AUSTIN, Texas — A collection of artworks, photographs, correspondence, rare publications and other materials related to artists Paul and Virginia Fontaine that offers a unique look at the role of artists in the rebuilding of post-World War II Europe has been acquired by the Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas at Austin.
The Paul and Virginia Fontaine Papers and Art Collection includes dozens of artworks and hundreds of photographs, guestbooks, diaries, and letters that tell the story of painter Paul Fontaine (American, 1913-1996) and Virginia Fontaine (American, 1915-1991) from the time they were art students at Yale University through their residency in postwar Germany and their later years in Mexico.
Paul Fontaine was an abstract-colorist painter who graduated from the Worcester Art Museum School and Yale School of Art and worked as a painter for the Works Progress Administration in Springfield, Massachusetts, painting murals in the city’s post office under Umberto Romano in 1936. He and fellow Yale art student Virginia Hammersmith married in 1940. Virginia trained as a painter at Yale and became a major force in Paul’s subsequent creative activities. As a skilled photographer and regular diarist, she documented their lives as they went on to reside in postwar Germany and Mexico during the height of modernism.
Paul Fontaine’s work was exhibited in galleries and museums in the United States, Mexico and Europe, particularly Germany, during his lifetime.
“Students and researchers will be able to study the growth of a distinctive talent, but one whose vision and practice was always in intimate dialogue with the artistic currents of his time,” said Ransom Center Director Stephen Enniss. “Through this archival record, researchers will be able to trace Paul Fontaine’s own engagement with his times, and his and Virginia’s shared commitment to art as a communal practice in Europe as it was recovering from the devastation of war.”
Starting in 1945, Paul worked as an Army cartographer in Paris, finally settling in Frankfurt. The Fontaine home in postwar Frankfurt became a place where artists could meet and share ideas. Their artistic circle included Bauhaus painter and weaver Ida Kerkovius, sculptors Karl Hartung, Ewald Mataré and Emy Roeder, painters Willi Baumeister and Hans Hartung, and gallerist Hanna Bekker vom Rath. The archive includes materials and works relating to many of the artists the Fontaines befriended.
The Ransom Center has more than 65,000 artworks that range from 15th-century prints to contemporary artworks, with a particular focus on materials that reveal the creative process, artistic method and collaboration. This acquisition expands the Center’s significant holdings of artworks and related archives by artists and creative figures working in early- to mid-20th-century Europe and in Mexico.
The Fontaine collection was generously donated by the couple’s daughter, Claudia Fontaine Chidester, author of “Trusted Eye: Post-World War II Adventures of a Fearless Art Advocate” (2021), editor and contributing writer for the book, “Work Standing Up: The Life and Art of Paul Fontaine” (2013), and founder of The Fontaine Archive, an organization that fosters a community of historians, art historians, artists and collectors interested in the art and events of postwar modernism in Germany.
“The Harry Ransom Center is a preeminent home for these primary materials and artwork,” Chidester said. “We couldn’t be more pleased that the materials will be available for research and provide historical evidence around the importance of supporting the arts during a nation’s reconstruction.”
The Paul and Virginia Fontaine Papers and Art Collection is open for research by appointment at the Harry Ransom Center.