The Fuller Building, 41 East 57th Street, 9th Floor New York City, NY 10022 United States 212.535.8810
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$ 95,000

Ripe Melons

Period 19th Century
Materials oil on canvas
W. 24.5 in; H. 20.5 in;
W. 62.23 cm; H. 52.07 cm;
Condition Excellent.
Creation Date about 1850
Description Born in Philadelphia to French Catholic parents, John Francis achieved considerable success as a portrait painter before turning to the still-life subjects for which he is best remembered today. The artist’s early life remains a mystery. He appears to have been orphaned at an early age and nothing is known about how he came to a career in art. Philadelphia, of course, boasted a distinguished art tradition in a relatively circumscribed world. As a young man with a talent for drawing, Francis could readily have seen the work of Charles Willson Peale (1741–1827) and other members of Peale’s extended painting family, including still-life painters James, Raphael, and Rembrandt Peale. He certainly encountered the omnipresent works of his contemporary (albeit a generation older), Thomas Sully (1783–1872), whose romantic portraits delighted Philadelphia patrons for decades.

By 1832, Francis was painting reputable portraits of Pennsylvania gentry in a style that reflected the prevailing Sully influence. As a young itinerant portraitist, Francis toured through towns of central Pennsylvania, his stops documented by known works. He painted in Pottsville, Sunbury, Lewisburg, Bellefonte, and Milton, traveling as far south as Nashville, Tennessee, and west to Chilicothee, Ohio. He spent a considerable time in the neighborhood of the state capital, Harrisburg, returning there periodically to paint various patrons including four governors of Pennsylvania, as well as numerous other prominent citizens. When Francis finally stopped traveling, he settled near Philadelphia, first in Phoenixville (twenty-one miles northwest of the city on the Schuylkill River), and then in Jeffersonville (near Norristown). By the time that Francis went to Jeffersonville, around 1858, he may have been living alone. The artist married young and had two children; a son, Joseph Raphael, born in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, in 1833, and a daughter, Mary Elizabeth, born in New Berlin, Pennsylvania, in 1834. In 1856, both children, by then young adults, were victims of a cholera epidemic. Francis’s wife, Mary, died a few years later. Francis lived the last two decades of his life in Jeffersonville and is buried there.

Despite a highly successful career, Francis, like many other notable American nineteenth-century artists, fell into obscurity after his death. Wolfgang Born, in his seminal 1947 study, Still-Life Painting in America, resurrected Francis (pp. 23–24), praised him highly, and illustrated seven of his works (figs. 54–60) while noting the “meager sources available” to shed light on the artist’s life. To Alfred Frankenstein goes the lion’s share of credit for expanding our knowledge of Francis’s footprint. In preparation for his 1953 book on American still-life painting, After the Hunt, Frankenstein unearthed considerable biographical evidence, including finding surviving relatives of the artist. He first published his findings in an article, “J. F. Francis,” in The Magazine Antiques (LIX, May 1951, pp. 374–77, 390), to which he appended the artist’s own partial inventory of his portrait work which Frankenstein had located in the possession of Francis’s niece. In 1981, William Gerdts appreciated Francis at some length in Painters of the Humble Truth: Masterpieces of American Still Life, 1801–1939, noting that “of all the mid-century still-life specialists, Francis is the most ‘painterly.’ . . .There is often a freshness and a brio to his paint application that successfully balances his sure delineation of form and his establishment of texture” (p. 92).

Still-life pictures enjoyed a vogue in mid-nineteenth century America. As the increased availability of photography diminished the clientele for itinerant portrait painters, a blossoming house-proud middle class, devoted to the material cultivation of hearth and home, increasingly sought still-life paintings to decorate their newly acquired parlors and dining rooms. At the same time the increasing availability and improving quality of photography curtailed opportunities for portraitists. John Francis responded to this market shift by adding still life to his repertory in the late 1840s. By the end of the next decade it had entirely supplanted portraiture as his artistic calling. The change is reflected in the fact that, by the end of the 1850s, Francis was able to end twenty-five years of traveling for portrait commissions and remain rooted in one place. A snapshot of this transition in process is revealed in an advertisement that Francis purchased in a Wilmington, Delaware newspaper in 1854. Describing himself as a “Portrait and Still Life Painter” with studio and exhibition space in the Wilson Building at 5th and Market Streets in Wilmington, Francis advised readers that he would be “happy to receive orders from the ladies and gentlemen of this City for PORTRAIT PAINTING [sic], or for pictures in ‘Still Life’” (reproduced in David W. Dunn, A Suitable Likeness: The Paintings of John F. Francis, exhib. cat. [Lewisburg, Pennsylvania: Packwood House Museum, 1986], p. 8).

Demand for still-life subjects was fueled by the encouragement for this type of painting from the art union movement. The first and largest art union in America was the New York-based American Art-Union (1838–52), a lottery-driven organization which differentiated itself from competing exhibition venues by making a point of refusing to show or purchase portraiture. This group, dedicated to expanding the market for American art, did buy and distribute numerous still-life paintings, heavily patronizing two Pennsylvania artists, Severin Roesen (1815–1872) and Joseph Biays Ord (1805–1865). Francis appears not to have tried to sell his work to the New York organization. In 1851, however, he exhibited twelve still-life pictures at the Art-Union of Philadelphia, selling nine of them. Thereafter the Philadelphia Art-Union purchased still lifes from Francis for distribution. Francis remained essentially a Pennsylvania artist except on the few occasions he traveled outside the state. He appears never to have sought exhibition opportunities (except for his own traveling stock) anywhere but Philadelphia. In 1858, he exhibited a group of still-life pictures at the Philadelphia Artists’ Fund Society in Philadelphia.

Francis’s compositions offer the viewer (and, of course, the owner) privileged entrée into a gracious world of ease and plenty. The artist played many variations on similar themes, arranging and rearranging studio still-life elements into carefully composed visual essays. Studio props offered the artist the opportunity to display bravura technical skill in the rendering of various textures—fabric, ceramics, glassware, fruits, nuts, and the like. The sum of these, in addition to his sophisticated manipulation of color and shape in the creation of his compositions, secure for Francis a pride of place among the masters of nineteenth-century American still-life painting.

According to Dr. Williams Gerdts, Ripe Melons was probably executed around 1850 and demonstrates Francis’s early dependence on the still life tradition established in Philadelphia by members of the Peale family. In fact, this painting at one time bore a fraudulent signature, “R. Peale,” and was included in Wolfgang Born’s book (Born, p.xi) as a work by Raphaelle Peale. The Peale signature was discovered to be fraudulent when the painting was cleaned, revealing at the same time Francis’s original signature.

Gerdts dates Ripe Melons on stylistic grounds and notes that the format of the marble top table is also characteristic of mid-century painting, whereas Francis moved to a more typical cloth-covered table in his later still lifes.
Styles / Movements Realism
Dealer Reference Number APG 20638D.003
Incollect Reference Number 216792
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