Life of Henri Charlier (1883 - 1975)
Family origins A rural anticlerical ancestry Henri Charlier was born on April 18th 1883, in the Montmartre quarter of Paris. He was the eldest of three children of Charles and Berthe Charlier who had a second son after him, André, and a daughter, Lucie. His parents were married in 1882, but they were children of first cousins, and according to the canon law of the Church at that time, the degree of proximity was an impediment to a religious marriage. Since Charles Charlier was an enemy of the Catholic religion it was out of the question for him to ask the Church for the dispensation required for a religious marriage. Henri Charlier’s parents had a civil marriage and none of their three children was baptized at birth.
The heritage of “debaptized Christian virtues.” This was the family environment in which Henri Charlier was brought up. Until 1906 he lived in Paris with his father in the quarter of Ternes in the 17th district, not far from Neuilly. During the holidays he stayed with his maternal grandparents at Cheny, helping them and acquiring a taste for farm work tending the growing vineyard. In spite of the anticlericalism of his parents and maternal grandparents, their practice of natural and even Christian virtues had been left intact. The moral education of the Charlier children, wrote Henri,  “was simply that of debaptized Christian virtues. For the parents practiced them without knowing from where they had received them.” (The Secret of a Life). For example, Charles Charlier was well-read; he would read the great literary authors to his children and in particular the Greeks, which he seems to have preferred, but also Corneille whom he could understand by means of the Cahiers de la Quinzaine (Fortnightly Notebooks) of Charles Péguy to which he subscribed.
Henri Charlier, painter in Paris (1901–1919) Birth of his artistic vocation The birth of Henri Charlier’s artistic vocation and his conversion to Catholicism came about therefore in opposition to the materialistic and anticlerical ideas of his entire family. Although these two events belong to two quite distinct orders (since the arts use natural techniques, whereas Faith is supernatural), they remain closely linked in the personal development of the young man. His reflections in high school (he was a pupil at Janson de Sailly) came from seeing the works of art which he had the chance to admire in Paris. This was his own explanation:  “I remember all my high school teachers with gratitude. I repeat: all. They all taught me something, they all wanted to teach us to think. I'm not saying that, even at that time, that I thought like them. When, after a lesson ‘on that unhappy period, the Middle Ages, and on the general ignorance in those days’, (as they said), I passed in front of Notre-Dame cathedral, I laughed to myself and, thinking of my teacher, thought: ‘You, build something like that !’ ” (quotation from Culture, école, métier — Culture, school, profession). Nevertheless, when he graduated from high school, in 1900, he obeyed the wishes of his father to go to law school, despite his firm convictions and his attraction to art. But at the end of only one year of studies he abandoned the path to law and committed himself to art where his true vocation lay. This change of direction, which surprised his father and was never forgiven by his grandparents, corresponded to a deep attraction to art that began in his youth. His first works (drawings and oil paintings) date from the ages of 14-15, and at the time he left law school he had already completed a series of tinted landscapes. All the works of his youth reveal his qualities of sketcher and painter.
From the studio of Jean-Paul Laurens to that of Auguste Rodin (1902–1915) In 1902 Charlier joined the studio of Jean-Paul Laurens, unaware that the latter was then considered the natural opponent of the École des Beaux-Arts (School of Fine Arts). He left a year later, no doubt because there wasn't much for him to learn in that particular studio as these laconic reminiscences suggest: “At the end of a year I escaped from that den, where the master was very kind and the students far from stupid, as shown by this gag which was recited there: " Knock, knock — Who's there? — It's me, Jean-Paul Laurens. — What do you want? says the Sultan. — I want a barrel of tar for painting transparent fleshes. — Wrong! says the Sultan, off with his head!’ And then a little later: ‘Knock, knock — Who's there?’ and the gag continued, going to two and then three barrels, and so on.” Henri then put his name down for the Colarossi Academy and rented a studio at La Ruche, owned by the sculptor Alfred Boucher. At the same time, in 1904, he was given the position of supply teacher for the schools of Paris, which he kept until 1914. During these ten years of research in plastic art, Charlier worked at rediscovering form and color as well as the art of the line, which had been lost since the 16th century. He was encouraged in his work by the discovery of the Primitive School, the works of Cézanne, and finally the painting of Gauguin, which he saw for the first time in 1910 when visiting one of the latter's friends. He exhibited the portrait, The Injured Child at the Salon of Independent Artists in 1911, and the following year offered his services as a fresco painter to Rodin who accepted to take him on in his studio near the end of 1912 since Charlier had also worked at rediscovering the technique of frescos. Rodin, seeing Charlier's work and his qualities as a painter, chose him in 1913 for completing a project of frescos for which he had received an order, but Rodin's illness and the First World War prevented the project from materializing. At any rate, Charlier had the time to paint some fragments of fresco based on the drawings that Rodin gave him to enlarge and correct. these fragments are preserved at the Rodin Museum in Paris. Finally, in 1914, Henri Charlier joined the Society of Saint John, a group of Christian artists, as painter and fresco artist.
Marriage and Conversion During holidays spent in Burgundy at Cheny with his maternal grandparents, Henri had made the acquaintance of a girl five years his senior, Émilie Boudard. She was 24, and Henri was 19 when they met while he was still living in his father’s apartment. He met her again in Paris where she had come to prepare for her university exams and, in fact, had won first place at Sèvres. It is difficult to say precisely which year they became engaged. We only know that Émilie was already coming to the house of Charles Charlier at the time of the death of his wife, Berthe. Therefore, as early as 1902 Émilie already had a close relationship with Henri.
At the time of his conversion Henri was a regular visitor to the Benedictines in the Rue Monsieur, joining many other recent converts. There he made friends with Dom Poitevin and Dom Besse and very soon became a secular oblate of that religious order. He was in the Saint Cecilia choir associated with the monastery, and so became familiar with Gregorian music which would later become for him a favorite art form, teaching Gregorian chant to the villagers of his parish. One may also suppose that it was at the monastery of the Rue Monsieur that he came to know the devotion and apostolate of Notre-Dame de la Sainte-Espérance (Our Lady of Holy Hope) and the Olivetan Benedictine monastery founded by Père Emmanuel at Mesnil-Saint-Loup (in the Aube region). Here, he was to visit regularly before coming to settle definitively at Mesnil. In 1915, Henri volunteered for war service, although he was exempt for reason of health. He was mobilized as a medical orderly. After his military training he was billeted at Épernay where he treated the wounded. There he organized a studio for himself in a spare corner where he could devote himself to painting in his free time. He also took advantage of these moments to try carving wood and stone. On the occasion of a leave of absence he visited Rodin who was ill, and it was then that he saw him for the last time. In March 1916, Henri Charlier was transferred to the sixth section of medical orderlies at the hospice of Commercy (in the Meuse region). That year he exhibited a painted bas-relief at the exhibition of liturgical arts of the salon of mobilized artists in the Pavilion of Marsan. This bas-relief delighted the architect Maurice Storez, who bought it and offered Charlier founder membership of a society of Christian artists and architects that he wanted to start. But Storez wanted Charlier as a sculptor; he accepted, and in this way Henri began sculpting.
Henri Charlier, sculptor (1919-1975) Beginnings of sculpture at Cheny (1919–1925) Henri Charlier was demobilized from the military in March 1919. Around the time of Easter, Henri and Émilie left Paris and went to live at Cheny. There was, first of all, a family reason for this move: his maternal grandparents were both dead but Henri's brother, André, who was to have taken over their farm, had been seriously wounded in the war and needed a long convalescence. The property was therefore without a farmer to till the soil and cultivate the vines. Henri decided to take on this responsibility while waiting for his brother to recuperate, and Émilie went with him leaving her life in Paris and her literary friendships with great regret and even tears. But Charlier also had artistic reasons for moving away from Paris where he had spent all his youth. Returning from the war he noticed that Catholic art had missed the providential opportunity of a renewal in the footsteps of the reform undertaken by those great artists : Rodin, Cézanne, Gauguin, and Van Gogh. Charlier also observed that the art dealers had succeeded in seizing control of the art world, turning away the true artists and putting charlatans in their place. These were those art dealers who made sport of an ignorant public, and whom Charlier would call the "foreigners" of art. Seeing this, he understood that there was no point trying to convince the public and the artistic circles by talking and reasoning. Besides, he had better things to do: produce a life-work that he desired to be the extension and the complement, as it were, of what his predecessors had begun. And that's how the barn at Cheny was transformed into a sculptor's studio, which began production in 1919 with a monumental statue (3.2 metres high) of Saint Ménehould, for the village named after her.
In less than six years as a sculptor Charlier had already produced three of his greatest masterpieces. At the same time, in 1917, Maurice Storez started the confraternity of Christian artists which he had been planning the year before, when he had offered Charlier membership as a sculptor. Storez made friends with Charlier, and asked him to be the godfather of his daughter Annette. The newly-founded confraternity was called l'Arche (The Ark). Among the members were such figures as the architects Jacques Droz, and soon Dom Bellot, the painter Valentine Reyre, and the embroiderer Sabine Desvallières. The sculptor Fernand Py was admitted a little later, but not before being examined by the Ark's council. He had known Henri Charlier since 1912, shared his choice of carving wood and stone, came to work in his studio from 1919 until 1923, and thus witnessed the creation of Charlier's first great works. The latter also had another apprentice sculptor at Cheny, Charles Jacob, who came with him when he moved to Mesnil-Saint-Loup.
Henri Charlier's friendship with the architect Dom Paul Bellot went back to the first years of the Ark. It lasted until the death of Dom Bellot in 1944, and was the context of an intense collaboration between the two artists. The Oratory of Saint-Joseph at Montreal (Canada), the abbeys of Saint-Benoît du Lac (Canada) and Oosterhout (Holland), the abbey of Solesmes (France), the Benedictine convent at Vanves near Paris, the churches of Besoyen (Holland), Audincourt and Notre-Dame des Trévois at Troyes (France), which owe their architecture to Dom Bellot, all requested sculptures of Henri Charlier for decoration or devotion. It was also at this time, in 1922 to be precise, that Charlier met the musician Claude Duboscq for the first time, in whom he perceived an artist worthy of pursuing the musical reform begun in France by Erik Satie and Claude Debussy, and Henri confirmed Duboscq in his resolve to compose religious music. A friendship formed between them which lasted until Duboscq's death. The great war memorials sculpted in the studio of Cheny immediately placed Charlier among the greatest sculptors of our time in the opinions of the true connoisseurs of plastic art. But such praises did not reach the sculptor who had moved into the family house left empty by the death of his grandparents, for this was when he had to keep the farm going and tend the vineyard while he waited for his younger brother to recover from his war wounds and to take over the property. For Henri, therefore, sculpture alternated with agriculture while he and Émilie spent their time with André during his convalescence. Then, in 1924, André married and joined the Roches school at Verneuil (Eure) to teach classical languages and literature. Since his brother would not be taking over the family farm after all, Henri decided to leave Cheny and live at Mesnil-Saint-Loup, "hoping for my conversion there," as he explained some thirty years later.
Fifty years of sculpture at Mesnil-Saint-Loup (1925–1975) During the five years he spent at Cheny, several times Charlier had been to the little village of Mesnil-Saint-Loup not far from Troyes in the Aube region. In the 19th century the village had been converted by the efforts of the parish priest, Père Emmanuel. Henri knew Père Maréchaux who had succeeded Père Emmanuel as the head of the small Benedictine monastery that he, Pere Emmanuel, had founded in the heart of the parish. For Charlier the move to Mesnil-St-Loup corresponded to the same intention that had made him ask after his baptism to be a Benedictine oblate of the monastery in the Rue Monsieur in Paris. Henri Charlier's aim in moving to the village of Mesnil-Saint-Loup was to continue the work of Père Emmanuel. He also continued to work at his own conversion in the heart of this exceptional parish, and participating in the life of the Olivetan Benedictines of Notre-Dame de la Sainte-Espérance (Our Lady of Holy Hope) as a secular oblate. Émilie also saw that this setting met her husband's need for calm and silence which had been apparent since his youth. His art in particular needed silence, in order to correspond to the requirements of his aesthetic conception : "A work of art is a contemplation of the work of God in the mystery of faith" (quotation from L’art et la pensée, Art and Thought). Hence, they lived a withdrawn life in a little village in Champagne, with his working hours spent in the sculptor's studio set up in a barn only a short distance from the house where they lived. But he fell seriously ill with typhoid in 1928, at a time when it seems that Charles Jacob was no longer coming to work in his studio. He recovered after a long convalescence, and in 1930 a new apprentice arrived, Bernard Bouts, who would stay until 1940.
Apart from the five monumental sculptures for that church, Charlier worked at the same time at the following sites: — between 1932 and 1934 : sculpted the capitals and the polychrome corbels of the church of Saint Claude la Colombière at Paray-le-Monial (he therefore had to work on the spot); — in 1933: painted a fresco of the Social Encyclicals in the church of the Holy Spirit in Paris (another journey); sculpted the recumbent figure of Dom Géranguer on his tomb at the abbey of Solesmes; and sculpted the Stella Maris Virgin for the abbey of Saint-André de Lophem at Bruges (Belgium); — in 1934: sculpted the high altar and the statue of the Sacred Heart for the Seminary chapel at Voreppe; — in 1936: sculpted the cross for the tomb of Charles Péguy, the monumental Sacred Heart in Majesty for the church of the Holy Spirit at Antwerp (Belgium), a bas-relief of Saint Joan of Arc for the chapel of the château of Clairoix, and a polychrome Virgin in wood; — in 1937, sculpted the crucifix of the church of the Priory of Saint Benedict at l'Haÿ-les-Roses; sculpted the Virgin and Child of the church of the Holy Spirit at Antwerp; — in 1938 sculpted the statue of Saint Stanislas Kotska for the school of Saint Stanislas at Nantes and the Virgin and Child of the facade of the church Notre-Dame des Trévois at Troyes, as well as sculpted the altar crucifix, the bas-relief of the Resurrection of Christ for the tomb of the Honnet family in the cemetery of Troyes, and a statue of Saint Joseph for the church of the Sacred Heart at Dijon
Return to Mesnil-Saint-Loup after the war : the works of a Master. In 1943, Henri and Émilie returned to Mesnil-Saint-Loup, and life there began again where they had left it before the War. Both were in their sixties, but Henri's artistic career was far from over: he still had many works to realize, including his most important projects. The three great groups of sculptures produced one after the other following the Second World War, at Bourboule (1942-1952); the Oratory of Saint Joseph at Montreal (1953-1959); and Notre-Dame de Lumière at Troyes (1964-1967). These were periods of intense activity for him. And it was during these thirty-five years that his style as a sculptor reached its zenith, in particular with the Rosa Mystica Virgin (1951), and the Calvary (figures of the Cross, Holy Virgin, and St John), high altar, and statues of the Apostles for the Oratory of Saint Joseph.
Henri Charlier was also one of the foremost collaborators of the review Itinéraires (“Ways”) founded in 1956 by Jean Madiran. This review promoted the intellectual and moral reform, begun by Péguy and continued by André Charlier as Headmaster of the School in Maslacq, "in the perspective of the ideas of Henri Charlier on that reform" (Henri Charlier and the Intellectual Reform, by Jean Madiran). In Itinéraires, Henri Charlier wrote articles on art, politics, and social life, and a spiritual chronicle under the pseudonym of D. Minimus. A literary collection was started at about the same time as the review, the “Collection Itinéraires”, the first volume of this collection being a reprint of Culture, School, Profession. Henri Charlier became a friend of the poetess Marie Noël, who lived at Auxerre. Like him, she was a Burgundian. They maintained a correspondence to which Charlier contributed photographs of his most recent sculptures. After staying with the Charliers some time in the 1950s, Marie Noël confided to Raymond Escholier that their home was a place where the wind of the Holy Spirit blew. It was also a place to which people came from afar, and from many backgrounds, to meet the great thinker who was Henri Charlier: artists, intellectuals, writers, religious, professional men, all visited Mesnil to consult Charlier on the most varied subjects: the arts, music, Gregorian chant, spirituality, politics, education, social and professional life. All these were subjects which could always be discussed profitably with Charlier.
Henri Charlier died on December 24th 1975 during the first Vespers of Christmas, after receiving the last sacraments, giving the responses to the prayers for the dying, and asking that Ubi caritas et amor be sung to him as he himself had sung it to his wife. He is buried in the cemetery of Mesnil-Saint-Loup, beneath the stele (a statue on a column of stone, standing above the family tombs of Charliers) he himself carved: a statue of Our Lady of Holy Hope raising the veil covering her face and looking up to heaven. This Virgin, that Henri Charlier placed above his mortal remains, sums up his whole life, his work and his aesthetics : “Art, and especially Christian art, has the responsibility to lift the veil which hides from the mind the grandeur of the spirit.” (Art and Thought). This is an image of the hope of heaven which detaches our hearts from the things of earth to turn them to what is above. It is the testament of Henri Charlier, and the lesson he invites us to live out as he himself has done.
Henri Charlier at work : carving one apostle for the Oratory Saint-Joseph in Montréal (Canada)
The Entombment of Christ, sculpted as a bas-relief on one side of the high altar of Oratory of Saint Joseph, is an exceptional piece regarding the form too, and certainly the zenith of all the bas-relief of Henri Charlier. The face of the dead Christ is the most beautiful since the Pieta of Avignon. The twelve Apostles of the Oratory are unique examples of Charlier's art, comparable to the Moai statues of Easter Island as expressions of the mystery of man. The sculpted form of these statues of the Apostles earns them a place beside the Egyptian figures of the 13th century B.C. and the Chinese Bodhisattvas; but Charlier's sculptural spirit is of course enhanced by the Faith, bringing them even closer to mediaeval art. Charlier's Apostles are the "younger brothers" of the figures carved on the doors of Chartres cathedral. As for the fresco of Saint Gilles at the mother-house of the Oblates of Saint Francis of Sales at Troyes, it matches, in the language of plastic art, what Péguy calls the "climate of grace".
The Rosa Mystica Virgin has no equivalent in the history of sculpture: plastic form and mystical life combine in a unique way in this statue, making it the perfect model of Charlier's own definition of a work of art, quoted above: a contemplation of the work of God in the mystery of faith. The Virgin of the Calvary at Montreal, simpler as regards the form, is also one of the most expressive from the spiritual point of view. The statue illustrates in plastic art these words of Charlier on Mary's participation in the mystery of the Cross: "The Blessed Virgin was at the foot of the Cross, in all the radiance of perfect charity; she shone with love, she rejoiced in her union with God, and by the merits of her Son she cooperated in the redemption of the members of Christ" (from Les propos de Minimus, The Conversations of Minimus).
Henri and Emilie Charlier in 1953, at the time he carved the high altar of the Oratory of Saint Joseph in Montréal.
They lived like that until 1943, lodging in a house without comforts, in a country that was covered in snow during the winter. Henri Charlier took up teaching Gregorian chant to the village children again, and the landscapes inspired his finest water-colors of mountains and "tree portraits". He set up his sculpture studio in a barn, produced several statues, and in 1942 began with the capitals for the nave, the great group of monumental sculptures for the church at La Bourboule, where the work would continue until 1952. There he was assisted by the collaboration of Philippe Kæpplin. Henri Charlier and Henri Pourrat had been friends since the 1930s. Charlier illustrated some of Pourrat's works, and together they wrote a work on the villages of Auvergne. In his book, Le secret des compagnons (The Secret of the Companions), about a visit to the Charliers in their makeshift lodgings in Auvergne, Pourrat paints a picture of Henri in which he clearly sees the thought and personality of the sculptor:
Exodus to Auvergne (1940–1943) In June 1940, when the French army was routed, Henri and Émilie Charlier had to leave Mesnil and set out on an exodus with their three nieces (the daughters of André Charlier). They took refuge in the Laga valley, in the village of Longechaud, near Ambert where the writer Henri Pourrat lived.
Henri Charlier carving in his workshop of Longechaud, in 1940
Some fifteen monumental stone sculptures thus came forth from the studio at Cheny, of which the most renowned are Joan of Arc as a Shepherdess at Villers-devant-Mouzon (Meuse region), which was a great success at the exhibition of the Autumn Salon of 1922 and earned Charlier membership of that Salon; the Weeping Woman of the war memorial at Onesse-Laharie (Landes), which prompted Maurice Denis to say that Henri Charlier was "a sort of Christian Maillol"; and the very beautiful Angel of the Apocalypse at Acy (Aisne), exhibited in 1924 at the salon of the Tuileries.
At work in Cheny — Henri Charlier (on the right with glasses) with pupil Charles Jacob. Lying statues are the Angel of Apocalypse (Acy) et the Virgin of the Dolmen (Abbaye de la Pierre-qui-vire).
In spite of Émilie Charlier's lost Faith, she would be the involuntary intermediary between her husband and a group of recent converts who met each week at 149 rue de Rennes, the home of Madame Favre, a great friend of Péguy and mother of Jacques Maritain and Jeanne Garnier-Maritain. The latter became a friend of Émilie's who was thinking of beginning a literary career. Jeanne wanted to bring her into Péguy's circle and before long Émilie had her place in Madame Favre's salon each Thursday in the company of Charles Péguy, Ernest Psichari, Jacques Maritain, and Maurice Reclus. As a result, from 1911 on Péguy invited her to visit him at the editorial office of the Cahiers de la Quinzaine in the Rue de la Sorbonne to be able to speak more intimately, a setting which strengthened their friendship. Nevertheless, there wasn't any question of her following Péguy on the road of the Faith, yet.
The couple were married on August 25th, 1906. By now, Henri was 23 and Émilie 28. Since Émilie had lost the Faith (she had been baptized), and Henri was not yet converted, theirs was a civil marriage like the marriage of Henri’s parents. The young couple set up home at 14 rue de l'Yvette, in the 16th district of Paris, between Passy and the Porte d’Auteuil. They occupied their rented apartment until 1919.
Henri Charlier at the time of his marriage (1906)
Henri’s mother, Berthe Charlier, died in 1902 and Henri’s link with the rural world of Cheny, the little Burgundian village from which she came, was kept through his maternal grand-parents, Clovis and Ferdinande Bidet. Henri was 19 at the time. The Bidets were Catholics who had also disowned all religious belief and practice, holding Catholicism up to ridicule. They shared the anticlericalism of their deceased son-in-law Charles Charlier and had the same entirely materialistic view of life as he did. At Cheny Henri received from his grandparents that rustic education which is the best of all for learning to think properly, by the submission to the real imposed by the continuous contact with the nature of things.
Both on his father’s and his mother’s side, Henri Charlier’s ancestors were country people. But Charles Charlier had succeeded in leaving the country and finding a “good situation”: he was the director of personnel for the prefecture of the Seine (which in the 19th century represented the area of several of today’s departments : Paris, the Hauts de Seine, Seine Saint-Denis and the Val de Marne). He probably obtained this position from his contacts in freemasonry where he held a position of influence : Charles Charlier was Venerable (master) of the Lodge of The Rights of Man, under the obedience of the Grand Orient of France whose radical atheism he defended ferociously. He was an enemy of the Catholic Church and of her religion, which he held in derision, and he made sure to instill this hatred into his children.
Cheny (1897-1899) — From left to right: Berthe and Charles Charlier, André and Henri, a friend, and grand father Clovis Bidet.
Charles Charlier (1857 - 1925)
Detail of high altar bas relief of the Oratory Saint Joseph in Montréal
Summary : I Family origins - A rural anticlerical ancestry - The heritage of “debaptized christian virtues” II Henri Charlier painter in Paris (1901 – 1919) - Birth of his artistic vocation - From the studio of Jean-Paul Laurens to that of Auguste Rodin (1902 – 1915) - Marriage and conversion III Henri Charlier sculptor (1919 – 1975) - beginnings of sculpture at Cheny (1919 – 1925)? - Fifty years of sculpture in Mesnil-Saint-Loup (1925 – 1975) - Exodus to Auvergne (1940–1943) - Return to Mesnil-Saint-Loup after the war : the works of a Master - Last years
Emilie Boudard at the time of her marriage (1906)
But less than two years later what Émilie wasn't expecting happened: it was her husband who converted. Probably in the second quarter of the year 1913, Henri announced to Émilie that he was going to make a retreat and receive baptism. We know neither the place of the retreat (perhaps at the Benedictine monastery in the Rue Monsieur), nor the exact date of the baptism. We only know that Charlier wanted the religious marriage with his wife to be celebrated that same day. Émilie accepted, although she was not yet converted and didn't understand the new direction her husband was taking. Henri Charlier was 29. Immediately after his baptism he subscribed to the Cahiers de la Quinzaine, and the next day wrote to Péguy to tell him of his conversion and his desire to work as a painter along the same lines that he, Péguy, was already following with the Cahiers and in his poetry. The friendship of Henri and Peguy became closer. In 1914 after the publication of “Eve”, Péguy's last work of poetry, he received compliments amounting to the grand total of four people: the two Charliers, Lotte, and René Salomé. But the most enthusiastic of them was Henri Charlier. He even ran to the Cahiers’ office to make this remark to Péguy, which deeply impressed him and which he reported to Madame Favre:  “When one has accomplished a work like that, one can die.” A few days later, Péguy made this admission to Émilie about Henri Charlier: "He is the only one who understood me."
The friendship between the two men was reciprocal : it was Péguy who took up Charlier’s suggestion made the year before, to go on pilgrimage together to Chartres, a project whose realization was prevented by the declaration of World War I, and Péguy's death. But Henri Charlier was able to seal their friendship by sculpting the stone cross facing Péguy's tomb in the cemetery at Villeroy at the place where he fell at the battle of the Marne.
Charles Péguy, friend of Emilie and Henri Charlier. After the publication of Eve, a huge poem of Péguy which enraptured Henri Charlier, Péguy made this admission to Emilie about her husband : « He is the only one who understood me. »
Grave cross of Charles Péguy at Villeroy, work of Henri Charlier.
We might add that Henri Charlier had several pupils: Bouts was soon joined by François Robert, and in 1938 the young artist from Canada, Marius Plamondon, also arrived. Moreover, Charlier gave singing lessons to the Mesnil schoolchildren each day, he was the parish organist, and had founded a village orchestra. Of course he continued to paint (oils and water-colours), and directed a chasuble embroidery workshop for making liturgical vestments. Around 1936-1938 he even started a studio for stained-glass at his home. One remains stupefied before such intense activity, undertaken in an age when communications were not so developed as today, when one travelled to Canada by sea, not by air, and when transporting materials for sculpture was much more difficult.
Considering that each capital at Paray-le-Monial constituted a separate sculpture, we can count some forty monumental sculptures in stone (except five in wood) produced in only six years. Furthermore, many other activities must be added to this already impressive list: in 1934 the publication, Bulletin des Missions (Bulletin of the Missions) of the abbey of Saint-André at Bruges, printed a long and documented article, Art et missions (Art and Missions), which Paul Claudel praised in his Positions et propositions (Positions and Propositions); from 1935 to 1938 several other articles in different revues (l’Art Sacré, l’Artisan liturgique, Echanges et Recherches, Revue agricole et rurale…) (Sacred Art, The Liturgical Artisan, Exchanges and Research, The Agricultural and Rural Revue…), of which one, in July 1935, reported on the exhibition of Italian art which Charlier had been to see in Paris; in the autumn of 1935 a series of concerts of Claude Duboscq's music in Belgium, organised by Henri Charlier with the singer Jane Bathori (who had sung with Satie and Debussy); and in 1937 a voyage to Canada, to the Oratory of Saint Joseph, to paint two frescos to decorate the tomb of Brother Andrew, as well as a large mural painting, during which voyage Charlier had to give conferences (notably to the students of the university and at the seminary of Montreal), and met the Canadian painter Horatio Walker whose was then very popular in the United States. In the year following his return to France, at the request of some prominent Canadians, he took advantage of a pilgrimage to Domrémy in March 1938 to write his Lettre aux jeunes Canadiens (Letter to young Canadians), which has not dated.
Sculpture of the great Sacred Hart (3, 20m) for the church of Saint Claude la Colombière in Paray-le-Monial
Finally, Charlier had a home life like everybody; he pruned his vines and his apple trees, and made his own cider and Ratafia liqueur. So much so, that such crowded days sometimes ended with migraines, which he treated by going to bed. Bernard Bouts has left a entertaining description of Charlier suffering from “headaches which made him grimace. When he really couldn't go on, he left us to sort out the work on our own and went to lie down. In that case we avoided disturbing him, but sometimes we had to go and ask for directions concerning the work. I would find him in bed, buried under an enormous red eiderdown, a pointed cotton night-cap on his head, reading. What was he reading? Always, invariably, the Summa of Saint Thomas. That must be a great cure for migraine! I would say to him:‘My dear Boss, with all due respect, you make me think quite unavoidably of Don Quixote.’ He would roar with laughter. Straight away, he would feel better.”
At Mesnil-Saint-Loup the rhythm of Charlier's life was measured by the religious offices at the village church and the Benedictine monastery; and, of course, by sculpturing in his studio. Charlier was also required by the necessity of his work to make voyages to certain work sites such as for his frescos or capitals of columns in churches. An important project began the year after his move to Mesnil, in 1926, where he had to carve the capitals in the church of Prunay-Belleville, a village near Mesnil. Then commissions came in from all over France, but also from abroad (Holland, Switzerland, Belgium, and other places.)
Withdrawn though life was at Mesnil-Saint-Loup, we should not imagine that Charlier was unoccupied, separated from the world and living unsociably. For an idea of his artistic activity preceding the Second World War, the period from 1932 to 1938 for example, he carved the pieces of his first great group of sculptures for the church of Audincourt.
Henri and Emilie Charlier with their nieces, in 1933
Writer Henri Pourrat, friend of Henri Charlier.
In these works, Charlier's sculpture is not only "worthy of Antiquity," as Maurice Brillant said regarding the Angel of the Apocalypse at Acy, but also it reaches a complete mastery of sculpted form, whose quality attains that of the great ages of art in all the civilizations, making his sculpture worthy of that "universal art" of which Charlier writes in Art and Missions, running from the Egyptians to the figures on the doors of Chartres, passing through the Chinese and the Syrians. But at the same time it is also in these works that Charlier's art becomes the most personal, and acquires all its firmness and delicacy of expression.
All these works indisputably merit for Charlier the assessment given by Victor-Henri Debidour: "Henri Charlier, born in 1883, is certainly the greatest Christian sculptor of this half-century." (Brief History of Christian Sculpture, by V. H. Debidour). To this productivity in plastic art, eminent in quality and unparalleled in the history of contemporary sculpture, must be added numerous books and articles which Charlier published. We will give here only the titles of the most important ones: Culture, école, métier; Le martyre de l'art; Le chant grégorien; L'art et la pensée (Culture, school, profession; The Martyrdom of Art; Gregorian Chant; Art and Thought).
Henri Charlier at 82 , in his workshop of Mesnil-Saint Loup in 1965, standing next to his statue of saint Gaétan with Jesus Child (chapel ND de Lumière — Troyes)
Sculptor… but musician too (at Mesnil-Saint-Loup, years 1935-1940)
We give you on this page a summary of Henri Charlier’s life. You will find also a precise chronology of this life, in a file you can download (pdf format).
This translation has been revised and corrected by Professor James S. Taylor (PhD in the philosophy of Education - University of Kansas)
Last years In 1971 Henri Charlier had two family bereavements. On August 8th his brother André died, and was buried at Mesnil. Then, on October 14th his wife Émilie died during the first Vespers of Saint Teresa of Avila (the patron of her Benedictine oblature), after Henri had sung to her the canticle Ubi caritas et amor (''Where there is charity, there is love”) the chant that accompanies the washing of feet on Maundy Thursday. They had no children which was no doubt a Cross for both of them. Henri Charlier then lived alone in his house, producing his last statue in 1972 and publishing the last of his great books, Art and Thought; he was 89. He left a life-work of art in stone and wood comprising about 260 monumental sculptures, eight large frescos, and several hundred paintings. He continued his intellectual work until his death, leaving it to his publisher to bring out an album of his works which he had prepared, choosing the plates and writing the text himself. His mind remained clear to the very end.
« Our friend speaks briefly about his life out in the wilds, underlining his sharp witticisms and stories with a forceful look towards his guests. Then he raises his eyes and looks into the distance, ever searching for visions and truths... Henri Charlier tells us about Rodin examining his own drawings that he was keeping at his studio, expecting a visit from a dealer : “From time to time Rodin would stop, look at one of them and say : ‘Ah, there's a good one…’ Anyway, he sold them all.” Charlier speaks about the intensity of color used by so-and-so nowadays, by Matisse and by other painters… but about the form ? “And the form of something is more real then the color...”, Henri says.
“There is a sense of form : the sense the Egyptians had, the Greeks, the Chinese, the artists of Ravenna, all the Middle Ages, Giotto, Michelangelo. Raphaël lost that sense of form. Poussin confused it with purity of lines, Ingres searched for it, Puvis de Chavannes found it again — but Puvis was still rather weak — and Rodin had the mastery of form, but above all Gauguin.” Christian art, for Henri Charlier, if I understand him correctly amidst the jumps and digressions of a conversation, is art become lucid, the art of expression by form. » (The Secret of the Companions, by Henri Pourrat)
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