Monday, October 18, 2010

Francoise Andre

Francoise Andre, 1962
“Andre’s work is full of the sense of what has been lost of certainty and stability in a world full of turmoil.”  (Victoria Donohoe, The Philadelphia Inquirer, 2003)

“For me, painting is the act of uniting thinking and emotions regarding all that is happening in human evolution, by utilizing the means of all times, and even from more than one civilization.  All this is so terribly enormous, and I am not so amazed anymore to have spent so much time doing it.  I think . . . that man and the earth remain at the core of my research.”  (Francoise Andre, 1993, translated from the French)

Jan Cox, 1985, 2.10 x 2.2 m
When she was just five years old, Francoise Andre announced to her parents, “I want to be a painter.”  As the story goes, the three were standing hand-in-hand in front of Jan Van Eyck’s Adoration of the Mystic Lamb in the Cathedral of Ghent, Belgium.  The very next day, Andre’s father bought her paints and brushes, and she created her first painting, a tree with a single apple in it.

So began an artistic career that would eventually span almost eight decades and four countries on two continents.  By the end of her life, Andre’s work had appeared in exhibitions in Europe, Canada, and throughout the United States, including Philadelphia, Chicago, and Seattle.  Her paintings can be found in the permanent collections of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D. C., and the Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, among others.

Born in Vendee, France in 1926 to Franco-Belgian parents, Andre was a descendant of famed collector and Hellenist Alphonse Willems, composer Florent Schmitt, French revolutionary Talleyrand, and portraitists from the court of Louis XIV.  When Andre was a teenager in Belgium during the war, she and her family had nothing to eat but beans for a time.  As a result of this deprivation, she developed osteoporosis and dealt with life-long back problems.

She was educated at the Academie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels and the Roger Institut voor Schone Kunsten in Antwerp, and studied with Marcel Gromaire at the Ecole des Arts Decoratifs in Paris. 

Landscape, 1988, 24" x 48"
In 1951, spurred by a chance meeting with Morris Graves at Chartres Cathedral, Andre and her husband, painter Charles Stegeman, left post-war Europe for Canada.  They spent less than a year in the Yukon before moving to Vancouver, where Andre began teaching at the Banff School of Fine Arts, a position she would hold for 19 summers.  Deeply ambivalent about teaching, she later complained to at least one friend about what she saw as a lack of independent drive in her students.  Both she and Stegeman were educated in a time and place when art instructors were hands-off and students were left to motivate themselves and learn largely on their own.  After Banff, she taught very little.  Later, back in Belgium, she took on private students, her only source of income at the time.

In Vancouver, Andre and Stegeman’s personal and artistic relationships with Graves and fellow “mystic painter” Mark Tobey grew. In particular, according to a friend, Andre began using gold leaf in her work at this time, a technique she apparently adopted from Graves. 

Of Andre’s work at the time, Joseph Plaskett wrote, “If we feel an aura in her new work of the mythic, the mystic and the surreal, it came as much from the exoticism from the newly discovered natural world as from influences from Graves and Mark Tobey.  It was born out of a fusion of regional content with Abstract Expressionist manner.  Her contribution was truly personal.  Unlike most of the others, she never abandoned the figure . . . An undercurrent of subdued passion sets her work off from the mandarin refinement of Graves or the virtuosity of Tobey.”

In his article “Art in the Fifties: Design, Leisure, and Painting in the Age of Anxiety,” Scott Watson writes, “Both Stegeman and Andre practiced a kind of surrealism which allies their work to animistic painters.  However, their roots were in European surrealism.  As a result their work often has an intoxicating richness that made it seem overwrought at the time.”

In 1963, the couple moved to Chicago, where Stegeman had received a job with the Art Institute.  In Chicago, both artists showed at the Vincent Price Gallery and counted Irving Petlin, Leon Golub and Nancy Spero as friends.

Six years later, they moved again, this time to Haverford, Pennsylvania, outside Philadelphia, where Stegeman became a founding member of the Department of Fine Arts at Haverford College.

Andre remained in Haverford until 1976, when her marriage ended.  After 25 years in the United States, she finally moved back to Europe—to Brussels, although for the rest of her life, she would travel between Brussels and Philadelphia, where she maintained a studio in a 200-year-old stone building in the Manayunk section of the city.

Guardien, 1985 (detail)

“Art never leaves me, even on holiday.  It is a world that is my framework, which is therefore always the real support.  But I don’t “need” to paint.  It is far more than I need, since it is ONESELF.  It is not a part of me, it is me.”  (Francoise Andre, in a 2006 letter to Sophie Orloff, translated from the French)

“Francoise Andre revives a conception of art that has been a long time in eclipse, the ideal of creating a masterpiece . . . The idea of a painting being a controlled projection of all that the artist has mastered, the culmination of a lifetime of learning and experience, has become strange to us, but it is a view that Andre demonstrates, and she has taken risks to do so.  In that sense alone her work is heroic.  It goes against the grain of contemporary mental attitudes.”  (Joseph Plaskett, “Francoise Andre,” 1985)

Portrait of Jack Coleman, 1975, 30" x 40"
Andre’s preferred subjects were, in her words, “man and the earth”: heads and figures, including many self-portraits, and strange, lonely and mystical landscapes.  Her canvases were often large, and their intense colors—scarlet, turquoise, gold—were frequently juxtaposed with the sensitive and beautiful lines of an artist who could really draw.

Often categorized as surrealist, Andre’s work was informed and inspired by art of the distant past: early Flemish painting, Byzantium, Raphael, Da Vinci, Rembrandt, Ingres, and Delacroix.

All this is obvious in the paintings themselves and in her writings about her own work and life.  Through both, she revealed her complex personality, her sharp intellectual focus, and her unwavering commitment to art. 

“The arts escape everything that is tangible and to survive they must have total freedom.  In the meantime, we are floating just above the horizon line and the world tries to find a new direction.  In all this, the quest for an interior space, which is at the heart of what art is about, has disappeared as well, because art is not a mere decoration to a man’s life, but the search for an invisible facet, hidden in all of us, to which we must devote our life.  This is why it’s a “feat” to be conscious of this state as an artist, and to be able to keep on going towards this invisible goal, knowing full well that you are going against the tide—but knowing also that there is no other way to go—we have no choice.”  (Francoise Andre, 1993, translated from the French)

Francoise Andre died on December 4th, 2009, in a nursing home in Paoli, Pennsylvania.  She was 83.

“Facing the world’s true problems, everything is put in perspective.  One must now fight against the inhuman and one of the means, short of physical strength, is to use other faculties.  Painting may appear to be a wretchedly poor force, but it may be one nevertheless.  Not a political force, but a force of communication.”  (Francoise Andre, 1993, translated from the French)         

Humain Trop Humain,  1992, 2 x 2.35 m
See more photos of Andre's work on our Flickr page.                                                                                              
See also:
One Minute with Francoise Andre

More of Andre's paintings, writing, and other material can be found on her friend Frederic Hage's website.

Nauplius, 1993, 1.2 x 1.3 m

De l'Amour, 1990, 1.2 x 1.5 m

Photo of Francoise is from

Landscape, 1988, is owned by the Joseph P. Melvin Company in Wayne, PA, and was photographed by Richard Anderson.  Thanks to both and to Christopher Cairns for orchestrating.

All other photos of work are from the 1994 catalogue Francoise Andre. 

Thanks also to Hilarie Johnston for her insights and assistance.


Donohoe, Victoria. “Breadth of vision evident in works of Franco-Belgian artist.” The Philadelphia Inquirer, November 11, 2003.

Exhibition Catalog: Francoise Andre, Brussels: BP Gallery, 1986.

Exhibition Catalog: Francoise Andre, 1994, including “Faces, Landscapes” by Jean-Louis Ferrier, “Ode to a New Humanism” by Sophie Orloff, and “Francoise Andre” by Joseph Plaskett.

“Francoise Andre” (from

Watson, Scott. “Art in the Fifties: Design, Leisure, and Painting in the Age of Anxiety.”  Vancouver Art and Artists: 1931-1983.

Zemens, Joyce.  “Francoise Andre at the Gallery Moos, Toronto.” Canadian Art, #83, January/February 1963.

Tete et Corps, 1990-91, 1.5 x 1.1 m



  1. this article is excellent and its long overdue on a canadian painter who taught so many other canadian painters. imagine if you can someone who taught 19 years at the banff school of fine arts and having little or no regognition.

  2. Dear Alexis - my name is Judith Clute and I'm so happy to have found your study on Francoise André. The leading picture is as I remember her when I apprenticed with her, 1961 to 1963. She and Charles Stegeman came to visit me in Camden Town, London, back in the 197O's, but after she left Charles and returned to Brussels I completely lost track. Nevertheless I have always tried to keep to the spirit of her teaching, and yes, for me as well, “Art never leaves me, even on holiday.”

  3. Francoise Andre was an amazing artist and a strong woman. I was very lucky that for a year or so she was my mentor and inspiration, while already in her eighties, when she lived in her studio in Manaunk, PA. I am eternally grateful to her for sharing with me her spirit and vision for color.

    Natalia Gali

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