John F. Francis

(13 August 13, 1808 - 15 November 1886)

He was born in Philadelphia. Predominantly self-taught as an artist, he worked until 1845 as a portrait painter in central and eastern Pennsylvania. Francis's portraits reveal his early fascination with the most minute details. In 1845, Francis began exhibiting his works at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the Philadelphia Art Union, which promoted American artists by awarding paintings to subscribers using lottery-like drawings. It was in this period that he began to concentrate on still lifes, which had been established as a popular genre in Philadelphia by Raphaelle Peale and other painters. His first known still life is dated 1850, and by 1854 he ceased to paint anything else. Francis became known as a leading practitioner of luncheon and dessert still life paintings, developing an intricate vocabulary of forms required by his specialized subject. William H. Gerdts writes: "Of all the mid-century still-life specialists, Francis was the most painterly. There is often a freshness and a brio to his paint application that successfully balance his sure delineation of form and his establishment of texture".

Nearly all his paintings depict fruits and desserts. He painted many replicas of his works, and his style underwent little change over the course of his career. According to art historian Alfred Frankenstein, "his blond, high-keyed palette always provides one of the most distinctive accents in a general exhibition of American still life". Few of his paintings can be dated after 1872 and none after 1880. He was mainly forgotten by the time of his death in 1886. en.Wikipedia

Mary Elizabeth, the Artist's Daughter ca. 1840

A leading mid-nineteenth-century still life specialist, he favored sumptuous arrangements of food and tableware chosen to suggest a luncheon or dessert. Often these are large and complex compositions, including fruits, nuts, cheeses, and baked goods in combination with wine bottles, serving dishes, pitchers, and crystal stemware. Backgrounds sometimes open out into landscape. Francis also painted more concentrated and intimate groupings of fruit, frequently spilling from baskets. He clearly reveled in particularity, treating every item with full attention to its unique visual and textural qualities. Yet stable compositions, harmonious colors, and painterly brushwork unify his visions of abundance and gastronomic pleasure. Born in Philadelphia, he began as a portrait painter there and in the nearby countryside, working in a romantic style related to Thomas Sully's, before turning almost exclusively to still life around 1850. Building on the achievements of still life painters in Charles Willson Peale's family, he addressed his subjects with breadth and ambition seldom rivaled in his day. Although he maintained ties with Philadelphia throughout his career, Francis lived in a number of localities in Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Kentucky. Eventually he settled not far from Philadelphia, in Jeffersonville, where he lived for about two decades before his death.

Oxford Dictionary of American Art and Artists: John F. Francis

Born in Philadelphia, by 1832 John E Francis, who was largely self-taught, was supporting himself and his new bride as an itinerant portrait painter in eastern Pennsylvania. In 1845, he established residence in Philadelphia and began exhibiting at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the Philadelphia Art-Union which promoted American artists through large, annual exhibitions and by awarding paintings in lottery-like drawings to subscribers. During this period Francis turned to still-life painting, selling nine of the twelve works he exhibited at the Art-Union in 1851. In subsequent years, his still lifes were purchased for lottery distribution, firmly establishing him as a leader in this genre which was only then gaining public acceptance.

During much of the nineteenth century, the majority of artists, collectors, and critics subscribed to the academician's thematic hierarchy which regarded still life as distinctly inferior to history painting, portraiture, and landscape. As James Thomas Flexner noted, "only in Pennsylvania was there a continuous still-life tradition ... anchored in a single family" that of Charles Willson Peale. While Francis's familiarity with the Peale's work is debated, this unprecedented dynasty of still-life specialists, including the elder Peale's brother James, son Raphaelle, and five daughters and nieces, undoubtedly prepared the way for Joseph Biays Ord, Severin Roesen, and Francis. Raphaelle Peale's austere neo-classic arrangements and James Peale's marvelously romantic orchestrations may have found acceptance initially because the large Germanic population around Philadelphia was already accustomed to both a folk tradition of fruit- and- flower painting and the Dutch school of still-life painting. Roesen and Francis, on the other hand, appealed to the growing middle-class American desire to celebrate the rich bounty of their own land. The mid-Victorian still life of abundance, featuring opulent piles of ripe fruit and costly bric-a-brac soon became a necessary feature of every genteel dining room.

Still Life with Fruit is a paradigm of the genre, combining a number of features of Francis's mature work. On a slightly tilted slab, which just touches the lower edge of the frame, is a simple market basket piled high with glowing golden peaches and apples, surrounded by still more peaches and apples as well as sliced yellow melons and a ripe watermelon, broken open to reveal rosy pulp, dark seeds, and green rind. The whole is laced together by drooping bunches of grapes and vine leaves and enlivened by a white napkin. A saturate amber light floods the picture from the left, picking out Francis's typical blue-white highlights and casting strong, dark shadows which further unify the solid geometry of the fruit. The subdued, neutral background plane, set off from a landscape vignette by a vine-hung classic column, was a common portrait setting of the period and may well have been adapted from his earlier profession.

Francis also specialized in luncheon still lifes, which added wine bottles and glasses, a plate of cheese, and perhaps some "jaw breakers" or oyster crackers, and dessert still lifes, presenting an elegant grouping of silver, glassware, and porcelain containing fruit, cakes, nuts, and wine. All three types were attuned to the Victorian love of luxurious objects, beautifully and precisely rendered in virtuoso pieces in which the artist set and solved increasingly complex visual problems. Francis continued to paint variations on these still-life themes, frequently combining elements from previous pictures and, in some cases, replicating entire pictures almost exactly. This, combined with the fact that his style remained relatively unchanged over the decades, makes it almost impossible to date uninscribed works with any degree of certainty. Few pictures dated after 1872 are known and none after 1880. By the time of his death "the best American still-life painter of mid-century" was forgotten in his native city.

© Copyright Ownership: - Noted: H. Daniel Butts, III.

View painter's art: [new window view]