Skip to content

Sam Francis was born in San Mateo, California in 1923, the son of a mathematics professor. In 1941 he began a premedical course at the University of California at Berkeley, but he dropped out in 1943 to join the United States Army Air Corps. He landed in a United States Army hospital following a spinal injury during flight training. Flat on his back in the hospital, he took up drawing and painting; the play of light on the ceiling became one of his favorite themes. In 1948 he returned to Berkeley as an experienced painter, earning his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1949 and his Masters in 1950. He gravitated into the orbit of San Francisco’s Abstract-Impressionist movement.

His exuberant atmospheric color paintings of the 1950s bespeak a hedonistic approach that distinguishes his work from the usually harsh, anxiety-ridden canvases of the first generation Abstract Expressionists. Francis’s embrace of one of the strongest traditions in French art – a joyous and unrestrained love of color and light was demonstrated by Francis at the outset of his career. In 1950, having obtained a master’s degree, Francis by-passed New York and moved to Paris where he lived for almost seven years. He visited Japan in 1957 and the influences of both art worlds have been evident.

In 1947 Francis, while recovering from his spinal injury, he married Vera Miller, the first of his five wives. His fifth wife was an English painter Margaret Smith with whom he had one son, Augustus. Another wife was Mako Kawase; she was the mother of Shingo, another son.

He died on November 4, 1995 at the age of seventy-one. He was forced to scale down his activities in his final year. But nothing short of death could extinguish his need to paint. Although his right hand was crippled, and and he was in brutal agony (he even painted with an IV in his arm for a few days) he painted one hundred and fifty small pictures, working until he had no more energy and they had to put him back to bed.

Sources include:
Master Paintings from the Phillips Collection
Time Magazine, January 16, 1956 and November 13, 1972
It’s Never Too Much, article by Suzanne Muchnik in LA Times Sunday, April 21, 1991
The Lion’s Last Roar article by Kristine McKenna in LA Times Sunday, May 28, 1995

Compiled and written by Jean Ershler Schatz, artist and researcher of Laguna Woods, California.

Biography from the Archives of AskART.