America 1913-1943

Born to an undertaker and singer and into a family with a strong appreciation for the arts, Fontaine was encouraged to be find his career at the earliest age possible. At the age of 13 he decided to be a painter. He gained his lifelong friend Leon Hovsepian with whom he painted at the Worcester Art Museum school and then later at Yale. The Depression, his education at the Worcester Art Museum School, work with the WPA, and his later education at Yale, were all artistic and life style foundations that he spent his life overcoming. He often stated that he had to “unlearn” all he learned at school to become the artist he wanted to be. Worcester Following high school, Paul was enrolled with the Worcester Art Museum School. There he remained for three years and gained a thorough academic background in painting classical art, using many techniques and mediums.

Homer, Sargent and Pinkham-Ryder

Watercolor became a favored medium . He was influenced by the handsome selection of John Singer Sargent and  Winslow Homer watercolors hanging in the Worcester Art Museum. His analytical mind was most excited by the technical ability these artists had in achieving transparencies. Fontaine particularly enjoyed Sargent’s ability to  visually  transpose elements from nature, but he  used more plastic constructions than Sargent.

In addition, Fontaine particularly studied Albert Pinkham Ryder‘s ability to reduce natural shapes to their abstract essence.  This style is also reminiscent of Thomas Hart Benton who, along with Steward Curry, portrayed the American scene outside the New York School of Social Realism. The effect of promoting American indigenous art was a sincere effort to establish themselves in face of competition from international modernism. Then a national cultural consciousness was fostered by governmental support of the arts. Paul Fontaine signed an artist’s contract with the Civilian Conservation Corps. As a condition of employment he was required to paint scenes of camp life in “pictorial representational manner.” His next job was with the Works Progress Administration when he gained experience as a muralist depicting the history of Springfield, Massachusetts. The images are rich with scenes depicting  Indians and early settlers. It is still extant  in the Springfield Post Office.

Black and White Study for "Fantasy" Final work in tempera at Yale University

Yale University 1938-1940 In his studies at Yale School of Fine Arts from 1938 to 1940 he was introduced to early Italian Art. The influence of Montegna’s sculptural forms are evident in the major surrealist composition called “Fantasy.” The symbolism employed in this earlier realistic style is easily related to Fontaine’s youthful disillusionment with the church. In “Fantasy,” Fontaine imaginatively composed the different shapes such as the triangles on the roof repeating the pattern on the Harlequin’s costume.

Black and White Study for “Fantasy” Final work in tempera at Yale University
The decorative pillar is used to stop the edge of the painting and let the eye move in the distorted space to the background of concentration camp buildings.

In 1940, at twenty-seven, Paul graduated at the top of his class. He was honored by receiving the the Winchester Wirt Fellowship to spend an entire year after graduation to concentrate and strengthen his own style. As the importance of an artist depends upon his own discoveries which he never learned in school, a true artist takes knowledge and experience from art history upon which to build his own creative ideas. “The greater the inspiration, the more the painting has something to say,” said Fontaine.

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“Boat Party”, 1938-9 Egg tempera on gesso panel, 30″ x 20″Composed from sketches made while sailing to Nantucket on an old two-masted schooner from Boston, Mass.

As World War II broke out in Europe, he and his bride Virginia, settled on living on Tortola in the British Virgin Islands. The impression was tremendous. Here he had an opportunity to escape the materialistic world a la Gauguin, and begin to discover the myriad possibilities within himself and in his paintings. Short of financial resources, they relied on their own ability to build a thatched-hut and their own furniture.

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Coconut Tree 1941

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Sugar Mill 1941


In most of the watercolors and oils he dealt objectively with varied subjects from natives climbing coconut tree to a copper mine. Yet he simplified the objects by omitting all extraneous detail that would detract from its essential quality, and combined them to form an exciting design. His stress on design no longer required a model from nature. Inside his studio he planned his own composition in an effort to capture the spirit of the island. He also experimented with applying only close color harmonies of gray-greens or soft red and browns pricked with touches of brilliant red. The humanist expression in this tranquil setting was man in harmony with nature and with an “optimistic awareness of a closed, intelligible and ordered universe.” His composition was partially based upon the Renaissance formal domain of beauty regulated by algebraic equations and platonic notions of harmony. The artist assumes the god-like role of creator whose concept of beauty is an aesthetic experience based upon pure mathematical ratios of order like the “golden measure.” The composition was enriched with the oriental pattern of black and white values of Notan.

More Paintings From Tortola