The Meem Library’s Painting of Felice Swados (Part 1)

Portrait of Felice Swados, 1940. Oil on canvas by Margaret Lefranc

All those who are familiar with the Meem Library likely recognize the above painting, which has hung above the Library’s west staircase landing since 1994. But the story behind this painting’s artist, its subject, and its arrival and placement in the Library is less known. That story begins with an exhibition that took place in the Santa Fe campus’s Peterson Art Gallery in November of 1993, chronicled in an article by Mary Jo Moore that appeared in The St. John’s Reporter in December of that same year:

A retrospective of sixty representative oil paintings, etchings, monotypes and drawings by New Mexico artist Margaret Lefranc opened November 7 at the St. John’s College Gallery. The show centered around key periods of a 70-year career which has included exposure to German Expressionism in Berlin, cubism, surrealism and abstractionism in Paris, and which culminated in a return to the United States and a definition of her own style. Born in New York, Margaret knew she would be an artist at age 5. She attended the Art Student’s League in New York at age 12. In her adolescent years she lived in Berlin, and later in Paris with her family. She was offered a scholarship to Bryn Mawr and had the choice of going there or to Europe with her parents. Since she wanted to be an artist anyway, she decided to join her parents in Paris.

Her first major piece, a charcoal drawing done at the age of fourteen in Berlin, was included in the show, as were a number of large oils done at ages 16 and 17. In a recent interview at her studio, Margaret pointed to a large oil: “This is the last self- portrait I did of myself. I wanted to show what happens when you get old, and it’s not exactly what you’d call pleasant. It’s a document,” she said of her painting.

The particular flavor of her experience is evident in the following statement about her career. “I have lived a long time and in many places. Between the ages of barely 14 to almost 17, I resided in Berlin. There I saw the works of Marc, Kollwitz, Lehmbruck, Heckel, the Bruecke, Klee, Kandinsky to name a few. The great old masters in museums I adored, but it was the modernists who stimulated me profoundly.

“From 17 to 25 years of age, I lived in Paris observing the growth of art away from naturalism and impressionism. Every conceivable experimentation in the creative arts was taking place, from cubism, expressionism, surrealism to abstraction, and then some. I studied with the brilliantly gifted Russian refugees from Bolshevism, and, of course, with the original yet supremely logical French, in particular, Andre L’Hote. So much went on with studying, arguing, and drinking of cafe au lait in bistros! But I lived for the excitement of drawing and painting, as all of us artists did.

“Then the ominous shadow of Nazism forced me to leave the successful beginning of my career as an artist in Paris. I returned to the country of my birth.” On her return to the United States from Paris in 1932 she opened the Guild Art Gallery to give young American artists an opportunity to exhibit their works. She occupied a space at 57th Street right off of Fifth Avenue, opposite of Betty Parsons, with whom she later became friends. Mrs. Rockefeller owned the building and accepted paintings when there was no money for rent. “The gallery was a successful experience,” she said. “I got to be quite expert at arranging shows, and was very much liked by the press. Arshille Gorky had his first one-man show in New York, at my gallery. We sold one of his drawings to the collector Kathryn S. Dreier. She was quite a lady and she paid me $75 for that drawing of which I got $25 and Gorky got $50.”

“I closed the gallery down, and in 1939 I went to see the country of my birth. I got into a dilapidated old car and I traveled throughout the whole of the United States-going from New York down South, down into the Keys, into Louisiana and Texas; and from Texas I went to New Mexico. The scope of my reaction to the enormously vibrant land commanded me to use all of my knowledge at hand. I let emotion flow through pen and brush without the sieve of intellectual analysis and considered self-criticism.

“When I got to Santa Fe, I knew instantly that I was going to live here. I knew it. I felt comfortable. I finally said to myself that I would move here as soon as I had $1000 dollars of my own money, and that’s precisely what I did,” Margaret said.

Margaret moved to New Mexico in 1945 with a friend who got a Rockefeller grant to work in San Ildefonso Pueblo near Santa Fe. That was the late author Alice Marriott. “Alice said to me, why don’t we team up and you do the illustrations for my book?'” Her drawings were featured in five books by Alice Marriott, two of which won the Library of Congress’s One Hundred Best Books of the Year award. Throughout her life she has supported herself as a portrait artist, as a textile designer and as an illustrator. “I didn’t get much money for the illustration, but I sold my sketches,” she said. “I had three exhibitions at the Fine Arts Museum [in Santa Fe] which then had an open door policy. “I taught a lot.”

(Continued in Part 2….)