Francis Cunningham

It was at The League that Francis Cunningham met the artist whose teachings hit him with the force of revelation- Edwin Dickinson. Dickinson introduced him to the tool that would consume Cunningham for the entirety of his career; the color-spot. A color spot is a piece of color/value, carefully observed from the subject and put down directly on the white canvas. These ‘spots of color’ make a network of notes out of which the painting is born and developed. The truth and specificity of these spots give them integrity as building blocks. Cunningham used color-spots in one form or another for the entirety of his career.

But as powerful a concept as the color spot was, it turned out to be a necessary but insufficient tool to address Cunningham’s core concern – the painting of the life-size figure. The color-spot could not fully address the problem of the life-size human figure because painting the figure requires vital conceptual information, like perspective, anatomy and form concepts. Because Dickinson considered himself a ‘general’ painter- not a figure or landscape or still life painter- he eschewed the teaching of just such conceptual information, even believing it to be an obstacle to learning to see directly. And while Cunningham paints landscape and still life and interiors, he considers himself first and foremost a figure painter. His interest is in creating what he calls a ‘functioning’ figure; one who could get up, change position and move around the studio. Cunningham said he found no way to get from Dickinson’s color-spot to the functioning figure, until he encountered another great League Instructor, Robert Beverly Hale. 

It was Hale’s authoritative lecturing on artistic anatomy, along with his compendium of form concepts, that gave Cunningham the missing piece of his training. Dickinson’s color spots, Hale’s form concepts and Berenson’s ‘tactile values’ gave him everything he needed to pursue the life-size figure over the course of almost seven decades of painting. It is only at a school like the League- a school based on the atelier system, in which each faculty member is sovereign in his or her own studio-  that a young student could encounter such opposing views about painting and meld them in his own mind, according to his own needs.

Francis Cunningham took these tools and taught us, his students, how to use them.  Most importantly, he taught us how to see. His tools were ancient and venerable; the plumb-line, the view-finder and the sighting stick. You had to have these three items every time you came to class. The plumb-line- a nail and a piece of red thread. So simple to make, yet so profound in its implications for seeing. If you could see true vertical, you could measure any deviation to the right or left. ‘The Egyptians had the plumb-line’, he would say, hoping that its pedigree would register with us. ‘Matisse said that it took him three years of practice to build the plumb-line into his eye. And that was Matisse’, he would reckon- ‘God help the rest of us.’