Finding Aid

Paul and Virginia Fontaine Manuscripts and Assorted Materials 1935-1996
Processed by Clifford Allen and Claudia Fontaine Chidester
The Fontaine Archive

6907 Bayridge Terrace Austin, TX 78759
November 2007

Descriptive Summary

Title
Paul and Virginia Fontaine Manuscripts and Assorted Materials
Date
1935-1996 (bulk 1945-1969); unsorted
Creator/Collector
Paul and Virginia Fontaine (creators)
Language
English and German
Physical Description
Modern and contemporary art, postwar Germany/Reconstruction, expatriates, museums, modern dance, Texas artists 31 linear feet 314 Photographs
Repository
The Fontaine Archive

Biography/History

Abstract-colorist painter Paul Fontaine was born in 1913 in Worcester, Massachussetts 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 1932-1935. Fontaine graduated in 1935, and followed his studies with a six-month term in the Civilian Conservation Corps. In 1936, Fontaine worked as a WPA (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, 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 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 Matare 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. He created cartoons to go along with editorials and designed the feature section. 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. She arranged the visit of a print collection from Czechoslovakia (Oregon State University, 1968) and contemporary German prints (OSU, 1963). She also contributed to a catalog on Hans Hartung, and extensively photographed a dance company.

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, 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 a number of shows including the Stedelijk Amsterdam, Salon des Realite Nouvelles, Museum of Modern Art, Paris (1950/1), Frankfurter Kunstkabinett (from 1950 onward with regularity), Portland Art Museum (1962), Neue Darmstadter Sezession (1960s), and the Worthington Gallery in Chicago. Despite frequent showings in Germany, Fontaine’s work was not often shown in the United States, despite being exhibited alongside that of artists like Alexander Calder.

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.


Scope and Content

The Fontaine Archive includes approximately 314 photographs, 350 artworks, 13.5 linear feet of books and manuscripts, 10 linear feet of miscellany, and 6 linear feet of letters and documents related to the Fontaines’ life as art students and their residency in postwar Germany and Mexico. The bulk of the documentation covers the years from 1935 to 1965, during the height of Modernism. The collection is essential research for art historians interested in American artists living abroad, as well as the role that the arts played in postwar Europe’s rebuilding.

The letters begin in 1935 with Virginia Fontaine’s move from Milwaukee to Yale and are primarily written to her mother. Her letters to family cease upon her death in Guadalajara, Mex., in 1992. Some of Virginia’s letters correspond to materials in the Hammersmith Archives. Paul Fontaine’s letters in the collection begin with those written to Virginia in 1938, and continue regularly through his station in Europe during the Second World War. Following their relocation to Europe after the war, the letters between Virginia and Paul become infrequent with the exception of brief periods when they were apart. Virginia’s letters to her mother cease with Myrtle’s death in 1961.

The photographic materials date to 1935 and continue up to Paul’s death in 1996. Chief among the photographs is a scrapbook annotated by Virginia that covers the first years of their marriage until 1955. Along with photos taken during the construction of the studio in Worcester and Paul’s early watercolors, the scrapbook contains many items related to the European art scene. Photos of artists like Hans Hartung, Ewald Matare, Emy Roeder, Ida Kerkovius and others are included, taken in times of leisure or social activity at either the Fontaines’ apartments in Frankfurt and Darmstadt, or at the artists’ studios. Some photos document the Fontaines’ children playing with the artists’ children; others are glimpses of European gallerists and taste-makers carousing with the artists. Images of exhibitions in which Paul Fontaine’s paintings were shown are also included. Virginia’s letters from this period, as well as recently-discovered diaries, further point to this facet of the Fontaines’ life as one of the most crucially documented in this collection.

Virginia Fontaine also assembled two photo-essays in 1952, one covering the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and the other documenting the Maria Wigman Dance Company. These series of photos and attendant articles cover a range of different aspects of their subjects, belying the fact that Virginia was intent on making her own creative stamp, albeit in the journalistic world. Unfortunately, it appears that very little of this material was ultimately published. There are also two series of photographs that may have also been intended to accompany articles, though no written documents have been uncovered to corroborate this. These series are of Matare in his studio and at leisure, and of noted Frankfurt gallery owner Ferdinand Muller.

In addition to photographs, letters and ephemera, the Fontaine Archives are also a repository for a significant number of art history monographs, theory texts and rare catalogs from the 1930s onward, some of which have only scant documentation in OCLC. Included in the book collection are the homemade art survey texts of Paul and Virginia Fontaine from their Yale studies, comprised of notes, drawings, photographs and reproductions that serve as both a chronicle of their studies and a window into mid-century art historical practice. Also included are two guestbooks that document frequent visitors to the Fontaines’ Frankfurt apartment in the years 1949-1955, including drawings, sketches and notes from their many creative associates.

Finally, the Archive also houses a large portion of Paul Fontaine’s oeuvre, dating from the 1940s to the large-scale canvases he completed shortly before his death. As the provenance of other works is still an ongoing process, the most cumulative known collection of his paintings is housed in the Fontaine Archives, adding a definitive creative stamp to a massive amount of context.

Access Restrictions

Collection is available for public research by appointment only.

Acquisition Information

Acquired by the Archive upon the deaths of Virginia Fontaine in 1992 and Paul Fontaine in 1996.

Provenance

Paul Fontaine until 1996; Claudia Fontaine Chidester 1996-present.

Preferred Citation

Box/Folder: The Fontaine Archive, Austin, Texas.

Collection Contents

Correspondence, 1935-1990
[Drawer 1]
Folder-1935
Folder-1936
Folder-1937
Folder-1938
Folder-1939
Folder-1940
Folder-1941
Folder-1942
Folder-1943
Folder-1944
Folder-1945
Folder-1946
Folder-1947
Folder-1948
Folder-1949
Folder-1950
Correspondence, 1935-1990
[Drawer 2: 1951-1980s]
Folder-19511951
Folder-1952
Folder-1953
Folder-1954
Folder-1955
Folder-1956
Folder-1958
Folder-1961
Folder-1962
Folder-1964/65
Folder-1966/70
Folder-1971/78
Folder-1975/79
Folder-1979
Folder-1981/90
Creative Works by Virginia Fontaine, 1935-1992
[Box 1. Scrapbook annotated by Virginia Fontaine (photos 1945-1955, n.d.)]
[Box 2. Photographs by Virginia Fontaine (1941-1992, n.d. bulk 1941-1960)]
[Box 3. Slides by Virginia Fontaine (1940-1962, n.d.)]
[Box 4. Yale Portfolio (1936-1937)]
[Box 5. Drawings by Virginia Fontaine (1935-1940, n.d.)]
[Box 6. Materials for Maria Wigman Articles, 1952]
[Box 7. Other Articles, 1940-1952, n.d.]
[Box 8. Collection Development and Curating of Artworks (1962-68)]
Creative Works by Others, 1935-1996, n.d.
[Box 1. Photographs taken by others (1945-1955, n.d)]
[Box 2. Yale Portfolio of Paul Fontaine (1938)]
[Box 3. Guestbooks of Paul and Virginia Fontaine (1949-1955)]
[Box 4. Clippings and Press (Paul Fontaine; Virginia and Paul Fontaine)]
Publications and Library, 1945-1969
Miscellany, 1935-1992, n.d.