Paul Fontaine (1913–1996) was an American painter.
Abstract-colorist painter Paul Emile Fontaine was born in 1913 in Worcester, Massachusetts to Elzear and Mary Fontaine, both of French Canadian descent. Fontaine had two brothers, Russell and Leo Fontaine, both younger. Paul Fontaine was early on encouraged to be a painter, deciding to pursue this artistic path as a teenager. He was enrolled at the Worcester Art Museum School following completion of high school, and remained there from 1932 to 1935. Fontaine graduated in 1935, and followed his studies with a six-month term in the Civilian Conservation Corps. In 1936, Fontaine worked as a Works Progress Administration (or Section of Fine Arts, US Treasury) painter in Springfield, Massachusetts, painting murals in the city’s Post Office under Umberto Romano. Like many WPA murals, these contained images of Springfield and Massachusetts history in a bold, proletarian style, full of expressive movement and hard edges. In six panels, these murals now decorate Springfield’s federal building.
Following employment as a WPA painter, Fontaine was encouraged to continue his studies at Yale’s prestigious art school. Francis H. Taylor, director of the Worcester Art Museum, secured a matching grant for Fontaine to engage further studies at Yale University, the only time the Worcester Art Museum School donated significant funds to a student’s career. Fontaine began at Yale in 1938 and graduated among the top of his class in 1940. Fontaine was awarded the Winchester Wirt Traveling Fellowship the same year, but due to wartime exigencies, chose instead to study and paint in the Caribbean.
Paul Fontaine married fellow Yale art student Virginia Hammersmith in 1940. Virginia Fontaine was trained as a painter at Yale but did not graduate, and she became a major force in Paul’s subsequent creative activities. Virginia was born in 1915 to Paul and Myrtle Hammersmith of Milwaukee, Wisconsin (founders of the Hammersmith Printing Company). Following their marriage the Fontaines went to the British Virgin Islands, primarily Tortola, on Paul’s fellowship, where he first began to extensively explore abstract forms in his watercolors. Meanwhile, Virginia Fontaine was a skilled photographer, regular diarist and frequent documenter of their lives together. Thus, experiences in the Virgin Islands were noted in both her pictures and words.
The Fontaines returned to Worcester in 1941, where Paul held a factory job and painted regularly, successfully submitting a number of watercolors for governmental tours. He also founded the Worcester Artists Group with Herbert Barnett, showed in Boston at the Grace Horn Galleries, and built a studio by hand behind his mother’s house, known as “Rocky Tor.” Paul Fontaine was drafted in 1943 and sent to Italy where he worked as an illustrator, also painting commissions for the US Army and Red Cross. Fontaine frequently painted semiabstract watercolors of the Italian countryside, maintaining his commitment to a career as an artist. The Fontaines’ first daughter, Carol, was born in 1943 in Worcester, MA. Starting in 1945, Paul worked as an Army cartographer in Paris, finally settling in Frankfurt as the graphic director for the Army’s regional headquarters. There, his work included posters and brochures. Paul stayed in this position until 1953, which allowed him the opportunity to live in Frankfurt as the city and its artistic community were rebuilt. During the late 1940s, Paul’s Italian watercolors also toured to acclaim in the United States in an exhibition organized by Virginia Fontaine that brought his work to Milwaukee and Ripon, WI; Kalamazoo, MI; Bloomington, IN; and Boston, MA. In 1948, the Fontaines’ second daughter, Eugenie (Paula), was born in Frankfurt.
The Fontaines’ apartment in Frankfurt soon became noted for its continual parade of artists, writers and musicians, for Virginia Fontaine made their home into a place where artists could meet, share ideas and get to know one another in postwar Frankfurt. Her goal was not only community building, but to introduce Paul to European artists and bring him into the artistic circle. This circle included Hans Hartung, Bauhaus painter and weaver Ida Kerkovius, sculptors Ewald Mataré and Karl Hartung, Otto Ritschl and Willi Baumeister. The Fontaines also bought and otherwise acquired a strong collection of modern and abstract European art, reflecting both status as an integral part of the art scene and contributing to the noteworthiness of the archives.
In 1953, the Fontaines moved to Darmstadt, where Paul became the art director for Stars and Stripes, the Army’s European circular. Like German-American painter Lyonel Feininger, he was an accomplished cartoonist, and his caricatures and editorial art appeared in issues throughout the 1960s. This was his principal source of income until his retirement in 1969 at age 55. The Fontaines’ third daughter Claudia was born in Darmstadt in 1956. During this period, Virginia began to focus more on her own work, which included curating and photography. At the request of Gordon Gilkey, the print curator for Oregon State University at Corvallis and former Adjutant General in charge of salvaging looted European art, she single-handedly curated and procured prints for an exhibition of contemporary German prints in 1963. She was also the translator for the first definitive work on Hans Hartung published by Ottomar Domnick who was a major collector of contemporary works from that time period. In addition, she photographed and was self-appointed publicist for the famed Mary Wigman modern dance company and opera star Bruni Falcon.
From 1947 onward, Paul Fontaine remained committed to exploring the abstract in his art, with increasingly large canvases and defiantly non-representational forms in oil, watercolor and acrylic paint, often with bold areas of color and naturalistic hues. For the next 23 years, Virginia was also committed to the success of Paul Fontaine as an artist. She steadfastly continued to introduce him to fellow artists and to curators and galleries, earning him frequent shows in Europe and, occasionally, the United States.
In 1969, the Fontaines moved to Guadalajara, Mexico, following Paul Fontaine’s retirement. During his time in Mexico, the colors of his paintings became bolder, his forms gauzier and his canvases larger. He showed at the University of Colima, Jalisco, Mex. (1970) and, because he found Mexican culture more favorable, was able to represent himself to curators and galleries there. Following the death of Virginia in 1992 at age 75, Paul moved to Austin, Texas to be nearer to his daughters. He died in 1996 at age 82.
Like many artists, Paul Fontaine sought a European sojourn as a way to put into practice what he had gleaned from his studies at the Yale Art School, a traveling fellowship (the Winchester Wirt Fellowship) that would have taken him to Paris and to Italy. However, with war breaking out in the 1930s, such a trek was unfeasible and thus Fontaine used his fellowship to take himself and Virginia to the Virgin Islands. They lived mostly in Tortola, but also spent time in Puerto Rico, Guana, and Virgin Gorda through 1940 and ’41. Ever Spartan, they built their own thatched hut and lived with the minimal resources available to them, though Paul’s painting flourished with gauzy, stippled impressions of beaches, palms, and sailboats that crept into his later abstract work. These watercolors are disarmingly simple and executed in close-value muted tones and shapes.
After this year abroad, the Fontaines returned to the States where they built a studio in Worcester called Rocky Tor, butted up against a hillside behind his parents’ home. Yet his time in the small-town Northeast was not to last, as Paul was drafted in 1943 and sent to Italy as an infantryman. While in Europe, Virginia sent him the materials needed to paint, and he exercised his muse during rare hours of down time. His war watercolors are abstractly impressionistic but with a confounding undercurrent not present in the Tortola works. The colors, when bright, seem washed-out and he favored a predominantly dusky tone. The images themselves focus on immediate and small moments culled from the artist’s individual experience, and echo a dreamlike state in which towns lie in ruin, children run in the streets toting discarded weapons, and shrapnel falls from the sky. Yet there is no pain in the faces of individuals – there is no Breughelian toil – and the abstraction does not distance one from the scenario.
Fontaine had studied the craft of Japanese watercolor while in school, and it was this approach to perspective that informed the war watercolors. In “Taking Prisoners in Munzano,” the town seems made of mountain huts, dotted with sienna roofs, as a firing squad exercises its duty much as a monk washes his bowl. The forests are rendered in smoky hues, stacked atop one another in billowy calligraphic curls. Notan theory, wherein the composition is unchanged in its basic weight no matter what direction the picture is held, applies to these early works and is something that Fontaine carried throughout his life as a painter.
Following a group show at the Worcester Art Museum in May 1943, his next exhibition and second official one-man show was a touring one, first held at the Margaret Brown Gallery in Boston in March 1945 after his tour of duty, which focused entirely on the war watercolors. The show was also displayed at Ripon College, the Fitchburg Art Center, the Milwaukee Museum of Art, and the Kalamazoo Museum of Art. In October 1945, the Milwaukee Sentinel published a lengthy article on Fontaine’s watercolors to accompany the exhibition, entitled “Impressions of a Worcester Combat Artist,” which detailed Fontaine’s life and work up to that point and included images of significant war watercolors. Writer Robert Creighton states that “in Sgt. Fontaine we have a combat artist with a decidedly different slant. This young man, an outstanding product of the Worcester Art Museum School as well as of Yale, has expressly stated…that he had no intention of reproducing photographically the history of his progress up the Italian peninsula. Instead he has set down in his unique – and sometimes quite abstract – way the situations in which he found himself.” The show consisted of twenty watercolors, which constitute the only visual documentation of this period (he’d completed at least one hundred works while in Tortola).
After the war’s end, Fontaine began working for the Historical Division as a cartographer in Paris, but a change in position to graphics director found him relocating to Frankfurt, to be joined by Virginia and their young daughter Carol in the winter of 1946. With other materials available to him, Fontaine began working on a larger scale and with oils, allowing him to move into a more abstract arena.
Fontaine’s work of the 1950s and 1960s, a large body of work executed mostly in oil and acrylic, were a definite break in scale from the war watercolors and works of the 1940s. His meeting of gallerist Lucia Stern in Boston was a turning point, as was an exhibition in Wiesbaden of the paintings of German abstractionists like Willi Baumeister, Otto Ritschl, Erich Heckel, Karlheinz Schmidt-Rotluff and Emile Nolde in 1949. In 1978, the artist related “in 1946 I discovered that a picture could be made without literary content. This filled me up with such excitement that up until today it’s the only form of painting that still captivates me. The purity of it. Form, color, line, rhythm, without compromise creating the picture. No need to reproduce a scene or tell a tale. What liberation.” Baumeister was particularly important because he helped Fontaine to see a definition and perception of space that was non-narrative. Fontaine’s war watercolors, for example, had begun to will themselves away from diaristic representation into an inky, flattened mode of Impressionism, but by the end of the decade Fontaine began to work on much larger surfaces with more expansive tonal areas.
An example of Fontaine’s early 1950s work is "The Charleston," completed in 1952 and exhibited at the Frankfurter Kunstkabinett. The painting does show an allegiance to Baumeister’s sense of shaped space: a green, black and grey whorl occupies the left side of the canvas, spinning outward in motion yet flattened and reigned in by a ring of scumbled, thick white paint and by larger blocks of color (such as the green, delta-like shape). Two wide black swaths cut towards the right, all on a gold-brown ground. Instead of being weighted toward the left side, Fontaine’s ground is washed like rusted siding, almost metallic or akin to heavy-gauge fabric. In addition to the long black parallels, there is a curled tendril that serves to balance the plane. There’s a very clear organization of space, with almost “stacked,” directly proximal sections, but Fontaine has a more unbridled sense of movement in this picture that makes him unabashedly American. Though Fontaine did not exhibit with New York School abstractionists, there is a rhythmic and spatial similarity to painters like Jackson Pollock, Mark Tobey and William Baziotes.
Moving away from Baumeister’s influence, Fontaine’s canvases took a somewhat different turn. His large canvases were mostly done in acrylics, and by this time he had found a more original way of dealing with flattening space, setting closely hued colors in relationship to one another not unlike chords in musical composition. In a number of the paintings, black leaf-like motifs appear chained together, swirling or floating around a central axis. In others, they are stacked or linear, though not with any sort of precise order and acting more like a loosely formed oriental rug. Their palette and arrangement do recall the Swiss painter Paul Klee, whom Fontaine admired. Most of these paintings were untitled, as Fontaine approached them as abstract and non-literary entities.
Fontaine was, by the mid-1950s, living in Darmstadt, where he also had contact with composers of new music (Karlheinz Stockhausen and Mauricio Kagel would be among these) and practitioners of modern dance and other arts. Crucial in this was his wife, Virginia Fontaine, who was socially well-connected among the area’s cultural and artistic circles. She was also instrumental (as was Baumeister) in getting Paul Fontaine to show in galleries and connect with the Darmstädter Sezession (where he was the only American member).
While he worked with larger surface area, often eclipsing 120 x 150 cm when working with acrylic paint on canvas, Fontaine remained committed to watercolors, creating smaller-scale pictures that retained a lot of the pictorial and spatial qualities of larger works. Painters who are able to translate large-scale canvases into narrower circumstances are few, but also include figures like Klee as well as American abstractionist Barnett Newman.
Upon retiring from Stars and Stripes in 1969, the Fontaines moved to Guadalajara, Mexico. Of course, his approach to the canvas changed immeasurably upon relocating to a new environment and having an entirely different makeup of paint available to work with. Fontaine’s forms became gauzier and larger, while his palette became significantly brighter. Instead of grays, black, dark blues, gold, and brown, Fontaine embraced crimson, azure and verdant green, his whites less dirty and blacks less sooty. Upon leaving Darmstadt and Europe, writer Robert d’Hooge noted the following in Schlosskeller: “Since he has discovered his problems and his way of translating and expressing those in his paintings, Fontaine has gone without hesitation, his own way. It was always the intrinsic value of color, the improvement in their comparison and contrast, the vision of light and dark that was moving to Fontaine. Now the evolution has arrived at the Stadium of Wisdom, where the sonorous double-sound of two colors creates complete harmony in the smallest space. We do not know how the bright light of Mexico will affect the development of Fontaine’s painting. What is a loss for us can be gain for him. We wish this from our hearts.”
Fontaine’s approach to space also changed during this time; large areas of white ground supplanted by colorful floral explosions (called “schmoos”) recall some of Morris Louis’ stained “florals” in their color and impact. Motifs like doorways and sailboats are noted by the artist as chance abstract occurrences from a blank mind. Nevertheless, they are clear images in his work of the 1970s, such as Tortola (1970), where a boat-like half-moon structure and black “sails” crests a ground of choppy waves. As the artist states in 1978, “where the ideas come from is both unknown and confounding as well as impossible to verbalize… the strength of the impact should become easily communicative not just to me, but hopefully to everyone.” Perhaps the most important thing about Fontaine’s Mexican paintings is their embrace of color to a greater degree than in Germany. While working in the Frankfurt area and becoming acquainted with painters like Baumeister was important for his sense of space and composition, the verdant surroundings in Mexico gave rise to a significant and broad palette.
Like Clyfford Still, Fontaine’s mature work remained singular in its intent, utilizing forms that were simple and direct, and he continued to refine these motifs throughout his time in Mexico. “Tortola,” a medium-sized canvas with several deep black crescents arranged to form a sailboat-like motif, is superimposed over fiery oranges and reds. Though the figure is atop a swelling line of “waves,” there is enough push and pull between the black areas and the orange-reds that the image retains a tense flatness, rather than simple figure-ground. A 1978 work presents stippled goldenrod half-moons, turning on an axis in a sea of lighter yellow. Again, the boat motif is visible, but one is struck more by the activity of forms in stasis and motion than a particular image attachment.
After the death of his wife Virginia, Paul Fontaine moved to Austin, Texas in 1992 in order to be close to his daughters. Though his health was failing, he continued to paint, using cheap and somewhat garish house paints as his medium of choice. Nevertheless, he was able to continue to create works that stood wholly in line with his singular Mexican period. “Acorono,” a canvas begun in Mexico in 1988 and completed in Austin in 1995, features a bright blue orb flanked on either side by brown and white scumbled fields. Grayish patches are above and below the orb, while flecks of red and black make their way across the field. These smaller elements work together to maintain a balance between shape and color area, keeping the surface flat and in motion.
Though most abstract painters are far from household names, Fontaine has been unknown, especially in the country of his birth. Expatriating to Europe could have improved his showing chances, and it did to a degree – exhibiting at Amsterdam’s Stedelijk and the Neue Sezession in Darmstadt certainly counts toward a presence on the continental art scene. But even as he befriended and/or showed with artists like Baumeister, Ernst Wilhelm Nay, Hans Hartung, and Bauhaus weaver and painter Ida Kerkovius, Fontaine did not quite ascend in notoriety while in Europe.
His one-man show of war watercolors, organized with assistance from the Margaret Brown Gallery in Boston, toured museums in the US, travelling to the Milwaukee Art Institute, Indiana University, Ripon College, Kalamazoo Institute of Art, Fitchburg Art Center, and closing at the Brown Gallery. Living in Paris after the war, he showed at the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles in Paris’ Museum of Modern Art (1950/51). While in Germany, he showed often at the Frankfurter Kunstkabinett (including a two-man show with Alexander Calder), among other locations, averaging about two shows a year. In Mexico, he showed at the Galeria Moderna and Centro de Arte Moderno in Guadalajara, as well as holding one-man shows at the Erie Art Museum (Erie, PA) and at Chicago’s Worthington Gallery.
Virginia Fontaine’s friendships with gallerist Hanna Bekker vom Rath and Washington State University curator Gordon Gilkey did not seem to bleed into broad visibility for Fontaine. A 1963 review of paintings in Heidelberg, German and American Painting, did not significantly capture the tonal and spatial considerations that Fontaine was after: “Paul Fontaine, on the other hand, shows himself as a painter who loves the gentle and pleasant, without conscious consideration if, in his painting, he forces himself to artistic positions. The beautiful is dominant, and the contours break fluidly apart.” Critic Egon Vietta was to write a monograph on Fontaine’s work, but that plan was cut short by his untimely death. This isn’t to say that Fontaine’s art was totally ignored – after all, a list of his exhibitions proves the contrary. However, the depth of his approach did not receive the attention that it could have, either in his home country or his adopted homes in Germany and Mexico.
1936 Corcoran Gallery, Washington D.C. USA
1940 Museum of Modern Art, New York USA
1941 October San Juan, Puerto Rico
1941 November Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts 39th Annual Philadelphia Water color and print exhibition
1941 December Jordan Marsh Gallery, Worcester, MA. USA
1942 April Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, MA USA
1942 May Museum of Rhode Island School of Design. Providence, RI. USA
1942 November Grace Horne Gallery, Boston MA. USA.
1942 May Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, MA. USA
1945 March Margaret Brown Gallery, Boston MA. USA.
1945 April Fitchberg Museum, Fitchberg, MA. USA
1945 June Indiana State University Museum, USA.
1945 October Milwaukee Art institute, WI, USA
1948 May Frankfurter Kunstkabinett, Frankfurt, West Germany
1948 June Wuppertal Barmen Museum, Westfalia, Germany
1949 February Frankfurter Kunstkabinett, Germany
1949 July Salon des Realites Nouvelles, Museum of Modern Art, Paris France
1950 January Margaret Brown Gallery, Boston MA. USA
1950 March Studio Fur Neue Kunst Doppersberg, Wuppertal, Germany
1950 June Frankfurter Kunstkabinett, Germany
1950 November Hamburger Volkerkunde Museum, Germany
1950 to September 1951 One Man traveling exhibition to German Museums and US Cultural Centers
1950 July Landesmuseum, Wiesbaden
1950 August Marburg Museum
1950 September Fulda Museum
1950 October Giesen Museum
1950 November Landesmuseum Kassel
1951 January Frankfurt Museum
1951 March Darmstadt Museum
1951 April Die Brucke Galerie Elberfeld, Wupbertal
1951 June Hamburg Museum
1951 August Berlin Museum
1951 June Salon des Realites NouveIles, Museum of Modern Art, Paris France
1951 July Brooklyn Museum, New York, USA.
1951 July Palace Hotel, St. Moritz, Switzerland
1951 September Galerie Chichio Haller, Zurich Switzerland
1952 March Zimmer Galerie Franck, Frankfurt/M, Germany
1952 October Pittsburg Carnegie International USA
1953 February Frankfurter Kunstkabinett (Paul Fontaine and Alexander Calder)
1953 Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, the Netherlands. (works in Dr. Otto. Domnick collection)
1954 March Dortmund Museum am 0stwald, Westfalia, Germany
1954 June Markischen Museum, Witten, Westfalia, Germany
1954 July Amerika HAUS Hannover, Germany
1954 September Darmstadt Stadtbucherei Austellung, Germany
1954 October Buchhandlung Wertmuller Galeria, Basel Switzerland
1955 January Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, the Netherlands.
1955 August to May 1956 Frankfurter Kunstkabinett World Tour Havana, Cuba, Palacio de Bellas Artes São Paulo, Brazil, Museum de Artes Santiago, Chile, German Chilean Culture Institute Cape Town, South Africa, Gallery Kreitner Bombay, India J.J. School of Art Bangalore, India. Indian Institute of Culture New Deli, India, Jaipur House Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Museau de Arte Moderna Belo Horizonte, Brazil, Edificio Dante
1956 February East & West Gallery, San Francisco CA. USA.
1956 April Patio Galerie, Saxanhausen/Frankfurt, Germany
1958 September Stadtmuseum Schloss Morsbroich Leverkusen, Germany
1958 December Frankfurter Kunstkabinett, Germany
1959 September Neue Darmstadter Sezession, Germany
1960 February Frankfurter Kunstkabinett, Germany
1960 April Frankfurter Kunstkabinett, Germany
1960 April Hamburg, Germany
1961 September Neue Darmstadter Sezession, Germany
1961 November ORGANON 61 Earban Bayer Museum, Leverkusen, Germany
1963 November Heidelberg Amerika Haus, Germany
1964 April Hoechst Frankfurt, Germany
1964 October Neue Darmstadter Sezession, Germany
1964 December Keller Galerie im Schloss Darmstadt, Germany
1965 July Neckerman Exhibition, Frankfurt, Germany
1965 September Neue Darmstadter Sezession, Germany
1966 April Tower Gallery am Rhein, Germany
1966 June Patio Galerie, Baxanhausan/Frankfurt, Germany
1966 August Aschaffenburg Museum, Germany
1967 April Neue Darmstadter Sezession, Germany 1968 December Keller Galerie Im Schloss Darmstadt, Germany
1969 September Neue Darmstadter Sezession, Germany
1970 February Keller Galerie im Schloss Darmstadt, Germany
1971 November Instituto Cultural Mexicano Norteamericano de Jalisco, Mexico
1972 January University of Colima, Jalisco, Mexico
1972 November Instituto Cultural Mexicano Norteamericano de Jalisco, Mexico
1973 July Erie Art Museum, Erie, PA. USA.
1974 June Ajijic, Jalisco, Mexico
1974 July Frohman Gallery, Suffolk, VA. USA.
1975 June Jean Adam Gallery, Menlo Park CA. USA.
1978 February Galeria Municipal, Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico.
1978 April Galeria del Lago, Ajijic, Jalisco, Mexico.
1978 July Frohman Gallery, Suffolk, VA. USA.
1979 February Ex Convento del Carmen, Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico
1979 Collection Permanente Galeria Municipal, Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico
1979 April Richter Art Gallery, Danbury, CT. USA.
1979 May Adobe Art Gallery, Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco, Mexico
1980 March Centro de Arte Moderno, Guadalajara. Jalisco, Mexico
1980 May Centro de Arte Moderno, Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico
1980 June Galeria de Arte Contemporaneo, Mazatlan, Sinaloa, Mexico
1980 September Instituto Cultural Mexicano Norteamericano, Mexico, D.F.
1980 October Centro de Arte Moderno, Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico
1980 November Centro de Arte Moderno, Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico
1980 December Centro de Arte Moderno, Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico
1981 September Galeria Marchand, Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico
1984 Galeria Municipal TorresBodet, Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico
1985 October Instituto Cultural Mexicano Norteamericano, Mexico, D.F.
1985 October Galeria Municipal Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico
1985 October Centro de Arte Moderno, Gaadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico
1986 June Galeria Alejandro Gallo, Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico
1986 December Worthington Gallery Chicago IL, USA.
1987 December Worthington Gallery Chicago IL, USA.
1989 January Worthington Gallery Chicago III, USA.
1990 February Centro Arte Moderno Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico
1991 June Worthington Gallery Chicago IL USA.
1992 August Galeria Alejandro Gallo Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico
1995 Sol de Rio Gallery, San Antonio, Texas, USA