was art, and he developed a parallel career as an accomplished painter and etcher. He entered the Salons in Paris on a regular basis, first with paintings and later with prints, and established himself in artistic circles. In an 1885 letter he wrote, “I am extraordinarily energized to make art for others and above all for myself … I have a passion for art … an immeasurable love, one that absorbs me almost completely.”
While in medical school in Paris in the 1870s, Charvot followed his muse by studying with Félix-Henri Giacomotti (1828-1909) and Léon-Joseph Florentin Bonnat (1833-1922), respected painters of portraits and historical scenes. Inspired by the serene countryside of his youth, Charvot became a landscapist, and made his debut in 1876 at the annual Salon in Paris. He established a position in artistic circles and exhibited at the Salon regularly through the turn of the 20th century, first with paintings, and after being introduced to etching as a medium in 1901, with prints.
From 1885 to 1889, Charvot began his most adventurous period as an artist. Stationed in French Tunisia, where he served in military hospitals, Charvot was first sent to Gabès, a lonely desert outpost far south of the capital, near the oasis communities of Djara and Menzel. In letters to his niece Henriette, an art student, he described his impressions of the area, “This is a strange place for a French landscapist, an empty horizon of endless sand … happily there are compensations for the artist: an oasis begins with regularly planted palm trees receding into charming paths … the river becomes more picturesque … with rustic bridges formed from great blocks of stone …”
By Susan Gallo