Biography

Summary

Abstract-Expressionist, color-field 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 1932-1935. 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.