France Folse was the most successful folk painter to emerge from the Bayou Lafourche region in the twentieth century. Her painting chronicle the rapid changes that took place in the region with the discovery of oil and gas and the mechanization of the sugar industry.
France Folse was the most important twentieth-century folk painter to emerge from the Bayou Lafourche region—one of Louisiana’s most colorful sections. The early twentieth-century Bayou Lafourche into which France Folse was born in 1906 was little changed from the largely agricultural, plantation-based setting of the nineteenth century. As an adult, Folse focused her paintings on the essentially immutable aspects of this inhabited bayou environment. She possessed a sense of history while reckoning with the forces of change, however, and while many of her paintings depict idyllic rural life, an almost equal number chronicle the rapid changes that took place in the region with the discovery of oil and gas in the 1930s and the increasing mechanization of the sugar industry.
Early Life and Education
The parish register for the Roman Catholic Church of St. Mary, in the small town of Raceland in eastern Lafourche Parish, records the birth of Marie Folse, the daughter of Eusebe N. Folse and Alida Matherne Folse, on December 8, 1906. The first name “France” appears to have been written with different handwriting after she was christened. At the age of seven she contracted a fever that lasted two years and left her with crippling arthritis. Her wrists and legs were locked in place by the age of thirteen, and with little accommodation for people with limited mobility in early twentieth-century Louisiana, Folse was unable to complete her formal education and relied on tutors to continue much of her schooling.
Eusebe Folse secured a job for his daughter as a secretary and bookkeeper at his office in the Lafourche Life Insurance Company. It was from this employment period that Folse’s first surviving artwork comes: a series of cartoons commissioned by the company in 1937. The following year, at the age of thirty-two, she was accepted into an educational correspondence program operated under the Vocational Rehabilitation Act through the Louisiana Department of Education. The course lasted three years and included instruction in crayon, pen-and-ink drawing, and watercolors.
In 1942, Folse taught herself how to paint in oils. Her first real encouragement as an artist came in 1944, when she met Williams E. “Bill” Groves, a leading insurance actuary in New Orleans and both a student and collector of Louisiana art. Impressed with Folse’s work, Groves bought several of her paintings and encouraged her to enter art shows. He told her these exhibitions would give her exposure, but not to expect awards immediately, as “primitive” art was little appreciated at the time.
Not unlike other folk artists who have received a modicum of education, France Folse believed her work could be improved by attending a professional art school. She set her goals very high and went to New Orleans to visit Robert D. Field, director of the art department at Newcomb College. This coeducational division of Tulane University had achieved a renowned reputation since its establishment in 1886. Folse brought along several paintings to be critiqued by Field.
He astutely recognized Folse as a talented folk painter and advised her against taking lessons from any academically trained artists. Such regimented study would spoil her highly individual style, he said. While this was perhaps not the advice that Folse wanted to hear, it doubtless saved her from becoming a mediocre academic artist.
The 1947 Spring Fiesta Art Show, held annually in the French Quarter, earned Folse her first recognition as a painter. Alberta Collier, art critic for the New Orleans Times Picayune, wrote, “The majority of the work shown belongs to the nonprofessional group and quality is definitely mediocre. However, there is one exception; the paintings of France M. Folse, which fall into this group are among the most pleasing things in the entire exhibit.” Heartened by this favorable reception and an award, Folse continued to enter regional art exhibitions and shows from 1947 to 1964. Her efforts were rewarded with many additional awards, including the Grumbacher Award for Merit in an international exhibit and the 1957 President Eisenhower Award from the president’s art competition for the physically handicapped.
Like other folk artists of her era, Folse worked from visual references—including postcards, sketches, and photographs. In the best folk tradition, however, she did not merely reproduce a photograph in her paintings but emphasized an element in the image or moved objects around to achieve the effect she wanted. Frequently, she incorporated the images from several photographs and sketches into one painting. Toward the end of her career, she was quoted as saying all of her paintings came from her imagination. By that time she may have truly believed that, but evidence indicates that she painted what she knew.
Later Career and Life
According to William T. Peltier, a Folse scholar, she executed approximately 300 works during her career as an artist, the bulk of which were done from 1942 to 1970. In the 1950s, Folse was hired by the Lafourche Parish School Board and given the title of art director of the recreations district. Teaching both youth and adults, Folse brought art instruction to many people for the first time in the region. Her students included noted Lafourche artists Libby Ayo, Mary Boudreaux, Dolores Legendre, and Neola Barrios.
Folse was dependent upon the care of her parents until their death. In 1983, still painting, Folse was living at the South Lafourche Nursing Home, one of seven different facilities she lived in before dying in Houma on October 11, 1985. She spent most of her seventy-eight years overcoming adversity—primarily her own severe handicap. Triumph she did, leaving behind a rich legacy of paintings and earning a niche in the annals of local, regional, and national American folk art.
This entry was adapted from an article in Louisiana Cultural Vistas Vol. 7, No. 4 (Winter 1996–1997): 40–47.