Sam Francis
Biography of American Abstract Expressionist Artist.

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Sam Francis (1923-1994)

The American painter Sam Francis was a leading second-generation exponent of abstract expressionism. Considered by many critics to be one of the most innovative 20th century painters involved in colourism, he is known for his large scale, abstract art, which is closely linked to Colour Field Painting. Francis studied under David Park (1911-1960), pioneer of the Bay Area Figurative School of painting, completed a Masters in Fine Art at the University of California (1950), then moved to Paris where he studied under the legendary Cubist painter Fernand Leger (1881–1955). His early paintings were influenced by the Art Informel movement and the Tachisme style, as well as Americans like Jackson Pollock (1912-66), Willem de Kooning (1904-97) and Mark Rothko (1903-70). He spent several years living in Japan, and a distinct oriental - usually calligraphic - influence can be seen in his later works. As well as oils, he also produced watercolours, lithographs and some murals. Francis was one of the great abstract painters of the mid/late 20th century, an artist who grew up in the traditions of modern art but who also contributed to contemporary art. Above all, he was a true internationalist, who used both Eastern and Western aesthetics to create his own distinct visual language.

Examples of Paintings

Untitled (1984) Acrylic on canvas.
Private Collection.
For other similar works, see:
Greatest Expressionist Paintings.

For Rudd (1963)
Museum of Modern Art, New York.

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Best Artists of All Time.

For a list of painters like
Sam Francis, see:
Modern Artists.

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aesthetic issues concerning
the creative visual arts, see:
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For a list of the best examples of
Fine Art Painting, by the
world's top artists, see:
Oil Painting.

Early Life

Samuel Lewis Francis was born in San Mateo, California in 1923. He studied psychology and medicine at the University of California from 1941-43, before serving in the Air Force during the War. Injuring his spine in a plane crash, he took up painting while recovering in hospital. After the War, he began painting with David Park at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco. Park was a key figure in the Bay Area Figurative School, a group of artists who rejected Abstract Expressionism in favour of a return to figurative painting. Many of the members of the group were originally Abstract Expressionists, but then abandoned it in favour of working with the figure. In 1950 Francis returned to California to complete an MA in Fine Arts at the University of California. Francis' early paintings were primarily influenced by American Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollock, whose "drip painting technique" he readily absorbed.

Note: Abstract Expressionism refers in general to those artists who were working in New York in the 1950s, even if their work was not especially expressionist or abstract: so it encompassed Mark Rothko, and his Colour Field Painting, as well as the gesturalism of Willem de Kooning (1904-97) and his Woman series. Other Abstract Expressionists included Arshile Gorky (1904-48), Franz Kline (1910-62), Clyfford Still (1904-80), Barnett Newman (1905-70), and Hans Hofmann (1880-1966), along with sculptors and collagists.


European Expressionism

In 1950 Francis moved to Paris to continue his studies. He was impressed with the colours of Water Lilies, by Claude Monet (1840-1926), and the concept of pure colour he found in the pictures of Henri Matisse (1869-1954) and Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947). He studied briefly at the Academy of Fernand Leger, a key member of the early 20th century Cubist group. Influenced by the Italian Futurist movement, Leger’s works had had become increasingly abstract since 1914. In Paris, Francis became friendly with the Canadian artist Jean-Paul Riopelle (1923-2002) who helped introduced Abstract Expressionism to Paris. Francis also became friendly with major influential figures such as the Swiss painter and sculptor Alberto Giacometti (1901-66). He began exhibiting his paintings almost straight away in Paris, participating in the 1950 Salon de Mai and the 1951 Un Art Autre Exhibition. By 1952 he was holding solo exhibitions, as well as participating in high profile exhibitions at prestigious venues such as the Museum of Modern Art, New York (1956) and the Sao Paulo Bienal (1959).


While in France, Francis became involved with Tachisme, a style of abstract gestural painting characterised by the irregular use of splotches and dabs of colour. Touted as the French answer to American Abstract Expressionism, its leaders included Jean Fautrier (1898-1964), Georges Mathieu (1921-2012) and Pierre Soulages (b.1919). Tachisme was primarily a French movement, and was associated with the Ecole de Paris. It differs from the American version, because the paintings are characterised by sensual handling (belle facture). In Abstract Expressionism, the paintings tend to be more raw and aggressive. Tachisme is sometimes known as or interchangeable with Abstration Lyrique (Lyrical Abstraction), Art Informel (Art without Form) and Art Autre (other art). However, some critics claim there are differences, certainly nuances, between each. The COBRA art group, as well as Japan's Gutai Group are also associated with Tachisme. Important COBRA, Art Informel and Tachisme painters included the Dutch artist Karel Appel (1921-2006) and the German-born painters Hans Hartung (1904–1989) and Wols (Alfred Otto Wolfgang Schulze) (1913–1951). Interestingly enough the term Tachisme had already been claimed in 1889 by the French art critic Felix Feneon to describe the Impressionist technique, and again in 1909 by the artist Maurice Denis (1870-1943) in reference to Fauvism.

Mature Career

During the 1950s Francis spent long periods of time in Japan, where he owned a home and studio. Studying calligraphy and Japanese art, he was particularly influenced by the Japanese technique of using negative space. He used thin texture paint, a drip and splash technique, leaving large areas of the canvas blank - which led critics to speak of traditional Japanese influences, notably of Haboku, a Japanese style of dripping ink. He was interested in the effect of light on colour throughout his career, stating it was "not just the play of light, but the substance of which light is made"that fascinated him.

Francis also made continuous trips to Southern France, whose light had attracted artists for generations, including the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. In 1961 he returned to California, settling in Santa Monica.

From the mid 1960s a mood of oriental simplicity could increasingly be seen in his paintings. They were dominated more and more by unpainted surfaces with the colour only at the edges. He used oils, acrylics and watercolours and explored etching, lithography, printmaking and monotype. In 1968 he received an honorary PHD from University of California, Berkeley and a solo exhibition at the National Centre for Contemporary Art, Paris. In 1972/3 he had solo exhibitions at some of the world’s best art museums, including the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York; the Whitney Museum of American Art and Stanford University Museum of Art. Since his death, many galleries continue to exhibit his works, including the Kunstmuseum, Bern, Switzerland (2006) and Galerie Proarta, Zurich (2010).

Exploration of Art Movements

During the last few years of his life, Francis worked mainly on smaller paintings, completing a series of about 150 before he died. The artist had an extremely prolific career, during which he produced thousands of paintings, as well as works on paper, prints and monotypes. His works display influences and references to Clement Greenberg's Post-painterly abstraction, New York Abstract Expressionism, Lyrical Abstraction, Colour Field Painting, Chinese and Japanese art, French Impressionism and Bay Area art. He died in Santa Monica in 1994.


The Museum of Modern Art in New York has an extensive collection of 20th century paintings by Sam Francis. They include: White Line (1960); For Rudd (1963); Bright Speck (1963) and Flying Love (1963). Also notable is Black and Red (1950-1953, The Contemporary Museum, Honolulu). The Los Angeles County Museum of Art also has a large collection, including: Blue Spanish Shawl (1954); Hurrah for the Red, White and Blue (1961) and Meteorite (1986).

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