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 Francis Speight  (1896 - 1989)

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Lived/Active: Pennsylvania/North Carolina      Known for: city scene, landscape, ethnic genre

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Francis Speight
An example of work by Francis Speight
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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Francis Speight was born in Windsor, North Carolina in 1896. He lived most of his life in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. The artist studied at both the Corcoran School of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Speight became an associate member of the National Academy of Design in 1937 and a full member in 1940. Francis Speight held exhibitions of his works and won prizes or medals at the National Academy of Design, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the Connecticut Academy of the Fine Arts, the Sketch Club of Philadelphia, the Society of Washington Artists, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

Speight is represented by many museums including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Toronto Gallery of Art, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the Norton Gallery of Art, the Montpelier Museum of Art, the Encyclopedia Britanica Collection, and the United States Post Office in Gastonia, North Carolina. The artist also painted for the Works Progress Administration. Mr. Speight is known for his city scenes and landscapes, most of which depict the Philadelphia suburbs.

Newman Galleries

Biography from Charleston Renaissance Gallery:
Born and raised in rural North Carolina, Francis Speight began his formal art education in 1920 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., but after one term he was drawn by the landscapes of Daniel Garber to study at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. Thereafter he remained at the Academy--first as a student, then as a teacher--for more than forty years.

For most of this time, Speight’s major subject was Manayunk, an industrial area above the Schuylkill River on the edge of Philadelphia. The hills, the light, and the architecture were endlessly fascinating to the artist, and he returned again and again to paint the same subject, often the same viewpoint, in all kinds of weather and at various times of day.

In 1961 Speight returned to his native state to accept a position as artist-in-residence at East Carolina University in Greenville. His work took on a new character, composed at this time of simple farm subjects. The flat countryside of eastern North Carolina was especially appealing to Speight: the red earth, the red waters from the rivers during spring floods, and, in Carolina as in Philadelphia, the deserted factories.

Despite the look of spontaneity, scenes like "Scraped Red Earth, Route 70" were carefully composed. About one Speight explained, “I painted the houses, then put in the sky. On the way I saw the sky I wanted about seven miles up the road and just pulled over by the side and put it in.” For an appropriate foreground to the major motif, such as the eroding earth depicted here, he might travel many miles. “My interest has been in painting recognizable objects,” he said, “with realistic colors . . . Somewhere along the way I was made aware of eroding earth and of smoke crowding in on man’s dwelling places. But . . . eroding earth affords opportunity for grasping the drawing and molding of the earth. And the smoke may make a deep-toned background to accent the light on the houses, the fruit trees and the people themselves.”

The spirited brushwork that enlivens the surface of the painting was an important part of the artist’s style, described in the 1930s and 1940s as “romantic realism,” and in the years since as “poetic realism.”

Quotations from Sellin, David, Francis Speight: A Retrospective. Washington, DC: Taggart, Jorgensen & Putnam, 1986.

Nancy Rivard Shaw 2003
© Robert M. Hicklin Jr., Inc.

Biography from Greenville Museum of Art:
Francis Speight was born September 11, 1896 in Bertie County in eastern North Carolina. He took art lessons at Meredith College in Raleigh, NC and briefly studied art at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, DC. While at the Corcoran, Speight viewed an exhibition of Daniel Garber’s work and was so impressed that he enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA), where Garber was an instructor. Speight became Garber’s student, and later his friend and colleague.

Speight was a student at the PAFA from 1920 until 1925 when he began a long teaching career there that lasted until 1961. In that year he moved back to his home state and became artist-in-residence at East Carolina College (now East Carolina University) in Greenville, a position he held until his retirement in 1976. He continued to live in Greenville until his death in 1989.

Speight earned his reputation by painting the landscape in and around Philadelphia. An area that he favored painting because he “was fascinated with the height and depth of the landscape” was Manayunk, an industrial area on the Schuylkill River northwest of Philadelphia.

After his return to North Carolina in 1961 most of his paintings began to be of that state, especially in eastern North Carolina, although he completed many paintings in and around the Piedmont section of the state. He also continued to paint the Pennsylvania landscape during the summers from 1961-1979 when he returned to Philadelphia to teach summer school sessions at the PAFA.

His realistic paintings of the Pennsylvania and North Carolina landscape are not precise renderings of their subjects but rather lyrical interpretations. In Speight’s paintings one can sense his fascination with light, with the sky, and with the land, whether in the city or in the country.

Speight won numerous awards and honors including the First Hallgarten Prize, National Academy of Design (NAD) in 1930; the Jennie Sesnan Medal, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) in 1940; the First Benjamin Altman Prize, NAD in 1951 and 1958; the PAFA Gold Medal of Honor in 1961; the North Carolina Award in Fine Arts in 1964; the University of North Carolina’s O. Max Gardner Award in 1975; and the Andrew Carnegie Prize, NAD in 1981.

In 1940 he was elected a member of the NAD, and in 1960 was elected a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters along with Alexander Calder, Marcel Duchamp and Willem de Kooning.

His paintings are included in the following museum collections: Ackland Art Museum; Art Gallery of Hamilton, Ontario; American Academy of Arts and Letters; Art Museum of Western Virginia; Atwater Kent Museum; Butler Institute of American Art; Corcoran Gallery of Art; Everhart Museum; Fayetteville Museum of Art; Gibbes Museum of Art; Greenville County (SC) Museum of Art; Greenville (NC) Museum of Art; James A. Michener Art Museum; LaSalle University Art Museum; Louise Wells Cameron Art Museum; Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester; Minnesota Museum of American Art; Mint Museum of Art; National Academy of Design; New Orleans Museum of Art; Palmer Museum of Art of Pennsylvania State University; North Carolina Museum of Art; Norton Museum of Art; Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts; Philadelphia Museum of Art; T.W. Wood Gallery and Art Center; and the Woodmere Art Museum.

Biography from The Johnson Collection:
Francis Speight was born on September 11, 1896 in a rural area of eastern North Carolina. He was the youngest son of a Baptist minister and farmer, and he spent his childhood helping his father in the fields. His parents hired tutors to provide primary education, and he entered grade school at age eleven. He later attended Lewiston High School, but left before graduating and enrolled at Wake Forest College in 1915. While there, one of his sisters encouraged him to seek out art lessons with Ida Poteat, an instructor at nearby Meredith College. Speight credited his first teacher with showing him how to see beauty in the everyday and for promoting art as an essential part of living a good life.

In 1917, Speight was drafted into military service due to the United States’ entrance into World War I. Though he trained at Fort Jackson in South Carolina, he was never deployed and in 1920 he enrolled at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C. Shortly after arriving at the school, Speight viewed an exhibition of paintings by the artist Daniel Garber. He admired the work so much that he left the Corcoran and sought out Garber’s instruction at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

Speight attended the Academy from 1920 to 1925. During these years, he often traveled around the area in search of inspiration. One of his favorite destinations was the hilly industrial town of Manayunk, in the Schuylkill Valley just outside of Philadelphia. It is for these depictions of blue collar neighborhoods and the surrounding hills that he is best known. Speight’s painting style remained representational throughout his life, however his images are not exact renderings, but rather lyrical interpretations. Speight was particularly interested in the light and the atmosphere of a place, and he often portrayed the sky to denote a certain mood.

In 1923, Speight won the coveted Cresson Scholarship which he used to finance a trip to Europe. Following graduation from the Academy, he began his teaching career as Daniel Garber’s assistant. He was first listed as a teacher in the school catalogue in 1931 and served as an art and design instructor for almost forty years. The Academy assigned Speight to act as the drawing instructor at the Country School extension campus in Chester Springs, Pennsylvania. While there he met a young art student named Sarah Blakeslee. Despite the sixteen year age difference, the couple became friends and eventually married in 1936. They had two children, a son named Thomas, and a daughter named Elisabeth.

In 1961, the family moved to Greenville, North Carolina where Speight became the artist-in-residence at Eastern Carolina College. He returned to Pennsylvania every summer to teach summer classes at the PAFA until 1979. Speight won many awards and honors throughout his career and was elected a member of the National Academy of Design in New York in 1940. In 1960, he was named a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. Francis Speight died of cancer in Greenville, North Carolina in 1989. He was 93 years old.

The Johnson Collection, Spartanburg, South Carolina

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