Franklin Chenault Watkins

Louis Kahn
J. Presper Eckert & John W. Mauchly

Watkins was an internationally acclaimed painter. Born in New York City, he studied at the University of Virginia, University of Pennsylvania, and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA). At PAFA he studied under Cecilia Beaux, Hugh Breckenridge, Daniel Garber, Henry McCarter and Emil Carlsen—not too shabby a list. He had one-man shows at the Rehn Gallery (NYC, 1934, 1937, 1942 & 1948), Smith College Museum of Art (1940), the Arts Club of Chicago (1945), the Museum of Modern Art (NYC 1950) and a retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (1964). He was known in the 1920s and 30s for his “expressionistic realism.” In the 40s he began exploring religious themes. He was also a portrait painter. A press release from the trustees of the Philadelphia Award in 1972 described him as having “inherited the mantle of Thomas Eakins and to be in the direct line of descent of the best Philadelphia painters.”

Y et his path as an artist had a couple of detours. He won a Cresson Travelling Scholarship to study art in 1917, but it was withheld due to the War. After serving time in the Navy, he moved to New York City and started off as a commercial artist before winning a second Cresson Scholarship, after which he traveled and studied in France, Spain, Italy, North Africa, Russia and Greece. He won first prize in 1931 at the Carnegie International Exhibition; in 1939 he was awarded a gold medal from the Corcoran Gallery of Art. He taught at the Tyler School of Art (Temple University) from 1940 to 1943. In 1947 Watkins was elected a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. He would return to PAFA, this time as an instructor, from 1943 to 1968. In 1958, he was selected as a member of the Cultural Exchange Mission in the Fine Arts to the USSR. His connection with PAFA continued with his serving on their board of directors until his death.

In the art world, he was often, creatively, compared with Cezanne. But, unlike Cezanne, he rejected any identification with expressionism (or other movements). When pressed, he would say that his work was “expressive.” One critic categorized it as: “His canvases are neither direct visual transferences from nature nor arcane cryptograms. They are synergetic.

The power they exude is abrasively generated by the colliding outer and inner worlds he couples through paint.” Even though he was often identified as a portrait painter, he did not regard himself as one. “His attitudes toward a still life, landscape, or figure composition do not differ from his approach to a sitter…He thinks pigmentally…when he talks, he gives the impression that he is squeezing words out of a tube. His palette is his dictionary…His paintings are of paint in the elemental sense that an adobe house is of the earth.”

He was given the Philadelphia Award for not only his painting, but “more importantly for his contribution to art through a quarter century of teaching at [PAFA]…Franklin Watkins’ influence on his art students constitutes one of the major influences of this great artist on the Philadelphia community. This itself is a highly creative gift.”

Lee Arnold

Sources: Death notice, Philadelphia Inquirer, Dec. 7, 1972; Franklin Chenault Watkins, Who Was Who in America, v. 5 1969-1974; “A Salute to Franklin Watkins,” Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, March 15 to April 16, 1972 [exhibition catalogue]; Ben Wolf, Franklin C. Watkins (Phila., 1966); Franklin Chenault Watkins, Who Was Who in American Art, v. 3 1564-1975; “Artist Watkins Gets Philadelphia Award,” Philadelphia Inquirer, March 29, 1972; “Artist Watkins to Get Philadelphia Award,” [s.n., January 23, 1972]. The following are collected in Philadelphia Award Records, Series 2 (Recipients & Nominees), Box 7, folder 12: program, clippings, press release. Photo: Philadelphia Record Photograph Collection, Historical Society of Pennsylvania.