Charles Houghton Howard was born in Montclair, New Jersey, the third son of John Galen and Mary Bradbury Howard. The family moved to Berkeley, California in 1902 where Charles attended public school, graduating from Berkeley High in 1917. He enrolled at the University of California at almost the same time America entered World War I, and the young Howard joined the Officers Training Corps, serving until the Armistice. He re-entered UC in 1919, majoring in Journalism and became active in theater while at school. In 1921, he and a friend left school and sailed on a freighter bound for New York City via the Panama Canal. He then returned to Berkeley, graduating in 1922, and went to Harvard and Columbia for graduate work.
In 1924, determined to "put to the test" his education in writing, Charles went to Paris for the third time. There he met the American expatriate artist, Grant Wood, who accompanied the young writer on a summer-long tour of Italy. Constantly preaching the superiority of painting over writing as a means of self-expression, Wood was supremely influential in changing the course of Charles Howard's life. In the fall of 1924, Charles returned to New York City, gave up writing and decided to become a painter.
Charles worked the next two years as a journeyman painter and designer for the New York decorating firm of Louis Boche and Rudolph Guertler. With no formal training but encouraged by his family, all of whom were active in the arts, Charles continued to paint. In 1926, he had his first solo exhibition at the Whitney Studio Club in New York City. The following year he participated in an exhibition with his brother John Langley and Robert Boardman Howard at the Berkeley Playhouse Theater. This, his first West Coast exhibition, recieved much critical acclaim.
Over the next five years Howard continued to paint and exhibit, and his work underwent some major transformations. His paintings became increasingly abstract and, in 1933, he had a one-man show in New York. Subsequently, he moved to England where he became a member of the English Surrealist group, and his work was included in the International Surrealist Exhibition in London in 1936. Experimenting with other formats, he joined the Society of Mural painters in 1940, and then, with the outbreal of World War II, moved to San Francisco.
During the war he worked as a shipfitter and editor of the Office of War Information in San Fransisco, as well as working on murals for the W.P.A. and participating in a number of solo and group exhibitions throughout the country including such prestigious venues as the Carnegie Institute, The San Francisco Museum of Art, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. He taught at the California School of Fine Art in 1945 and then moved back to England when the War ended.
For the rest of his life Charles Howard continued to produce his modernist, often Surrealist works, exhibiting widely, and recieving great critical acclaim. His works were shown in major retrospectives throughout Europe and America. In 1970, he moved to Bagni di Lucca, Italy where he remained until his death in 1978.
In 1941, Charles was commissioned by the W.P.A. to produce a mural for the Officer's Mess Hall or Dining Room at the Alameda naval Air Station. The dramatic painting was executed on the reverse side of glass to make it cleanable and to protect the painting from the food, grease and smoke of the dining facility. Howard used his surrealist forms in an entirely representational maner for this painting but the commanding officer at that time did not appreciate Howard's ideas of modern art and rejected the three-panel glass mural which was returned to Spohn.