Franklin Chenault Watkins

(American, 1894 - 1972)

Franklin Chenault Watkins was born in New York City. He attended the University of Virginia and the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, where he also studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts under Cecilia Beaux (1863-1942). Although the artistic training he received at the Academy was strictly academic, Watkins and other students there began to experiment with color and form, inspired by the French Post-Impressionists such as Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) and Paul Cezanne (1839-1906). Watkins left the Academy in 1914 for two years, working in New York in order to earn money for his education. After returning to the Academy, he received two Cresson Travelling Scholarships, which he did not use for several years, due to the war and financial restraints. In 1917 he enlisted in the Navy, serving as a camouflager along with the Philadelphia-born artist Arthur B. Carles (1882-1952), who would be a life-long friend. After the war, Watkins reentered the Academy and studied until 1918, when he went to work for the advertising agency N. W. Ayer in Philadelphia for five years. In 1927, Watkins exhibited at the Wildenstein Gallery in New York with six other important Philadelphia painters: Carles, Earl Horter (1881-1940), Carroll S. Tyson (1878-1956), Adolphe Borie (1877-1934), Hugh Breckinridge (1870-1937), and Henry McCarter (1864-1942). Three years later, in 1930, Watkins exhibited his first major work, Suicide in Costume (Philadelphia Museum of Art), at the Carnegie International Exhibition in Pittsburgh, where it caused quite a stir due to its unusual subject and visual impact. The work shows a man dressed as a clown, who has fallen over backwards on a table top after shooting himself, the gun still smoking in his hand. The painting won first prize, bringing Watkins his initial widespread fame. In 1934, Watkins was commissioned by Lincoln Kirstein to design the sets and costumes for George Balanchine's ballet Transcendence. Watkins exhibited widely throughout his career. He had his first one-man show in 1934 at the Frank K. M. Rehn Gallery in New York. He showed paintings at numerous exhibitions and won various awards, including bronze medals at the Paris International Exposition in 1937, and the Musee de Jeu de Paume in Paris in 1938, the 1939 gold medal at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.; second prize at the 1939 International Art Exhibition, Golden Gate Exposition for The Fire Eater (Philadelphia Museum of Art); the 1949 Gold Medal of Honor, the 1950 Fellowship Prize, and the 1954 Lippincott Prize, all from the Pennsylvania Academy; and the 1953 Fulbright professorship to Italy. He had solo exhibitions at the Smith College Museum of Art in Northampton, Massachusetts, in 1940 and at the Arts Club of Chicago in 1945, a joint show with Arthur B. Carles at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1946, and retrospectives at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1950 and at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1964. The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where he taught for almost twenty-five years, held A Salute to Franklin Watkins in 1972. Reference: Ben Wolf, Franklin C. Watkins, Portrait of a Painter (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1966).