Alexis Jean Fournier: Fact and Fiction
Le Gallienne and Fournier on their 300-mile hike.
Minnesota Historical Society photo
His Heart in France. His Feet in America.
I was introduced to the art of Alexis Jean Fournier two months ago while lazily browsing through the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, seeking refuge from a cold winter’s day. Four of his oil paintings are displayed in a third floor gallery and I lingered over three that depict landscapes of cloudy days in the Mississippi River Valley in the late 1800s. I admired the way he used soft tones and the color white to bring brightness and contrast to the scenes.
Upon learning that he was born in St. Paul and is regarded as one of Minnesota’s first artists, I followed the breadcrumbs to the Minnesota Historical Society a few weeks later and got to know him while sifting through a box of his personal papers and hearing his voice through the trail of his pen.
Fournier was said to be a man who had his heart in France and his feet in America. He was born a Yankee Doodle Dandy – on Independence Day 1865 – and developed a deep appreciation for the beauty of the natural world while residing in the Mississippi River Valley. But his vagabond heart took him across the ocean seven times to capture the splendor of the French countryside.
His love for France undoubtedly stemmed from the ancestry of his French Canadian parents. The family moved to Fond du Lac, Wis., the year after his birth, and young Alexis eventually moved to Milwaukee to attend parochial school. It was there he lived the life of a struggling artist, residing in an abandoned houseboat and working odd jobs. At age 14 he returned to the Mississippi River Valley and earned a modest living with his brushes and paints while working as a sign painter in Minneapolis. Two years later he parlayed his skills into slightly more creative work by painting stage scenery and murals. In 1886 he attended the Minneapolis School of Arts and started down a path that led him from commercial art to fine art, and to world acclaim.
His international star rose in 1894 when his painting “Spring Morning by Minnehaha Creek” was displayed in the Paris Salon exhibition. He would travel to France six more times by 1913 and make numerous paintings of that country’s landscapes. In 1907 he spent an entire summer painting the homes of 20 influential Realism painters from an artist colony in the village of Barbizon, near Paris. His style – subtle tones and colors, loose brushwork – was similar to those artists. He created an exhibit of those paintings entitled “Homes of the Men” and presented it in St. Paul, Minneapolis, Detroit, Chicago and Toledo. He was later memorialized as “the last of the Barbizon painters.”
In 1903 he moved to East Aurora, NY, to become artist-in-residence at the Roycroft Community, and five years later embarked on an adventure with lifelong friend Richard Le Gallienne, a British writer and poet. They hiked 300 miles from East Aurora to New York City “to observe the countryside in all its seasonal finery…and recording nature’s moods and changing scenes.” Gallienne wrote about the journey in his novella “October Vagabonds.” After reading the wonderful little book, I deduced he chose to immortalize the trip in fiction so he could inject his poetic and lyrical voice without being beholden to the factual constrains of a traditional travelogue. He shares his poetry throughout and gives snapshots of his companion creating art.
Of the papers preserved by the Minnesota Historical Society, nearly all of Fournier’s personal correspondence was in longhand, giving deeper insight into the man. For example, he penned a phrase in a letter, crossed it out and wrote above it “not important.”
Art gallery brochures described him as easy-going, friendly and good-humored. He enjoyed practical jokes and “responded to a good joke by doubling up with laughter and whacking his thigh.” But he was also a self-disciplined artist who strove for growth and perfection, and he painted for the love of it. When he feared his style was becoming too routine he shunned his brushes and created paintings with a palette knife. In one sketchbook he wrote: “The man who tries to produce art for money only – never gets it.” It appears he got it.
Fournier loved to paint in spring and fall because of the colorful nuances of the seasons. He rarely painted in July or August. His standard outdoor painting attire might explain why – he always wore a coat and tie.
While I appreciated discovering his art that day at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, I was more thrilled to later discover the inner thoughts of a man enraptured with the beauty of nature. In an 8-page letter describing an outing in Picardi, France, he wrote: “The air was close and warm…the cadence of the chorus of crickets and a quiet hum of insect life glimmering as they darted here and there in the warm brilliant sunlight and now and again Splat! came an innocent victim against my wet canvas and was made an unwilling martyr. There I stood at work under my white umbrella dressed as thinly as is possible, seeing, hearing, feeling, eh, tasting. My whole being wrapt in the scene. Being thankful to that Supreme Being that I was allowed to live and enjoy this the greatest joy I know of.”
Fournier, the father of two, died on Jan. 20, 1948 in East Aurora at 82. He was twice widowed, so he knew deep pain and loss. Yet he was still able to see the beauty around him and he found joy in sharing it with the world.
Alexis Jean Fournier
Minnesota Historical Society photo
Dreaming on the Job
Young Alexis Jean Fournier slowly climbed the ladder he placed near the doorway of a prominent Minneapolis law firm that fronted the Mississippi River. One hand firmly grabbed each approaching rung and the other gripped the handle of a wooden toolbox filled with several cans of colored paint and brushes. At age 14 and having just moved from Milwaukee, he was happy to find work and his cheerful heart made him whistle. His notes harmonized with the sound of the river behind him, which hummed a soothing tune as it cascaded over the falls of St. Anthony.
He hung the tool box on a rung at waist level and examined the wooden canvas before him. Taking a sketch from his pocket, he studied it closely to review his notes then popped the lid of a paint can and dipped his widest brush into it. He put the brush to the sign and made broad strokes across it until it was fully tinted deep forest green. With the base layer complete, he climbed down, toolbox in hand, and admired the subtle hue and the way the wet paint glistened in the sun. He crossed the street and found a comfortable spot on the riverbank to wait for the warm spring breeze to dry the paint so he could letter the sign.
The falls quickly captured his attention and mesmerized him. Watching water tumble over rocky ledges, swirl around violently then find its way downstream, he noticed a nearby mill and marveled at the way the sun danced on the water and illuminated the bright green vegetation sprouting on the riverbank. He took a small notebook from his pocket and began sketching the scene, recording it in monotone pencil marks, some thick, some thin, while holding the vibrant colors in his mind. Once finished, he returned to his perch.
Balancing on the ladder, he ran his hand lightly across the sign to feel the paint, now warm and dry. He opened a can of beige and swirled it with a stick, selected a brush to perform the lettering, then reviewed his notes to check the spelling of the firm’s name. He began painting the many consonants and vowels of the long German surname, performing the task slowly and meticulously, adding small serifs to each letter and outlining each in black. When done, he examined his work and knew he had exceeded his client’s simple specifications, yet he wasn’t pleased. He lifted a thin brush from his toolbox and painted a double-ruled boarder around the sign, adding sophisticated swirls to each corner. Much better, he thought as he climbed down.
Fournier walked inside the office of the law firm and told a stoic secretary seated behind a large mahogany desk that he had finished the project. She looked down her nose at him, pursed her lips, and promptly rose to find the managing partner, who would review his work and approve his pay. As he waited, Fournier strolled around the reception room to study the abstract art that adorned the walls. His boots squeaked on the well-varnished wood floor as he walked from one piece to the next, finding himself unimpressed with the paintings. Several minutes later a large balding man in a dark three-piece suit walked briskly toward him, his face showing no emotion.
“I’ve finished sir,” said Fournier.
The man nodded, turned on his heels and walked outside, and Fournier followed closely behind. The second he looked at the sign the man’s face instantly soured.
“I didn’t ask for that border,” he barked, pointing a stubby finger at the sign.
Fournier stammered. “I know, but I thought it made the sign look more elegant.”
“Young man, our contract was for lettering only. I won’t pay extra.”
Fournier smiled shyly. “I’m not asking you to.”
The man closely examined the lettering to make sure the spelling was correct.
“Okay,” he said sharply. “It’s fine. My secretary will give you your bank note.” With that, he retreated as swiftly as he had appeared. Fournier waited a few moments then entered to retrieve his pay.
As he left the building he glanced over his shoulder at the sign and chuckled. He crossed the street and walked along the river to deposit the money in his bank, just a few blocks away, but before he got there another scene caught his attention. He sat down on the grassy riverbank and made another pencil sketch, and he allowed his restless heart to imagine the day when he would paint something far more significant than signs.