Jean Carzou was born Karnik Zouloumian in Aleppo, Syria, to Armenian parents in 1907. He later created his surname from the first syllables of his two names and adopted a French first name. He was educated in Cairo, Egypt, moving to Paris in 1924 to study architecture at the École Spéciale d’Architecture, graduating in 1930.
Whilst a student, Jean Carzou often visited the Louvre where the paintings of Ingres in particular inspired him to become an artist. He studied art at La Grande Chaumiere in Montparnasse, Paris. He first exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants in 1930.
Carzou’s success as an artist really started after World War Two, with his first one man exhibition at the Galerie Contemporaine in Paris. He went on to have over one hundred one man exhibitions in Paris, throughout France and internationally. He regularly participated in various Paris Salons, winning numerous prizes for his work throughout the 1950’s. He had two exceptionally successful exhibitions during this period at the Galerie David et Garnier, Avenue Matignon, Paris, one devoted to Venice, and the other entitled ‘ Apocalypse 1957’. He ended the decade with his first exhibition in New York at the Wildenstein Gallery, and also moved permanently to Vence in the South of France in 1958, where he spent the rest of his life.
In addition to his painting, Jean Carzou also designed sets and costumes for the Opera de Paris, Comedie Francais, and the Theatre de Paris – six plays and operas in all. He also created illustrations for both French and international authors such as T.S.Elliot and Ernest Hemingway.
The decade of the 1960’s commenced with another very successful exhibition entitled Provence at Galerie David et Garnier, followed by many international exhibitions in USA, Japan, Lebanon, Sweden, and Switzerland. He also exhibited his painted ceramics and sculpture during this period.
By the 1970’s his fame was such that he was appointed a juror at the 1976 Cannes Film Festival, and was commissioned by the French post office to design a stamp. Numerous retrospective exhibitions of his work had been organised, the most notable being held at the Chateau de Val under the patronage of President Jacques Chirac. In 1977 he was appointed a member of the Académie de Beaux Arts. In 1985, at the age of 78, Jean Carzou undertook a commission to decorate the Chapel of the Convent of Manosque with a series of large, dramatic frescos depicting the Apocalypse. The Foundation Carzou has been located at this site since 1991.
Jean Carzou’s last retrospective was held in Cannes at the Musée Bonnard. At his death in 2000 Jean Carzou was an internationally recognised artist, as well as by the French state who made him a Chevalier de la Legion d’honneur, and a member of the Ordre des Arts et Lettres.
Jean Carzou always worked independently, uninfluenced by passing fashions, demonstrating his originality of imagination. There is a dream-like quality to his work, often with an enigmatic figure or an ethereal town or port. Mystery, combined with nostalgia for the past and an equal awareness of the troubled present are prevailing motifs.
“When I work from nature or in my studio, I leave the world of reality for a sort of religious realm where my hand seems to obey impulses from an invisible force. And when I am seated at my easel, I disappear into a universe different from ours; it’s like entering into a prayer.” – Jean Carzou