Painter. Dislocation, irrational behavior, and inscrutability prevail in his enigmatic figurative works. Enacted by individuals who generally fail to connect with each other psychologically, his scenes emphasize loneliness and alienation. As an artist who combined minute detail with incomprehensible narratives, he is often identified as a significant practitioner of magic realism. Born in Ossining, New York, he grew up in New Jersey and graduated in 1925 from Amherst (Massachusetts) College, where he studied poetry with Robert Frost. Until 1929 he worked in New York while taking evening classes at the Art Students League. For the following two years, he trained there full time, with Boardman Robinson as his most influential teacher. Following an initial visit to Europe in 1927–28, between 1931 and 1933 he traveled there and lived in Majorca with Paul Cadmus. After returning to New York, he was employed by federal art projects. During the 1930s, French simplified and smoothed the surfaces he depicted and began to emphasize pattern over spatial depth. In 1940 he switched from oil paint to the more painstaking medium of tempera, producing enamel-like surfaces with the highly calculated quality of early Renaissance altarpieces. These techniques enhanced the increasingly automaton-like nature of his static and self-absorbed figures and emphasized the ritualized, iconic quality of his compositions. In the unsettling State Park (Whitney Museum, 1946), five figures on a seaside boardwalk seem isolated not only from each other but from an otherwise deserted vacation spot in which they apparently find no pleasure. In the foreground, a stiffly profiled lifeguard (who might have walked out of an Assyrian relief sculpture) stares into the distance as three immobilized figures, perhaps a family group, escape the sun's glare under a large umbrella. Behind them, a skinny, tattooed boxer flexes his muscles against an imaginary opponent. Particularly in such beach scenes, French drew upon photographs he had taken since 1937, mostly at the shore on Fire Island, where he vacationed regularly for several years, but also at Provincetown and elsewhere. Painter and etcher Margaret French (?–1998), his wife, and Cadmus also participated in staging and taking these artfully composed, psychologically charged scenes of each other and their social circle. Born in Hoboken, New Jersey, Margaret Hoening graduated from Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, and studied at the Art Students League before marriage in 1937. During the 1960s French embarked on a new direction in his art, as he combined dismembered human and animal parts into unsettling combinations of abstracted form. He died in Rome, where he had made his home for nearly two decades, although he maintained a residence in Hartland, Vermont.
Subjects: Art & Architecture