Considered as the foremost American expatriate in the Paris avant-garde of the 1950s, Sam Francis was born in San Mateo, Calif. In 1941 Francis enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley, to study medicine, but joined the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1943. Because of a spinal injury sustained during flight training, Francis spent most of his military life confined to a hospital bed. While recuperating, he began to paint in watercolors. David Park, who taught painting at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute), visited Francis in the hospital, bringing with him paintings from a local private collection, including examples by Miró, Klee, and Picasso. Returning to Berkeley in 1948, Francis studied painting and earned a Master of Arts degree. He subsequently moved to Paris and enrolled briefly at the Académie Fernand Léger. Francis quickly became known in Europe; his first one-person exhibition opened in 1952 at the Galerie du Dragon, Paris, and his first museum show took place in 1955 at the Kunsthalle in Bern, Switzerland. American success soon followed.
Francis is loosely associated with the group of second-generation abstract expressionists, who during the 1950s reacted against the first generation by focusing on more expressive uses of color. Francis’s love of color stemmed from his time in Paris, where he immersed himself in the art of Monet, Bonnard, and Matisse; however, rather than commingle figuration and color as they did, Francis created large, luminous abstractions that were intended to envelop the viewer, as in The Phillips Collection’s Blue (1958).
When Time magazine touted Francis in 1956 as the “hottest American painter in Paris,” his work came as a revelation to both artists and public in America. Francis quickly took his place among the country’s leading abstract expressionists. Following this trend, just two years later Duncan Phillips mounted a show of Francis’s works, the artist’s first major exhibition in Washington, D.C. Phillips often hung Francis’s work with paintings by the American artists Tomlin, Rothko, Gottlieb, and Morris Louis.