Born in London in 1901 to a Jewish family, Francis immigrated to Philadelphia with his family when he was only four years old. Shortly after his family’s arrival to the United States, he was hospitalized from a severe case of polio. It was during this time spent in a hospital bed that he experimented with drawing and painting. His father discovered his son’s budding talent and later enrolled him in art classes at Philadelphia’s Graphic Sketch Club. At the young age of fifteen, he had already won a Cresson fellowship to go abroad and study art in Europe.
After he came back to America, he continued his studies at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Criss moved to New York in 1925. His first exhibition was at the New York Contemporary arts gallery in 1931. A year later, the Whitney Museum purchased one of his artworks, Astor Place. The painting depicts two nuns walking past an Italian Renaissance building. After this success Criss became actively involved in the New York art scene, exhibiting at the Museum of Modern Art, the Jeu de Paume in Paris and in several Corcoran biennials.
His artwork showcased an eclectic variation of influences. His few masterpieces are categorized as having influence from the precisionist movement, in which scenes usually depict industrial architecture or urban settings with geometric forms. In 1934, he received the Guggenheim fellowship award which allowed him to go back to Europe and study fresco painting. While in Italy, he produced his famous street scene painting called “Fascism”. These omniscient paintings were a response to the depression that plagued America in the thirties demonstrating feelings of personal, political and social disaster.
Francis Criss was also active in political issues. During the Great Depression, Criss worked under the Works Progress Administration, creating murals for the Williamsburg housing project in New York in 1937 and the Walter Reed Hospital in Washington through the federal arts project. In 1936, he was part of a production at Rockefeller Center in support of the leftists of the civil war in Spain. After World War II, his career took a shift and he disappeared from the public eye.
During the forties, he created commercial artwork and worked for the Coca Cola Company and Fortune and Time magazines. He died in 1972.
AN ANALYSIS OF THE ARTIST'S WORK
”I paint because I have too…Life is transient and complex…I attempt to capture the layers and depth of the city’s environment, not paint it brick by brick.” –Francis Criss
Francis Criss was most known for his portrayals of New York City’s industrial lifestyle and his incorporation of bold geometric forms and use of monotone colors. Throughout his lifetime, Criss experimented with many different types of styles from precisionism to synchromism and surrealism. Although he tried to avoid having his work classified, he is described and his work is often compared to other precisionist artists such as Charles Sheeler (1883-1965) and Ralston Crawford (1906-1978). Precisionists were known for painting subjects such as urban and industrial scenes to symbolize a growing nation. Additionally, Criss was strongly influenced by surrealism during his early career. He adopted similar motifs in his work that dealt with the subconscious. In several of his paintings, he paints clocks without faces or hands.
His most prolific years of his career were in the late twenties and thirties. Throughout his life, he created less than 30 masterpieces. A strong example of his work is his painting Alma Sewing. At first glance, the painting appears to be a straightforward depiction of an African woman sewing. But upon a closer look, the viewer sees a picture of the artist in the reflection of the seamstress’ lamp above her head. He sits there with his sketchpad while his other painting “Americana” hangs behind him. While he was in Italy studying frescoes, Criss also examined the work of Italian Surrealist painter, Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978). Criss’ paintings have influence from this Surrealist painter. In Alma Sewing, the reflection of the painter in the lamp is a characteristic often found in de Chirico’s work.
During the 1950s, after having worked a decade with commercial art in order to support his family, Criss retreated back to painting. He experimented with pointillism and mixed together cubism and realism. When that didn’t work, he began making collages from old photographs. He returned back to portrait paintings and taught again at Brooklyn Museum and the School of Visual Arts. However, with abstract expressionism on the rise, his paintings didn’t receive the same success that they had in the thirties.
AWARDS & AFFILIATIONS
1917 Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts Scholarship Cresson Fellowship
1934 Guggenheim Fellowship
American Artists Congress
American Society PS & G
An American Group
The Barnes Foundation
John Reed Club
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA)
Works Progress Administration (New Deal: WPA)
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Philadelphia Museum of Art
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City
1901 Born in London, England
1904 Family emigrated to America and settled in Philadelphia Hospitalized for polio
1907 Father enrolled Criss in classes at Graphic Sketch Club
1917-1921 Attended Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
1925-1926 Studied at Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania
1926 Moved to New York, supported himself by designing screens for decorators
1926-1929 Attended classes at the Art Students’ League
1930s Paintings portrayed New York City’s architecture. Taught at the leftist American Artists School.
1930-1933 Spent summers at Tiffany Foundation on Long Island
1932 First solo exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Gallery. Whitney Biennial purchased one of his artworks.
1934 Traveled to Europe with Guggenheim Fellowship award to paint frescoes
1935 Back in New York
1936 Became a charter member of the American Artists’ Congress
1936-1937 Painted mural for Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project
1937-1939 Affiliated with and helped found “An American Group.” Focused more on commercial art and teaching due to economic necessity.
1940 Paintings less focused on industrial images and more focused on people and commercial art to support his family
1942 November 1942 cover of Fortune Magazine, commercial work led to decline of his reputation
1950 Resumed painting cityscapes
1960s Experimented with pointillism
1973 Died in November
1. Glueck, Grace. "Art: A Nostalgic Visit to 'The Surreal City'" The New York Times (1985).
2. Hartman, Carl. "Forgotten Artist Gets Big Show." Lexisnexis. Associated Press Online. 4 Aug. 2001. Web. 14 Sept. 2009.
3. Lewis, Jo Ann. "Twist on a Modernist; Francis Criss Works Come Back Into View." The Washington Post (2001).
4. "Museums." Inliquid.com. Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, 14 Apr. 2002. Accessed 14 Sept. 2009. .
5. O'Sullivan, Michael. "A Few Great Paintings From Francis Criss." The Washington Post (2001).
6. "Precisionism | Thematic Essay | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art." The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: metmuseum.org. Accessed 14 Sept. 2009..
7. Shaw-Eagle, Joanna. "Surreal, real crisscross in Corcoran Exhibit." The Washington Times (2001).
8. Shaw-Eagle, Joanna. "Work ‘knocked out’ curator; Lasting infatuation sparked by first sight of ‘Rhapsody’" The Washington Times (2001).
9. Sozanski, Edward J. "A Pivotal Painter's Homecoming." The Philadelphia Inquirer (2002).
2002 Restructured Reality: The 1930s Paintings of Francis Criss, The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
1977 “NYC WPA Art” at Parsons School Design
1970s E’Lan and Midtown Galleries
1966 School of Visual Arts—New York
1953-1954 Philadelphia Artists Alliance
1951 Whitney Museum of American Art—New York City
1943 MoMA—New York City, American Realists and Magic Realists
1942 Whitney Museum of American Art—New York City
1940 Whitney Museum of American Art—New York City
1940 San Francisco Expo
1939 South America
1938 World Alliance for Yiddish Culture
1938 Whitney Museum of American Art—New York City
1937 Whitney Museum of American Art—New York City Jeu de Paume—Paris, France
1936 Williamsburg Housing Project (WPA)—Brooklyn
1936 The Museum of Modern Art—New York City, New Horizons in American Art
1935 Corcoran Biennial, Morning in Florence
1933 Mellon Galleries—Philadelphia
1932 New York Contemporary Arts Gallery
1932 Whitney Museum of American Art—New York City
1931 New York Contemporary Arts Gallery