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by John Nathaniel Fenton

MUSICIANS
canvas size 43" x 53"
frame 51" x 61"

A major opus by American surrealist John Fenton. Oil on canvas. In the family of the original 1960s purchaser.

JOHN NATHANIEL (Jack) FENTON was born in Mountaindale, NY in 1912 and died in Woodstock, NY in 1977. His life was devoted to art as a painter, printmaker, and film illustrator. He also taught art for several decades at NYU, Goodard College, and elsewhere.

Fenton exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, Chicago Art Institute, Whitney, Corcoran, National Academy of Design, IBM Gallery, Jewish Museum, Pennsylvania Academy, Pratt, Silvermine, and the Vatican among others. He had eight one-man shows at the Babcock Gallery in NYC during the 1950s and 60s.

His work is in the Brooklyn Museum, the Whitney, the N.Y. Public Library, the Penn State University collection and other museums and private collections.

In the late 1950s he went to Hollywood and designed 50 paintings for a feature film based on Edgar Allen Poe's "The Black Cat." It was exhibited across the country and at the Cannes Film festival.

After spending most of his life in NYC, he moved to Woodstock where he maintained a studio and exhibited in the Woodstock Art Museum and at local galleries including the Rudolph Gallery, then the most prestigious in Woodstock.

Fenton received numerous awards, among them the National Academy of Design Medal, American Academy of Arts and Letters Purchase Award, Pratt Print Award, and Medal of Honor from the Audubon Artists Society. It is thought that he wrote a book, "The Autobiography of my Wife," but no copies are known to exist.

Fenton is a listed artist whose history is found in the 1999 edition of Who was Who in American Art.

The January 31, 1978, edition of the Greenwich Village NEWS featured this front page. The major story in the paper was a critical appreciation of Fenton by Martin Ries of Long Island University.

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And here we borrow a biography of Fenton from someone else ...

Fenton who has been termed "an American surrealist" is known for his highly imaginative and ingeniously choreographed paintings and etchings. A native of New York State, Fenton attended The Art Student's League of New York and the world famous Atelier 17, Paris. From 1955-64 Fenton had seven solo shows at the Babcock Gallery in New York, and throughout the 1960's and early 70's his work appeared in numerous museums and galleries including The Museum of Modern Art, The Corcoran Gallery, The Butler Art Institute, The Pennsylvania Academy, The Panamanian Institute of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago.

Fenton, whose film The Black Cat {adapted from the Poe story} was shown at the Cannes Film Festival in 1961, taught at New York University and Goddard College. John Fenton's work has recently (sic) enjoyed a revival of popularity with retrospective shows at the Godwin Ternbach Museum of Queen's College, NY, in 1997, and the Woodstock Artists Association, Woodstock, NY, in 1996 and 2000.

The artist John Fenton, a vibrant life force to some, a disquieting enigma to others, lived as a boy in a comfortable Westchester County suburban home. The first hint of what was ahead of him came when he was seven. Some older kids were fighting outside into the street and he began to sketch them. Decades later he would write: "For me, a creative work is the result of a major experience of life transformed into a major experience of form."

Born in the upstate crossroads community of Mountaindale, Fenton moved with his family to Mount Vernon in the suburbs of New York City. At 19, he met Sophia Friedman, then 15, who became his wife in 1938. Both attended Mount Vernon High School, as did their daughter Enid after them. They lived there for more than 30 years while John rose in his profession of painter and printmaker and Sophia became known as a ceramist. In 1969 they moved to the Woodstock home she still occupies.

Fenton's sudden death from a heart attack in 1977 ended the career that won him wide recognition in the art world. He studied for a while at the Art Student's League of New York but was essentially self-taught as an artist. In the early years, he was successful in the field of commercial art, without wavering in his commitment to fine art.

Fenton was 43 when he had his first one-man show at the Babcock Gallery. It evoked conflicting reviews. The Arts Magazine critic glowed, "brilliant ... astonishing array ... great vitality ... Fenton has acquired an unusual gift ... of superb draftsmanship." The same show, to the Art News reviewer, was "artistically vulgar ... painted in uniformly bland surfaces with familiar distortions."

Throughout the 1960's and early 70's his work continued to appear at the big national shows: Museum of Modern Art, Chicago Institute, Corcoran Biennial, Pennsylvania Academy, and so on, and in solo presentations at Babcock (six more in 1958-1964) and at the Miami Museum of Modern Art, the Panamanian Institute of Art, the Silvermine Guild at New Canaan, CT, among others.

In 1958 Fenton's oil painting "Laundresses" won the Joseph S. Isidor gold medal at the National Academy's 133rd annual and was reproduced in the New York Times. Howard Devree, the Times critic, cited it as an example of "winds of change" then being felt at the conservative Academy. Another reviewer called him a "serious scholar."

Recently (sic) the art historian Tom Wolf of Bard has liken Fenton's style to American surrealism, with its "irrational imagery and unusual juxtapositions of Jewish and Christian themes." The artist repeatedly resorted to religious themes form both faiths. Of Jewish decent, his view of life and art was universal, according to those who knew him. He was an eloquent talker, a good teacher (he taught at New York University and other schools as various times), a poet and critic.

But in Sophia Fenton's memory, "All he cared about was working and what fun it was to work."

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