jean cortot - portrait artist

Jean Cortot


The French artist Jean Cortot drew on the symbiosis between writing and painting to nourish his work. He endeavoured to transpose ideas through the medium of painting as others would paint a landscape.

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Artwork analysis

jean cortot - newsletter art comes to you 20 cover

“Jean Cortot Writing and drawing are essentially the same”, an analysis by Mathilde Gubanski

The painter Jean Cortot’s early life and artistic training 

Jean Cortot was born on 14 February 1925 in Alexandria, Egypt. Son of the pianist Alfred Cortot, he was immersed in musical, artistic and literary circles from childhood. It was through his family ties that Jean Cortot met Paul Valéry, Henri Matisse, Paul Morand, Stefan Zweig, Colette, and Georges Duhamel, among others. At the age of 17, Cortot entered the Académie de la Grande Chaumière where he studied under the painter Othon Friesz. In 1942, Cortot founded the Échelle group with the painters Geneviève Asse, Jacques Busse, Jean-Marie Calmettes, Ernest-René Collot, Daniel Dalmbert, Christiane Laran and Michel Patrix, as well as the sculptor Jacques Dufresne. The name of the group—which translates as “ladder” or “scale”—was inspired by the artists’ shared studio, from which they could climb a ladder to access the rooftops of Paris.

During the Occupation, Cortot was employed by the French museums administration, where he made inventories of the artworks stored in the Château de Brissac in France’s Maine-et-Loire region. At the end of the Second World War, the artist moved to a studio in Montparnasse, where he would work throughout his career.

In 1948, Jean Cortot won the Galerie Drouant-David’s Prix de la Jeune Peinture with an urban composition, becoming a leading figure in the post-war figurative painting revival. Cortot participated in the Salon des Jeunes Peintres in 1950 and 1951

Jean Cortot: Between abstract and figurative

Jean Cortot painted figurative works for about ten years—landscapes of the French Ardèche region and the Mediterranean town of La Ciotat (1947–1950), as well as still lifes (1955–1956), portraits and architectural works (1957–1958)—before gradually distancing himself from figurative painting to explore a more graphic, more schematic style of art. Cortot began work on his series Correspondances in 1959, which marked the first appearance of writing in the painter’s work. Symbols and characters fascinated the artist, who integrated them into his artistic language. This new direction was further reinforced by the 1967 series Écritures, which Cortot described as a seismograph: a recording of feelings and impressions. This was followed by the series Poèmes épars in 1970 and Portes bleues in 1972.

Jean Cortot was a highly cultured artist with a passion for literature, “a predator of texts” in his own words. “This style of a well-read gentleman manifested itself in every moment of his conversation,” wrote Adrien Goetz, an elected member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, “which was much like his paintings, peppered with quotations set in radiant colours, which gave the words he loved a brilliance that came from him alone.”

Prior to 1974, Jean Cortot’s symbols and characters were invented and indecipherable. In 1952, the artist had accompanied his father on a tour of Japan, which we can well imagine would have influenced him in the creation of his imaginary ideograms. It was the gestural aspect of writing that interested the artist at that time. Jean Cortot was able to transcend the distinction between figuration and abstraction by painting an internalised world.

The artist’s work was shaped by the pre-war investigations into surrealist automatism that influenced gestural painting, word collages and exquisite corpses, as well as the poem-paintings of Paul Klee. This went hand in hand with Cortot’s fascination with the origins of writing and his questions concerning the innate and the acquired.

Jean Cortot never claimed to belong to an artistic movement. He was not a member of the Lettrism movement, although he sometimes exhibited with the artists involved, for example at the Galerie Broomhead in Paris in 1985. For the Lettrists, letters were created for their intrinsic value alone, while Cortot considered the meaning of words essential, using them for their power to evoke poetic imagery. As such, the artist brought together the vocabulary of abstract painting and meaningful written texts in order to give shape to an inner thought.

Jean Cortot and the arts

Non-figurative art such as Jean Cortot’s work is an ideal medium for reconciling music and painting. This is particularly true when considering art based on signs and symbols. The two artistic practices represent an interpretation of characters through the artist’s sensibilities. Influenced by his father, the pianist, Cortot was a great music lover. The painter designed a ballet set in 1953.

Cortot created sketches for tapestries and carpets, as well as various objects such as telephone boards, a piano and earthenware dinnerware designs. He also created stained glass windows for the Chapel of Castels in Valence d’Agen, France, in 2005, as well as wall decorations. Through these different projects, we can see the artist’s real desire to break down the barriers between different artistic disciplines, in which respect he can be likened to his friend the artist Guy de Rougemont.

Jean Cortot and the writers

Jean Cortot became friends with the writers Raymond Queneau, Jean Tardieu, Henri Michaux and Michel Butor, composing paintings in homage to his favourite authors. He created his first illustrated book in 1964: La Charge du roi by Jean Giono, which was published by the Galerie Maeght. He also illustrated texts by René Char, Jean Tardieu and Henri Michaux. Over the years, Cortot produced more than seventy works, including handwritten books, painted, printed and engraved manuscripts. The authors that inspired Cortot’s work were often his contemporaries. He also used, much more rarely, his own writings in his pictorial works. Indeed, the large volume of texts and poems that he wrote was an autonomous body of work, intended for books.

Jean Cortot took part in the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles from 1972 onwards. The painter’s participation in the Salon, which was devoted to abstract art, showed that he had moved away from the more figurative painting style of his early career. From 1974 onwards, the writing within Cortot’s paintings became legible, as shown in the series Tableaux-poèmes and Poèmes épars. With this new approach, the artist invited the spectator-reader to contemplate and decipher his works, which were intended to be appreciated over time. Cortot would sometimes use different tools and different types of writing within the same work, creating deliberately irregular writing that would slow down its interpretation, requiring extra effort to decipher the content.

Cortot covered his painted works with philosophical and poetic texts. From the 1980s onwards, the artist’s work evolved into “painted scripts” that paid tribute to the writers he admired. They were works to be read and seen. The period from 1980 to 2000 was marked by Cortot’s prolific creation of artist’s books, of which he created more than two hundred during that period.

During the 1980s and 1990s, Cortot also created his Onomagrammes series in which he shattered sentences and words. Letters assumed their independence as the atoms of language—a common source for all writers, they evoked possible future creations. Language was then recomposed with the series Tableaux poèmes and Tableaux dédiés.

In 1999, the warehouse in which a large part of Cortot’s works were stored was consumed by fire. About 180 paintings were destroyed. The artist created new Tableaux dédiés works that combined literary extracts, photographs and drawings to replace the lost works. Some series were entirely devoted to poets, including William Blake and Jean Giono. Dedicated to Dante’s Divine Comedy, the last series completed by the artist included 140 paintings created from 2005 onwards.

Jean Cortot and the artists

Jean Cortot also worked with his artist friends to create collaborative works, partnering with Julius Baltazar, Anne Walker, Bertrand Dorny and Gérard Garouste, among others. The resulting works were ambiguous, somewhere between paintings and books. Examples include the 1980 work Anthologie Jean Tardieu, and Peintures manuscrites and Rencontres écrites, which were created in collaboration with Julius Baltazar and Mehdi Qotbi respectively. The works were exhibited in museums, libraries, bibliophile and painting salons—locations that bear witness to their ambiguous nature.

Jean Cortot drew inspiration from two main sources: poetry and philosophy. One appeals to the imagination, while the other structures thought; together, they gave birth to an individual voice, both sensory and cerebral. Cortot’s paintings are therefore intellectual, while also underlining the irrational nature of human beings. His work is not a discourse on art, but a personal response to painting in the midst of its revival.

Jean Cortot was elected a member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts on 28 November 2001, to the seat of his friend the painter Olivier Debré. He was received by the artist Guy de Rougemont. Jean Cortot died in Paris in 2018.

© Diane de Polignac Gallery / Mathilde Gubanski

jean cortot - portrait painter

Selected collections

Selected collections

Alès, Musée Pierre-André Benoit

Brussels, Bibliothèque Wittockiana

Cambridge (MA), Houghton Library, Harvard University

New York, (NY) Musée d’Art moderne

Marseille, Musée Cantini

Miami (FL), The Ruth and Marvin Sackner Archive of concrete and visual poetry

Paris, Centre national des arts plastiques

Paris, Musée national d’art moderne – Centre Pompidou

Paris, Musée d’Art moderne de Paris

Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale

Washington (DC), Library of Congress

Selected exhibitions

Selected exhibitions

Galerie Jacques Blot, Paris, 1943

Group show, L’Échelle, Galerie Jean Dufresne, Paris, 1946

Group show, L’Échelle, Galerie Drouant-David, Paris, 1947-48

Salon de Mai, Paris, from 1946 to 1968

Galerie Ariel, Paris, 1949

Group show, Étapes, Galerie Visconti, Paris, 1949, 1956

Group show, Galerie Galanis-Hentschel, Paris, 1950, 1951

Salon des jeunes peintres, Paris, 1950 & 1951

Galerie Valloton, Lausanne, 1951, 1954

Galerie de l’Étoile scellée, Paris, 1953

Group show, Galerie Apollo, Brussels, 1954

Group show, Giovanni Pittori, National art Gallery, Roma, 1955

Group show, Dix ans de peinture française, Musée de Grenoble, Grenoble, 1956

Galerie Jacques Massol, Paris, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1962, 1963, 1969, 1973, 1983

Group show, Cinq peintres français, Birch Gallery, Copenhagen, 1958

Jeunes Peintres d’Allemagne et de France (École de Paris), Kunstmuseum, Lucerne, 1958

Group show, L’École de Paris, Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Kyoto, 1960

Group show, L’École de Paris, Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Kamura, 1960

Nihonbashi Gallery, Tokyo, 1961

Group show, Five painters, Molton Gallery, London, 1961

Group show, De la rive droite à la rive gauche, Musée de Verviers, Verviers, 1962

Group show, Irish Exhibition of living art, National College of Art, Dublin, 1964

La Charge du roi, Galerie Adrien Maeght, Paris, 1965

La Charge du roi, Gabinetto Vieusseux, Florence, 1965

Group show, Alexandria Biennale, Alexandria, 1965

Group show, Biennale de Menton, Menton, 1966

Group show, Isogaya Gallery, Tokyo, 1967

Écritures, gouaches, Galerie Messine, Paris, 1968

Group show, Studio A et B, Parly II, Saint-Germain-en Laye, 1969, 1972

Écritures, Galerie Mélisa, Lausanne, 1971

Group show, Connaissance de l’art abstrait, Maison de la culture de Montluçon, Montluçon, 1971

Group show, Exposition du dessin français en Pologne, Warsaw Museum, Warsaw, 1972

Group show, Exposition du dessin français en Pologne, Krakow Museum, Krakow, 1972

Salon des Réalités nouvelles, Paris, 1972

Group show, Alechinsky, Louttre, Iscan, Cortot, Galerie de la Licorne, Martel, 1973

Group show, Le Regard de Georges-Emmanuel Clancier, Musée de Céret, Maison de la Culture, Rennes, 1975

Fusions, Galerie 22, Paris, 1976

Group show, Autour d’André Frénaud, Maison de la culture d’Amiens, Amiens, 1977

Group show, Signes, Espaces, Ensemble de signes, Maison de la culture des Hauts-de-Belleville, Paris, 1977

Group show, Autour d’André Frénaud, Centre Georges-Pompidou, Paris, 1977

Group show, Collegio Cairoli, Pavia, 1978

Group show, Cologno Monzese, Pavia, 1978

Group show, L’Autoroute, Centre Georges-Pompidou, Paris, 1979

Group show, Piove di Sacco, Padua, 1980

Group show, Acquisitions récentes, Musée Cantini, Marseille, 1980

Galerie Tecno, Paris, 1981, 1985

Anthologie Jean Tardieu, Galerie Lucien Durand, Paris, 1981

Anthologie Jean Tardieu, Centre Georges-Pompidou, Paris, 1982

Group show, Participation à l’Hommage à Jean Tardieu, Maison de la poésie, Paris, 1982-83

Bibliothèque municipale Louis Aragon, Martigues, 1983

Tableaux-poèmes, Poèmes épars, Livres peints, Maison de la poésie, Paris, 1984

Group show, Sur invitation, Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris, 1984

Group show, Re-création, Centre Culturel Pablo Neruda, Corbeil-Essonnes, 1984

Group show, Signes, Écritures dans l’art actuel, Grand Palais, Paris, 1985

Group show, Écritures + papiers, Galerie Broomhead, Paris, 1985

Group show, Les Années 50, Galerie Guiol, Paris, 1985

Group show, Saint-John Perse et l’art, Ambassade de France, Washington, 1985

Écritures-Cultures, Cortot, Qotbi, Sarduy, Xenakis, Palais des Arts & Artothèque, Toulouse, 1986

Group show, Inécritures, Galerie Joncquy, Paris, 1986

Group show, Décodages, Salon du Vieux-Colombier, Paris, 1987

Group show, Masques d’artistes, La Malmaison, Cannes, 1987

Group show, Hommage à André Frénaud, Bibliothèque municipale, Avignon, 1987

Group show, Cortot, Qotbi, Sarduy, Xenakis, Galerie Ouverte, Paris, 1987

Les Phénomènes de la nature de Jean Tardieu, livre et peinture, Galerie Maeght, Paris, 1988

Group show, Masques d’artistes, Collégiale Saint-André, Chartres, 1988

Group show, Les Reliquaires de Jean Clerté, Galerie Erval, Paris, 1988

Group show, Rencontres écritures avec Mehdi Qotbi, Institut du monde Arabe, Paris, 1988

Les Paroles de la main, École des beaux-arts, Casablanca, 1989

Les Paroles de la main, Centre culturel français de Marrakech, Marrakech, 1989

Les Paroles de la main, Centre culturel français de Fez, Fez, 1989

Tableaux dédiés, Maison des écrivains, Paris, 1989

Group show, Tablettes, Dorny, Galerie La Hune, Paris, 1989

Group show, Peintures comme ça, Espace Victor Hugo, Lisieux, 1989

Group show, Face à Face, Abbaye de Saint-Savin, Saint-Savin sur Gartempe, 1989

Jean Cortot : Livres peints, Tableaux-Poèmes, Bibliothèque nationale, Paris, 1990

Group show, Les Voisinages de René Char, Galerie La Poésie dans un jardin, Avignon, 1990

Group show, À l’écoute de Jean Tardieu, Centre d’action culturelle de Saint Cyr l’École            Saint-Cyr-L’École, 1990

L’Écriture est un dessin, Bibliotheca Wittockiana, Brussels, 1991

L’Écriture est un dessin, Espace Croix-Baragon, Toulouse, 1991

Petit Bestiaire de la dévoration, Jean Tardieu et Jean Cortot, Galerie Maeght, Paris, 1991

Livres peints et Peintures, Musée Pierre-André Benoit, Alès, 1992

Jean Cortot, peintre, Musée des beaux-arts de Nancy, Nancy, 2014

Jean Cortot, Musée d’Art moderne de Paris, Paris, 2021

Jean Cortot, peintre des mots, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris, 2021

Selected bibliography

Selected bibliography

Emmanuel Bénézit, Dictionnaire des peintres, tome 2, Paris, Gründ, 1949

René Huygues, Les Contemporains, Paris, Tisné, 1949

Preuves, enquête « Tendances de la Jeune Peinture », octobre, 1956

Bernard Dorival, La Peinture française au XXe siècle, Paris, Tisné, 1958

Herta Wescher, Quadrum n°6, « Jeunes Artistes », 1959

Cimaise n°4, juin, Paris, 1959

Cimaise n°91-92, avril, Paris, 1960

Jean Grenier, Preuves, juin, « Les Expositions », 1960

Jean-Clarence Lambert, La Peinture abstraite, Lausanne, Éditions Rencontres, 1960

Bernard Dorival, L’École de Paris au Musée national d’Art moderne, Éditions Aimery Somogy, Paris, 1961

Guy Marester, XXe siècle n°32, « Les Écritures de Jean Cortot », 1969

Jorge Semprun, La Seconde Mort de Ramon Mercader, Paris, Éditions Gallimard, 1969

Jean Tardieu, Obscurité du jour, Les Sentiers de la création, Albert Skira, 1974

André Frénaud, Esprit, avril, « Les Portes bleues », 1981

Jean Tardieu, Adresse aux parvis poétiques, Martigues, 1983

Gérard Xuriguera, Les Années 50, Paris, Arted, 1985

Severo Sarduy, Jean Cortot, monographie, Montrouge, Maeght Éditeur, 1992

Jean Cortot Tableaux dédiés, Musée de l’Évêché Limoges, Montrouge, Maeght Éditeur, 1993

Lydia Harambourg, L’Ecole De Paris, 1945-1965 : Dictionnaire Des Peintres, Lausanne, Ides et Calendes, 1993

Jean Cortot, Livres, Montrouge, Maeght Éditeur, 1995

Lydia Harambourg, L’École de Paris, 1945-1965, Dictionnaire des peintres, Ides et Calendes, Neuchâtel, 1993, (update by Clotilde Scordia, Ides et Calendes, Neuchâtel, 2010)

Hortense Longequeue, L’éloquence du pinceau : écritures peintes et livres d’artiste dans l’œuvre de Jean Cortot, Paris, École nationale des Chartes, 2013

Collectif sous la direction de Charles Villeneuve de Janti, Jean Cortot, peintre / Erik Desmazières, graveur, Paris, Broché, 2014

Delphine Duchêne, Conversations avec Jean Cortot, Paris, Le Passage, 2019