About John Fulton Folinsbee

Self-portrait, 1919 (JFF.816)
Self-portrait, 1919 (JFF.816)

John Folinsbee was born in Buffalo, New York, in 1892. He displayed an early interest in art, and, at the age of nine, attended art classes for children at the Buffalo Art Students’ League; he continued to draw after his family moved to Boston a few years later. In 1907, he received his first formal arts instruction during several months of study in New Jersey with the Norwegian-born artist Jonas Lie, who introduced him to plein air painting. That fall, Folinsbee left New Jersey for Washington, Connecticut, to attend boarding school at The Gunnery School, and for the next several years Washington was his home. It was perhaps a happy coincidence that Washington, like many other small towns in Connecticut’s Litchfield Hills, attracted artists who established a small arts colony there. The artists in Washington were primarily figure painters—Henry Siddons Mowbray and Herbert Waldron Faulkner most prominent among them—but their salons drew many others to the area, including the Impressionist landscape painter Frank Vincent DuMond, who visited Washington in 1911. Folinsbee spent two years studying with Faulkner and meeting artists like DuMond, who would have a lasting influence over his career. John Folinsbee had committed himself to painting by 1912, and his productive career covered sixty years.

Had it not been for DuMond’s visit to Washington, and the gift a year later of L. Birge Harrison’s book Landscape Painting from his friend and future wife, Ruth Baldwin, Folinsbee might have become a full-time figure painter (he painted portraits throughout his career). His early portraits, such as Beth and Joan (The Sisters), demonstrate that he was definitely up to the task. But Harrison was at the time the head of the summer school of the Art Students’ League of New York, located in Woodstock, and his book was a compilation of past lectures given to students there. Harrison stressed independent artistic vision, and the “importance of fearlessness” in painting, about which he declared, “Aim to tell the truth; but if you have to lie, lie courageously.” If that bold statement was not enough to ensnare the twenty-year-old artist, the book’s twenty-four half-tone reproductions of landscapes—by French masters such as Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Jean-François Millet, and Claude Monet, as well as by leading American landscape painters Dwight William Tryon, Winslow Homer, Childe Hassam, Edward Redfield, George Inness, William Lathrop, and W. Elmer Schofield—certainly were. Folinsbee spent three summers at Woodstock, two as a student and one as an independent artist sharing a studio with Harry (Tony) Leith-Ross, who became a life-long friend. Harrison invited both artists to stay with him in Woodstock and paint during the winter of 1913–14. Folinsbee also took classes at the Art Students’ League in the city during the winter and spring terms of 1912–13. That was all the formal instruction he received, and he apparently did not require more.

When Folinsbee was only twenty-one, Morning Light was accepted for exhibition at the National Academy of Design in New York, and three years later he received his first award from the Academy, the Third Hallgarten Prize for Winter Quiet. He quickly became a regular exhibitor there, winning nearly every prize—some more than once—and frequently served as a member of the jury. He also won accolades at other national venues; in 1929 a Folinsbee Group was hung at the Carnegie International.

The artist married Ruth Baldwin in 1914, and two years later they moved to New Hope, Pennsylvania. In New Hope, Folinsbee joined the group of artists working there, which included Edward Redfield, Daniel Garber, Robert Spencer, and William Lathrop—the group of artists now generally known as the New Hope School of landscape painting, or the Pennsylvania Impressionists. In the early decades of the twentieth century, American impressionism was in full swing and highly popular, and Folinsbee’s reputation extended to Pittsburgh, Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, and Houston, where his works were regularly included in annual exhibitions of contemporary American art. His increasing stature in American art was recognized by the National Academy in 1919, when he was elected an associate member at the age of twenty-seven (he became a full academician in 1928).

Although Folinsbee exhibited at museums, galleries, and private clubs in Pennsylvania, he never pursued active representation or membership in them, instead focusing his professional attention on the nation’s art capital, New York, while at the same time broadening recognition of his work in exhibitions across the country. For several years early in his career, Folinsbee was represented in New York by Macbeth Gallery—the first gallery in New York devoted to American art and the site of the legendary exhibition of The Eight in 1908. Beginning in 1917, and for nearly four decades afterward, he was represented by Ferargil Gallery, located at 24 East 49th Street, where he had a solo show nearly every year. In 1923, he became a founding member of the Grand Central Art Galleries, a cooperative located in the Grand Central Terminal building and devoted to promoting contemporary American art. Folinsbee was elected a member of the Salmagundi Club in 1913, a Life Member of the National Arts Club in 1921, and a member of the Century Association in 1937. He had his first solo exhibition at the Hillyer Gallery at Smith College in Massachusetts, in 1916. From then, until well into the 1940s, his work could be seen in traveling exhibitions organized by the American Federation of Arts, as well as in various international expositions and exhibitions in American embassies. By his mid-thirties, he had a national reputation that extended to Texas, Ohio, Missouri, California, Indiana, and elsewhere—far beyond the boundaries of Bucks County, with which he is so closely associated today. In 1953, Folinsbee was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1953, one of the highest honors an artist can receive.

If Folinsbee is normally associated with the New Hope School and impressionism, he only painted in that style for a short period. By the mid-1920s, the artist began to study the work of Paul Cezanne and his landscapes demonstrate an exploration of his subjects’ structure and contour. By the late 1930s, when he immersed himself in the work of El Greco, Goya, and the French Expressionist Maurice Vlaminck, Folinsbee’s style became highly expressive. His brush strokes loosened and lengthened. The shimmering, gem-like colors and bright light that characterized his early work were replaced by dramatic contrasts in light and dark, and with color that was deeper and more intense. Russell Lynes asserted that the artist’s best work was created from this moment on. “After he escaped from the formulas that permeated the Impressionists,” Lynes wrote, Folinsbee’s “brush became more flowing, bolder, surer, and more personal, more concerned with contour and bones than with skin.”

Perhaps the artist’s contact with Maine had something to do with this transformation as well. Beginning in the mid-1930s, Folinsbee and his family spent their summers in Maine, and in 1949 they bought an old farmhouse, Murphy’s Corner, on Montsweag Bay near Wiscasset. As his son-in-law Peter G. Cook observed, after the dramatic contrasts in weather, light, and landscape of Maine, the Pennsylvania countryside seemed a bit tame. It was Maine that captured the imagination of his later years, and works like Burnt Coat Harbor, Maine Moonlight, and Off Seguin (Ellingwood Rock), for which he received the Palmer Marine Prize at the National Academy in 1952, are evocative of weathered towns and harsh summer storms along the Maine coast.

Although his manner of painting changed as he incorporated more contemporary ideas and techniques, the essence of Birge Harrison’s early influence remained constant. Folinsbee approached his work with a fearlessness and independence that is evident in the emotional force of his paintings and the vigor of his brushstrokes, as well as the way in which he responded to those—particularly critics and gallery owners—who sought to influence the nature of his painting and the direction of his career. He would never have described himself as a “Modernist,” but equally would he have eschewed the term “Impressionist” or “conservative” to describe his work. He had little time or need for “isms,” and thought of himself merely as a Realist, an artist seeking to reveal the deeper truth of the world around him. In doing so, he subscribed to no single “truth,” but instead filtered the broad array of stylistic influences, both traditional and contemporary, into a method of painting that was uniquely his own.