F. FRANCIS 1808-1886
Still Life with Fruit
Oil on canvas, 23 1/4 X 50" (59.06 x 76.20 cm.)
Signed, lower left
Gift of family and friends in memory of Grace Heath Butler, 973-0-115
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.
H. DANIEL BUTTS, III