(1901 - 1973)
| Hyman Francis Criss, a painter identified
with the Precisionist movement of the 1930's, was renowned for his colorful,
tightly-rendered portrayals of the architectonic forms within the urban
landscape, especially those of Manhattan.
Criss was born in London, England, in 1901. Three years later, his family emigrated to America, settling in Philadelphia. Criss's interest in art developed at the age of three, when, recuperating in the hospital from a bout of polio, he began to sketch and paint. Later, recognizing his son's burgeoning talent, Criss's father enrolled him in classes at the Graphic Sketch Club in Philadelphia. In 1917, Criss was awarded a three-year scholarship to study at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. He later won the prestigious Cresson Fellowship, enabling him to spend several years in Europe.
During 1925-1926, Criss studied at the Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania. He then moved to New York, where he supported himself by designing screens for decorators (which he avidly disliked), while attending classes at the Art Students' League in the evenings (1926-1929). He also received private instruction from the painter, Jan Matulka. Throughout the early 1930's, Criss spent his summers at the Tiffany Foundation on Long Island.
In 1932, Criss had his first solo exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Gallery in New York and in the same year, had his work featured in the First Biennial Exhibition organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art. This was followed in 1933 by a second one-man show at the Mellon Galleries in Philadelphia. During these years, Criss's iconography was focused on the portrayal of New York City's architecture, notably skyscrapers, subway kiosks and elevated subways. Like other artist of his milieu, including Niles Spencer and Gerald Murphy, Criss was deeply inspired by the high-keyed, non-descript coloration and the flat, two-dimensional planes of synthetic cubism, which had flourished in France from about 1913 until the early 1920's.
Criss was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1934, enabling him to make a second trip abroad. One year later, back in New York, he painted a large, abstract mural for the Williamsburg Housing Project as part of the Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project.
During the later 1930's, Criss became affiliated with (and helped to found), An American Group, an organization of such socially-oriented artists as Philip Evergood, Jack Levine and William Gropper. Although he continued to adhere to a Precisionist style, synthesizing realism and abstraction, he began to concentrate less on industrial images and more on people, especially themes related to fascism which he imbued with surrealist overtones.
For a fifteen-year period, beginning in the late 1930's, Criss was forced by economic necessity to devote the majority of his time to commercial art and teaching. He resumed painting around 1950, producing a few portraits but concentrated primarily on cityscapes. His late work became stylistically complex, having more in common with the Neo-Impressionist technique of pointillism than with the hard-edged approach of his mature period. In 1966, a major retrospective exhibition of Criss's work was held at the gallery of the School of Visual Arts in New York.
Francis Criss died in New York City in November of 1973. Examples of his oeuvre can be found in important collections throughout the United States, including the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; the Brooklyn Museum; and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.