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 Frederick Lester Sexton  (1889 - 1975)

About: Frederick Lester Sexton
 

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Lived/Active: Connecticut      Known for: landscape, portrait, still life

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Frederick Lester Sexton
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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
An American Regionalist from Connecticut, Frederick Sexton seldom traveled farther than 50 miles from his home of New Haven. Of his part of the country, he said: "I wonder if one can get any better subjects at any other places. Take our beaches---our wharves, they are wonderfully interesting. . . We don't need to go away. Beauty is right here . . ." (18) His painting subjects included landscapes, portraits and post-World War I genre scenes of people enjoying life after the tensions of World War I. His landscapes are "filled with the secure beauty of the commonplace and the sure conviction that a pasture is as important a source of inspiration as the sublimity of a mountain wilderness or the romance of a foreign subject.

During his most active period in his career, the 1920s, 30s and 40s, he was widely reviewed and exhibited. His work was well received because it reflected the intimate vision of the desire of many people to turn away from national concerns to just living their lives in their home places. However, Sexton also saw a decline in his popularity with the advent of modernist movements such as Abstract Expressionism that began to dominate the American art world in the 1950s. Today, many artists including Sexton are being re-discovered as collectors and ordinary viewers learn once again that Realism is an acceptable part of American art because it speaks clearly and directly of the beauty they see around them.

Frederick Sexton was born in 1889 in Cheshire, Connecticut. His father, J. Frederick Sexton, was a prominent Episcopal clergyman and was Rector of St. Peter's Church in Cheshire. The mother, Mary Louise Lester, was from a fairly prominent Hartford family and was an amateur painter. When he was eighteen months old, Frederick was the victim of an open-hearth fire. Severely burned, his right hand was permanently closed. His mother died when he was nineteen, and the father held the family together.

Sexton attended public schools in New Haven and received art lessons from his mother. He attended the Yale School of Fine Art and studied with Augustus Tack and Sargent Kendall, and was given the coveted Winchester Prize for a year of study in Spain. He also won the John Weir Scholarship for self-study. Graduating in 1917, he was twenty-eight years old, which obviously was older than most of his peers in his class. However, he had worked many jobs in order to finance his education, including being a woodworking teacher in the New Haven public schools. He had fallen in love with his future wife, Dorothy Joyce, who shared his devotion to the Episcopalian Church.

During World War I, Sexton was an ambulance driver in France, and he earned commendation for his effective work. He did much traveling in Europe and was influenced by the many paintings he saw in museums and galleries including the modernist work of Cezanne.

His first recognition as an artist came in 1922 when one of his paintings was exhibited in the New Haven Paint and Clay Club. He was also asked to join the Club, becoming one of its early active members. He also became very active in the Old Lyme Art Colony at Old Lyme, Connecticut, and in the late 1920s began regular painting trips there. He associated with members of the Lyme Art Association but was prevented from becoming a member there because of the requirement in the Old Lyme Art Association membership rules of land ownership and of occupancy a certain number of weeks out of the year. Wanting to be a member, he bought land from Guy Wiggins, and in 1936 began to build a house and shortly after was voted into membership. Years later he became very angered when the rules were changed so that artists who lived within 25 miles were allowed to be members.

Sexton was also active as an organizer and exhibiter on the state level in the Connecticut Academy of Fine Arts, whose goal was to provide cooperation among all of the state's art associations. In New York, he was elected to the Salmagundi Club, but to his disappointment never achieved membership in the National Academy of Design.

He exhibited widely in New England, and was noted for paintings such as a portrait of his daughter, Dorothy, called "Dorothy and Her Cat"; his snow scenes and other landscapes; and religious themes such as "Nativity" and "Christ at the United Nations Assembled". In fact, he was one of the few artists of his era who painted religious subjects, something that for him was uniquely personal but also found a receptive audience.

His religious convictions were apparent in his personal life as he eschewed the Bohemian appearance that was increasingly popular among artists and did not approve of drinking alcoholic beverages, telling or laughing at off-color jokes, or using swear words. Generally he did not socialize but loved creative projects such as building his own boat and his three homes with his woodcarvings and hand-blown glass. Of these projects he said: . . ."a man needs something like that to keep him mentally alive." (14)

Frederick Sexton and his wife had one daughter, Dorothy who was born in 1923. She recalled her father as a very content man, who loved the self-reliance of his world of art, art books, poetry, visiting friends and working at his building projects. According to her, he was loving, kind and religious, and although he was not selfish, the household was dominated by his art career. She said he worried continually about money and being able to support the family but would never take anything that resembled charity. He was incensed by a gift subscription to "Gourmet" magazine and by someone who paid cash for a painting so he could avoid tax. He was highly protective of Dorothy---not letting her ride a bicycle nor be in the automobile of anyone else but her family's. She also said she hated being at Old Lyme because she was the only child there, and she had to spend her days with her mother in their unfinished house while he was off painting.

He also taught art classes in the New Haven and Branford schools and private schools including St. Margaret's in Waterbury and Hopkins Grammar. He taught his students that design in landscape reflected the design of God, theories that grew from his religious background. His commitment to traditional views on realism and theories of line, shape and color and the importance of easily understood narrative prevented him from accepting abstraction. He had difficulty with painting that seemed to express no love of nature or love of life itself. For him "Without a subject from God's world, design was an empty shell." (13)

As World War II approached, the peaceful world depicted and enjoyed by Frederick Sexton and his fellow artists disappeared as did much of the interest in their work, which now seemed outdated. Membership in The Lyme Art Association dwindled as did that of the Paint and Clay Club, and many of Sexton's artist friends were dying. However, his reputation remained fairly strong in the 1950s and 1960s, and in 1959 at the age of seventy, he took his wife to Europe to show her the places of his youth.

A very happy part of Sexton's later years was his friendship with Ira Hillyer, then living in New London, Connecticut. Hillyer was a young talented artist who exhibited occasionally at the Lyme Art Association. He took a special interest in Sexton's work and in 1964, commissioned him to paint portraits of himself and wife. The friendship lasted for eleven years until the death of Sexton. Dorothy Sexton recalled that "Fred loved to talk to Ira. Despite the difference in their ages, Ira understood painting and was one of the few people who was interested in religious art. Over the years Ira purchased nearly twenty painting from Sexton." He also held innumerable shows for him and "forwarded the money to the Sextons without any deductions. . . . Ira was for Sexton the Good Samaritan himself." (16)

In his last years, Sexton was very generous with his money, including putting his grandsons through school. On March 3,1975 Sexton died from a heart attack.

Memorial exhibitions were held at the Paint and Clay Club and The Lyme Art Association, but "indicative of the passing of an era", neither seemed well organized nor well attended. However, his wife of fifty-four years paid him a very loving tribute: "I am fortunate to have had him for fifty-four years and to be surrounded by the beautiful work he did." (17-18).


Source:
Helen K. Fusscas, "Frederick Sexton, 1889-1975", publication of The Connecticut Gallery, 1987.
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The following, submitted August 2005, is from Ira "Bud" Hillyer, the artist and friend of Frederick Sexton who is referenced in Sexton's biography. Hillyer lives in Palm Springs, California.



"Recollections of my friendship with Frederick Lester Sexton and his wife Dorothy Joyce Sexton"

During the 1960s and 1970's - for a period of about 12 years, I knew and greatly admired and called as friend a great artist, Frederick Lester Sexton. I had met him after being mesmerized by a painting I had seen by him and could not yet purchase called "Puddles at Wallingford Farm" at the Lyme Art Gallery in Old Lyme Connecticut. A year later I wanted to finally buy that painting and contacted Fred at his home in New Haven. I bought that painting on my first visit of many to Fred and Dorothy's home at Kenter Place in New Haven (and that painting hung over my bed in New London and North Stonington Ct. for more than 35 years until I donated it to the Lyman Allyn Museum in New London, Ct.). Fred and I became fast and firm friends from that first meeting - even though he was in his 70's and I in my late twenties - a real MayDecember friendship.

Fred and Dorothy's home in New Haven was handmade by Fred, board by board and brick by brick over many years- As you entered the front door, the room entered was dark wood paneled and wide board floored with an old well-worn wood arm upholstered chair to the right of the doorway with a beautiful painting of their daughter Dorothy, called "Dorothy and her Cat" hung above the chair- and to the left of the door was a small 1920's "happy" painting of Mrs Sexton holding her baby daughter (which I secretly called "Big and Little Dot")two of Fred's favorites for all visitors to enjoy and see as they entered his home. Fred's art easel and painting area was in this room about 8 feet from the door to the direct right of the stairwell to upstairs and well lit by a bank of windows of sunlight to the right of the doorway. There was a second group of windows on the far wall of this room as well.

The room was also their dining area with a rustic and serviceable kitchen directly behind the dining room and a small long living or sitting room was to the left of the stairwell. When I visited them over the years I was always entertained in the living/sitting room with Dorothy bustling back and forth through a door direct to and from the kitchen to bring in hot tea and cookies or baked goods. I also spent time watching and talking with Fred at his easel as he painted. And upstairs was a small square but angled hallway with a large bedroom on the left at the top of the stairs and a rustic bathroom to the far right and a huge closet that was "doored" and just crammed full of paintings in progress, paintings to be discarded and those painting as yet not yet fully rejected to the near right of the head of the stairs. I called this storage room of Fred's his "Fibber McGee's Closet" open that door and who knows what would fall out!

The Sexton home in New Haven was small three rooms below and one above with a bath and huge closet room rustic and spare- but it held a quaint beauty that left you with a feeling that you couldn't wait to visit it again with nooks and crannies and hand blown glass and stained glass handmade ceramic tiles, and wood walls, floors and ceilings that oozed charm and nostalgia. I enjoyed my many visits to Fred and Dorothy over the years at Kenter Place and also the many visits they made to our home in New London. It was a long drive for Fred and Dorothy to come to New London but they always arrived in one piece. Never much in winter but they came often in the Spring, Summer and Fall while Fred could still drive. When we didn't visit we wrote letters to each other. Some were from Dorothy and some from Fred: some were to me some were to my wife Patricia: I kept them all about 40 ormore letters. I donated them all to the artist archives at Connecticut College's Lyman Allyn Art Museum in New London at the same time I donated three Sexton paintings for their Connecticut Artists collection in 2000.

Fred was an active Rotarian- and would tell me of his weekly- and sometimes daily Rotarian luncheons all over the state where he met and loved to talk to new people that he met there. He was full of stories of his meetings his painting excursions , his artist friends from Old Lyme and New Haven and his projects in progress. He was growing old and his excursions for "Plein Aire" painting sessions in the fields and woods of surrounding Connecticut farms and meadows were fewer and farther between when I had met him. But his works completed everywhere depicted the colors and glory of the countryside that he loved so much and loved to paint. He would work and rework many paintings from his closet storehouse- trying and striving always to make them more beautiful and reflect the beauty of Connecticut as he had first seen it.

Many of his newer paintings were now of a religious theme so his painting was done mainly inside at Kenter Place. Many was the time we would spend discussing paintings by Fred in progress in Kenter place or deciding on a name for a finished piece old or new. He was also working on a series of paintings using the theme of the United Nations showing multiple races and peoples in harmony. He especially loved one he had done showing the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC with groups of children of all races and creeds perched all over Lincoln's knees, on his lap and at his feet. Race relations and fighting bigotry seems to be a theme he was trying to portray directly in his paintings of this time.

Over the years I purchased and sold 50 or more of Fred's landscape paintings. I purchased 20 for my own collection, sold about 30 for him at repeated art showings in the five offices of my employer the Submarine Base Credit Union a banking institution with over 50,000 members where I was CEO and Operations Manager; and purchased another 10 to 15 Sexton paintings for permanent display and bank ownership at the five branch banking offices of my employer.

Fred and Dorothy were happy that I could help them in selling so many of his works and I was happy that I could do so. His work sold itself and only needed to be properly displayed and shown then it sold itself to the viewers. Fred and Dorothy did present me with two great Sexton paintings as a "thank you" for my efforts on their behalf: one was "New London Lighthouse" and the second was "The Good Samaritan". Both paintings were very large ones.

"New London Lighthouse" was completed after I had badgered Fred to complete a roughed out unfinished piece from a "plein aire" outing from the 1930's he had with Roger Dennis to the Coast Guard Light at the mouth of the Thames River in New London. The unfinished canvas was leaning against a wall in a dusty side room in Fred's Old Lyme studio and home where I went in 1964 for repeated sittings for the large portrait I had commissioned Fred to do of me. It showed massive rocks in front of the NL lighthouse with the Thames River along the rocks and behind the lighthouse with the town of Groton in the distance across the Thames River. Since I lived only about a thousand feet from that same lighthouse in New London on Montauk Ave, a few feet from the Thames River itself and the piece showed great promise if only completed, I entreated Fred and Dorothy, who had come down to Old Lyme with Fred for a day's outing there while Fred and I did his painting, sitting and verbal bantering, to complete the lighthouse painting.

I think it really was Dorothy that was the "mover" to get Fred to secretly finish the piece. I had only wanted it to be another great Sexton to be hung in regal mounting at the Old Lyme Gallery showing the beauty of the Thames River and the New London Lighthouse - and yet- it became a gift from the two of them on a later visit by me to their New Haven home. And, "The Good Samaritan" was a piece close to Fred's heart he loved it and treasured it since it had been hung in both the Salmagundi Club and National Academy in New York City; it was a piece that he repeatedly refused to sell to me but Dorothy persuaded him to present it as a gift because I had been their "Good Samaritan" in their old age by selling and moving so many of Fred's paintings. Again on a trip to see them Fred, with Dorothy, presented the painting to me, calling me their Good Samaritan (and Fred did have some tears secretly in his eyes that day- and I pretended I did not see them for he was glad and happy for me but sad to see a very favorite painting depart almost as if I had somehow bested him in another verbal art "battle" between us since his many refusals to sell me the painting were now for naught.)

They both did come to our home in New London and saw "The Good Samaritan" prominently displayed in our home at 891 Montauk Avenue in New London. All of my large family loved that painting. Later, my daughter Margaret Amy Hillyer Cabral did a college paper on this painting while she was at college; and in my old age, that same daughter has become my Good Samaritan in verbal support and with purchases of many of my California and Connecticut art work so The Good Samaritan has now been passed on to her to continue the generosity that Fred and Dorothy started so many years ago.

I have made many comments in the Bulletins section of Frederick Lester Sexton's askART.com pages. I do not wish to repeat too many comments already made there. Suffice it to say that Fred Sexton was a great man to know, a really GOOD man, a gentle giant of a man who loved his God, his wife, his family, his friends, his homes and boat, his painting ability and the paintings he completed and his Connecticut environs. His ability to paint in oil was truly a gift from God; he tried all his life to accurately mirror the beauty created by God that surrounded him in all his paintings. Of all my friends over the years of my long life Frederick L Sexton stands out as a man who loved Connecticut and all it's beauty and he did his best to make that beauty around him be reflected on the many canvases he painted of his home state. I miss him (and Dorothy, too) and our many "gentle" but heated and passionate art discussions; and I remember him fondly the man, the painter, and the artisan - whenever I see a painting signed F.L. Sexton.






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Frederick Sexton is also mentioned in these AskART essays:
Old Lyme Colony Painters

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