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Born and raised in rural North Carolina, Francis Speight began his formal art education in 1920 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., but after one term he was drawn by the landscapes of Daniel Garber to study at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. Thereafter he remained at the Academy--first as a student, then as a teacher--for more than forty years. For most of this time, Speight's major subject was Manayunk, an industrial area above the Schuylkill River on the edge of Philadelphia. The hills, the light, and the architecture were endlessly fascinating to the artist, and he returned again and again to paint the same subject, often the same viewpoint, in all kinds of weather and at various times of day. In 1961 Speight returned to his native state to accept a position as artist-in-residence at East Carolina University in Greenville. His work took on a new character, composed at this time of simple farm subjects. The flat countryside of eastern North Carolina was especially appealing to Speight: the red earth, the red waters from the rivers during spring floods, and, in Carolina as in Philadelphia, the deserted factories. Despite the look of spontaneity,these scenes were carefully composed. About one Speight explained, "I painted the houses, then put in the sky. On the way I saw the sky I wanted about seven miles up the road and just pulled over by the side and put it in." For an appropriate foreground to a major motif, such as eroding earth, he might travel many miles. "My interest has been in painting recognizable objects," he said, "with realistic colors . . . Somewhere along the way I was made aware of eroding earth and of smoke crowding in on man's dwelling places. But . . . eroding earth affords opportunity for grasping the drawing and molding of the earth. And the smoke may make a deep-toned background to accent the light on the houses, the fruit trees and the people themselves." The spirited brushwork that enlivens the surface many of Speight's paintings was an important part of the artist's style, described in the 1930s and 1940s as "romantic realism," and in the years since as "poetic realism." Quotations from Sellin, David, Francis Speight: A Retrospective. Washington, DC: Taggart, Jorgensen & Putnam, 1986.
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