Jean Charlot was born in 1898 in Paris, where he attended the École des Beaux Arts. Before World War I, in which Charlot served, he tried to make a living as a church mural painter, referring to himself as “a liturgical artist.” Though this kind of art was not commercially popular at the time, some of his smaller works were included in an exhibition at the prestigious Salon d’Automne. In these works Charlot drew upon his Russian, French, and Mexican cultural ancestry, synthesizing various aesthetic traditions in his paintings and drawings.
In 1920 Charlot and his mother moved to Mexico. There, Charlot transformed his style, drawing upon Mexican prototypes in the art of the Mayan and Inca Indians. Charlot allied himself with the Mexican Mural Movement and apprenticed under the artist Diego Rivera. Through the 1930s and 1940s Charlot worked at a variety of institutions on different projects. He painted murals for the Ministry of Education in Mexico City and for the National Preparatory School there. He also painted murals representing the archeological site of Chichén Itzá in Mexico for the Carnegie Institution.
In the 1930s and 1940s Charlot taught art at numerous universities around the country. In 1949, he settled in Honolulu, Hawaii, where he was a professor of art at the University of Hawaii until his death in 1979. Between the years of 1949–1979, Charlot produced more than 600 easel paintings, 700 prints, and 36 works of art in fresco, ceramic, and tiles for public sites. Wherever Charlot found himself, he drew upon his environment and surrounding culture for inspiration, assimilating those new elements into his art and reflecting the world around him.