Seders, Francine (b. 1932)

  • By Sheila Farr
  • Posted 11/25/2013
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10675

Since she took over the Otto Seligman Gallery in 1966, Francine Seders has been a major player in the Northwest art scene, representing some of the region’s premier artists, including internationally known painters Mark Tobey (1890-1976) and Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000). Seders kept her gallery a low-key, salon-like art destination -- at 6701 Greenwood Avenue N from 1970 to 2013 -- where students and artists as well as serious art collectors were always welcome.  A firm believer in education, Seders published books on 10 of her artists, beginning in 1977 with Fay Jones (b. 1936) and in 1986 with the definitive monograph on Guy Anderson (1906-1998). A native of Paris, where she studied piano and often visited the Louvre, Seders never planned to run an art gallery. She earned a law degree then worked at the Societé Citroen before moving to the United States in 1959. While attending the University of Puget Sound, Seders took a part-time job for Otto Seligman (1890-1966), helping him with his European correspondence. In 1965 he hired her as his gallery assistant and she was instrumental in organizing an exhibition of works by Tobey, then living in Basel, Switzerland. When Seligman died unexpectedly in 1966, Tobey and Anderson were among the artists who encouraged Seders to keep the gallery open and represent them. Seders closed her gallery in 2013 after a historic 47-year run that launched some careers (and saw a few of her top artists taken away), but continued selling art and assisting clients from her nearby home.   

Paris Girlhood

From her father Francine Seders inherited a positive attitude to life and from her mother a love of study and learning. And, maybe because she was smaller than most of the other kids, she also developed a need to prove herself. Seders followed the rules and was a bright student, but she didn’t hesitate to push boundaries and challenge authority. "I was very naughty!" she said, laughing. "A naughty, naughty little girl" (Farr interview). 

One time Seders slipped out of elementary school early and walked home by herself for lunch. For a couple hours her absence caused a lot of anxiety for her teacher and school administrators, until Seders reappeared, unharmed, for afternoon classes. "I was called into the director’s office, a very short woman with a cane -- very mean -- and she started to be mad at me. I looked her right in the face and said, 'I think you should be mad at yourself. How come you let a  7 year old go out by herself?' She knew I was right, and we had a long talk." Years later Seders didn't remember why she left early, but knew she was happy with the result. "I was very pleased to be confronted and be able to say, 'Hey, just a minute there!'" (Farr interview). 

Seders was born on December 12, 1932, and baptized Francine Rose Blanche in the Catholic Church, the second of two daughters born to Georges Francis Seders (1903-1995) and Yvonne Lavinal Seders (1901-1954). Her sister Annie (b. 1930) was nearly three years older and the two girls weren’t close growing up. George managed a company that loaded and unloaded cargo boats on the Seine. Yvonne, like most women at the time, worked continually to keep the household running: cleaning, sewing, cooking -- often singing while she worked -- but always finding time to read and learn new things. 

War Years

The European war (World War II) dominated everyone’s lives. The threat of air raids meant hurriedly getting dressed, grabbing a suitcase packed with your most valued things, and rushing to the dark cellar of the apartment building. Seven decades later, Seders still had the little suitcase she kept packed, though the childhood treasures carried in it were long forgotten. 

"I have few recollections from the war except for the sound of planes falling, the fear of being separated from my family, the smell of dust after an air raid and the noise," Seders has written.  "I think that is why I still do not like fireworks and I panic in a crowd." As the Germans invaded, with her father called into the army, Francine and Annie escaped Paris with their mother and fled to the unoccupied south of France where Yvonne’s father’s family lived. "Taking the train out of Paris was a nightmare with people pushing and pulling. I remember being passed from arms to arms and shoved through a window. How mother managed to get her two girls in the train next to her is beyond me" (Seders manuscript). 

Yvonne was unhappy in the south, where news of the fighting was scarce, so after a while she took her daughters to their country house in Touquin, Seine et Marne, where they grew vegetables and raised rabbits and chickens. Eventually they returned to Paris and tried to live life as before, with the girls going to school and picking up their music lessons. (For a time Francine considered a career as a concert pianist.) "Keeping a regular routine was mother’s way to make us forget the war; it must have been terribly difficult for her," Seders said. (Seders manuscript). 

Young Womanhood

Francine earned her Diplome de Bachelier de l’Enseignement secondaire from the Lycée Victor Hugo in 1950, and went on to study law. It was a difficult time in her life. In addition to the pressures of law school, where few women were admitted, Seders was helping care for her mother, who suffered from leukemia. Francine dropped her studies briefly to help at home until her mother’s death in 1954.

She graduated in 1955 from the Faculté de Droit and took work as a legal secretary in the publicity department at the Societé Citroen in Paris. The company was bringing to market, after 18 years of secret development, the new Citroen DS 19, designed by Italian sculptor and designer Flaminio Bertoni and French aeronautical engineer Andre Lefebvre. Philosopher Roland Barthes (1915-1980) raved about the car in an essay positing that modern cars were the "exact equivalent of the great Gothic cathedrals." He called the new DS 19 "a superlative object" (Barthes, Mythologies).  

That was all very exciting, but for Seders, the pressure-cooker corporate climate at the company and all the secrets surrounding the high-tech auto created an uncomfortable atmosphere: "I had to be careful to whom I was talking. Big Brother was sure looking over me, which was unsettling to say the least" (Seders manuscript).

Moving West 

Meanwhile, Francine’s sister, Annie, had moved to the United States to attend the University of Idaho and had married an American, Gerald Sweeney (1932 -2002). America offered a new world of opportunity and Seders was eager to see it, but once rhere quickly discovered that the English of Chaucer and Shakespeare she learned in school didn’t go far in twentieth-century Wallace, Idaho. The town struck Seders as a lot like the Wild West of the movies, with gunshots still ringing out on the streets some Friday nights. 

Things were a little more civilized in Tacoma, where Francine soon moved with Annie and Jerry. She enrolled at the University of Puget Sound and received her BA in 1960, while working at the Tacoma Public Library. She then taught French and music at Annie Wright Seminary. After a summer workshop at Breadloaf in Vermont, Seders fantasized about getting another degree in comparative literature, but instead, channeled her love of research into a job in the library at the Washington State Historical Society and a degree in Library Sciences from the University of Washington, completed in 1963.

Otto Seligman Gallery

One day in 1962 she responded to a notice on a UW bulletin board, asking for part time help from someone who could write in English, French, and German. Seders presented herself at the Otto Seligman Gallery, which had recently moved to 4727 University Way. She began work that afternoon. Without her knowing it, the course of Seders life had been set. 

Seligman was born in Czechoslovakia and grew up in Vienna, and the two European expatriates got on well from the start. Seders said: "He, too, had a degree in law he did not use, and he had a great affection for music, as I do. And of course, we both knew Paris. We were very congenial"(Todd, The Seattle Times). In August 1965 Seligman asked Seders to work full time and she jumped at the opportunity.

Seders liked the gallery scene, had already met many of the artists, and with her law and library background was well equipped for the business side of art. When Seligman left for Switzerland soon after to visit Tobey and discuss the upcoming exhibition they were planning. Seders was left to take care of many of the arrangements for the exhibition on her own, from getting the work framed to managing publicity. Unfortunately, Seligman did not inform his other employee, Marcia Katz (wife of influential UW professor and administrator Solomon Katz) that Seders would be in charge, which caused immediate strife. "She and I reconciled soon after that," Seders said (Kangas). 

In the mid-1960s Tobey was at the peak of his career. In 1959 he was chosen to represent the U.S. at the Venice Biennale, and in 1961, he became the first American to be honored with an exhibition at the Louvre’s Musee des Arts Decoratifs. The Seligman Gallery show in Seattle opened to much fanfare. To accompany the exhibit, Seligman -- with help from Seders -- produced a 36-page catalog with tipped-in color reproductions. The introduction, by Francois Mathey of the Louvre’s Musee des Arts Decoratifs, Paris (which Seders translated into English) dubbed Tobey  "one of the four or five 'greats' in the world" (Mathey, "Mark Tobey"). One Seattle critic described the Seligman Gallery exhibition as "a stunning success" (Todd, The Seattle Times).

Just two months later, on February 6, 1966, Seders got a call at the gallery that Seligman had died in his sleep. In shock, she closed up the gallery and went home. The next day, contacted by Seligman’s attorney, she agreed to continue working for the estate and, a few months later, encouraged by Tobey, as well as by Guy Anderson, Michael Spafford (b. 1935), Elizabeth Sandvig (b. 1937), and Michael Dailey (b. 1938), Seders bought the gallery.

Francine Seders Gallery

The tenor of the gallery changed dramatically under her direction, Spafford recalled. The place got livelier. Whereas Seligman had kept an office in the back and stayed out of sight, Seders moved her desk into the gallery and was always available. "She was charming," Spafford said (Farr interview). Seders let the young painter Joseph Goldberg (b. 1947) live rent-free in the back room and gave him his debut show at the age of 21. When Seders expanded into the next-door space, she let artist Jay Steensma (1941-1994) display some of his antiques in the gallery window. 

For the first few months, Seders honored Seligman’s commitments to artists as she sorted out the gallery inventory, tracked down European artists and returned their work when possible. Although she was in her early 30s, one journalist commented that Seders, who’s just over five feet tall, "didn’t look old enough to vote" (Todd, The Seattle Times). Another described her as "dark-eyed and fragile ... like a figure from a Degas painting" (McCallum, Seattle Post-Intelligencer). 

In 1970 Seders lost the lease on her storefront in the U district. She found a house she liked at 6701 Greenwood Avenue N and decided it would make a good place to locate the gallery; she could keep expenses down by living upstairs. At that point she changed the gallery name from Seligman to Seders, and in May -- still not entirely certain selling art would be her life’s work -- opened her new gallery with a show of paintings by one of the Northwest’s preeminent artists, Guy Anderson. Later she would travel to Basel to visit Tobey, talk over gallery business, and arrange a show of his prints. 

Running a high-profile business, dealing with newspaper reporters and big personality artists, and keeping track of an inventory of expensive artworks didn’t daunt Seders. "I knew I could manage alone. I knew about bookkeeping and filing and administrative things. The place I wasn’t very good at -- you will laugh and I have changed a little bit I think -- I wasn’t good with clients. I was very shy with clients when I started," Seders said. "I never had a problem with artists, even well known ones. Even Tobey and Anderson who were very well known already always treated me like I was the person in charge" (Farr interview). 

From the beginning, Seders followed Seligman’s example and took a congenial approach to art-dealing, although she ran a tighter business than he had, with firm prices on the walls and a clear paper trail on all her inventory. She did what was best for her artists and maintained a friendly relationship with other gallery owners. In 1968, a Seattle Times review of a Guy Anderson show stated that "Through the courtesy of Francine Seders of the Seligman Gallery, the Gordon Woodside Gallery is showing a group of paintings by Guy Anderson, the eminent Northwest artist who lives in La Conner" (Batie). Seders and Woodside split the commission on sales. Soon after, Woodside reciprocated and Seders installed a show at Seligman gallery, courtesy of the Gordon Woodside Gallery. In later years, that collegial relationship between Woodside and Seders would be breached. 

An Intimate Gallery

In 1966 Francine’s father, Georges, arrived from France to live with his older daughter in Federal Way. By the late 1970s, he’d moved in with Francine at the Greenwood gallery, where he chatted amiably in French with Guy Anderson and others -- although Francine often suspected that neither side of the conversation was understood. In 1980 she bought a house on 1st Avenue NW, where she cared for her father until his death in 1995, and then moved again to a house on 56th Street.

Seders always felt protective and maternal toward her artists, too: from defending Spafford through various controversies and court battles, to giving artists Goldberg and later Dan Carmichael a rent-free living space in the gallery basement.  "She wasn’t the world’s greatest salesperson," Goldberg once told a reporter. "She loved art. She wasn’t in it for the money, she just wasn’t. We wished to hell she was sometimes" (Graves). Goldberg later moved on to other galleries, where presumably there was more emphasis on sales, but there’s no doubt that Seders early exhibitions of his spare encaustic paintings put Goldberg on the map. Seders did the same for others. "She carried us when we didn’t make a cent for years," Spafford said (Mathieson, The Seattle Times)

With her gallery set far apart from the trendy Pioneer Square gallery scene, Seders became known as a genteel dealer who represented a number of University of Washington faculty artists, and in some cases their artist wives. In addition to Spafford and his spouse, Elizabeth Sandvig, Seders showed the work of UW faculty member Robert Jones and, until the 1990s, his wife, Fay Jones. In 1976 the esteemed Harlem Renaissance painter Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000), who moved to Seattle to teach at UW, also joined the gallery, followed later by his wife Gwendolyn Knight (1913-2005). "It’s a very intimate gallery, very warm. You don’t get a feeling of commercialism there," Jacob Lawrence told a reporter. (Mathieson, The Seattle Times). 

The Artists

Lawrence, one of the leading figures of twentieth-century American art, was a renowned chronicler of the African American experience and one of the first black artists to gain mainstream recognition in 1940s New York. His presence at Francine Seders brought an added cache to the gallery. "I think having Jacob Lawrence made a big difference for us, because it put us on the national map," Seders said. "I organized a lot of shows for him and was going with him to all those museums" (Farr interview). Seders also showed the work of an older generation of University of Washington faculty painters including Ray Hill (1891-1980) and Wendell Brazeau (1910-1974), and represented the estates of Walter Isaacs (1886-1964) and Boyer Gonzales (1909-1987). 

With an office adjacent to the kitchen and a resident dog or cat always in attendance, Seder’s gallery became a magnet for artists and their friends. Painter Barbara Thomas (b. 1948), a student of Lawrence, who joined the gallery in 1984, remembered the pleasing family atmosphere there, with Francine’s father Georges and a French gallery assistant of that period around to greet visitors. "I just loved listening to them. It was such a cultural center! That’s what galleries were supposed to do! Also, you could go and see what your professors were doing when they weren’t in class" (Kangas, Visual Art Source). Greg Kucera, an aspiring artist who went on to found and operate one of the city’s top galleries, used to frequent Seders gallery while he was still a high-school student from Federal Way. He began buying art there, working out time payments with Seders. "She made a collector out of me," he said (Mathieson, The Seattle Times). Seders also showed Kucera’s paintings. 

Tough Deals

But if Seder’s generous, laisse faire attitude earned the admiration of many, it had a downside as well. As her star artist Mark Tobey’s health declined, other people moved in to gain control of his work. At his death in 1976, Tobey’s estate was moved to Foster/White Gallery. "It’s a bit my fault," Seders admitted. "I feel I should have been at his bedside when he died, but it’s not my style either. I should have fought for my rights, but I didn’t" (Farr interview).  

Twenty years later, Seders lost another of her original group of artists, Guy Anderson. Shortly before Anderson’s 90th birthday, with two big museum retrospectives scheduled, and the artist in frail health, Anderson’s caregiver, Daryl Walls, withdrew his paintings from Seders Gallery, where Anderson had shown for 30 years. Woodside/Braseth Gallery sent out an announcement that it would be representing Anderson. The move drew anger, sadness, and astonishment from many of Anderson’s friends and colleagues, who believed the artist would not have chosen to make that change on his own. "When I first met Francine she was one of the few people who understood my work and liked it," Anderson said at the time. He noted, "I think she had great taste. She always managed to have her studio very simple and very elegant. I had many shows there. I think that recently she went out of that sort of thing" (Farr, Seattle Weekly). 

"The Guy Anderson deal was kind of tough," Seders said (Farr interview). She was more philosophical discussing why, after Jacob Lawrence’s death in 2000, his widow and her advisors made the decision to move the estate to a New York gallery. "I understand about Gwen ... I was very mad at first, but it was not her. I can see from my sister how people soon can change with dementia and she was beginning to be in that situation" (Farr interview). 

Scholarship, History, Culture

Francine Seders always ran her business according to high ideals. As someone who valued scholarship and history, she maintained extensive archives on all her artists, which she made available to writers, critics, and scholars. She paid to publish books on a number of her most prominent artists -- including Lawrence, Sandvig, Robert Jones, Denzil Hurley, Marita Dingus, Fred Birchman, and Michael Dailey -- knowing how essential that documentation was to their careers and to future generations. With her background in law, Seders led the way in establishing written agreements with her artists, spelling out exactly what they could expect from the gallery and the gallery from them. And she insisted on having written receipts and documentation for all transactions, partly to avoid misunderstandings about the whereabouts of work, but also so that paintings that had been sold could later be traced for museum exhibitions and scholarly inquiry.

To help her with all that, Seders had many employees over the years, but a handful of gallery assistants became familiar faces. Pat Scott (b. 1947) was a faithful presence at the gallery for more than 30 years. Esther Luttikuizen (b. 1951) worked for Seders in the mid-1990s then went on to open Esther Claypool Gallery, and now serves as a curator for 4Culture. Alison Stamey worked for Seders, keeping archives and dealing with clients, for some 25 years. Peter Nesbett (b. 1955) worked as an assistant and prepared the catalogue raisonné of Jacob Lawrence prints that Seders published in 1994, then created a foundation for the publication of the complete Lawrence catalogue raisonné published just before Lawrence’s death. 

And of course there were those beloved gallery pets, including the dogs Penny and Alix and the cats, Poucette, who left us in 2002, and more recently the elegant Caline. 

Beyond its primary function of showing and selling art, the Seders Gallery was always a hub of cultural activity, too. It housed chamber music and jazz concerts, with musicians that included William "Bill" Smith (b. 1926) of the Dave Brubeck trio, composer and trombonist Stuart Dempster (b. 1936), and experimental sound artist Susie Kozawa. There were poetry and performance events featuring artist Alan Lau (b. 1948) and friends, as well as lectures on subjects as diverse as cooking, African art, and herbalism. Journalist John Boylan led panel discussions at the gallery and, in the early days, Seders's father organized a group to put on one-act plays in French. In fact, running the gallery and overseeing its after-hours events became so all-encompassing that Seders had little time for anything else. 

Life Outside the Gallery

That led, in the 1980s, to something of a mid-life crisis. "I think my late forties, early fifties were hard for me because I realized there was no going back. Okay, I never married. I had some personal reasons maybe now considered stupid ... . When I was 18, I was told by a doctor I should not have any kids ... . So in my mind I thought if I cannot have kids, I cannot marry, because in those days, in the 1950s, it was pretty much true."

Later, running the gallery, Seders made it a rule to not date her artists or her clients -- which seriously narrowed the field for someone who spent most all her time at work. At one point, Seders looked into adopting a child but was turned down because she was unmarried, considered too old at 50, and, being self-employed, was thought to have an unstable income. "It was kind of a bad time for me ... . I just went from one week to another" (Farr interview). 

Of course there were love interests over the years. "There were about three or four men I think I could have married," she said. "But they were either married or they were interesting in one way, but not as a husband, if you see what I mean." Seders maintained that no matter how attractive a man might be, she is much too pragmatic to carry a relationship with someone who is egocentric or unstable. Besides, by her 50s, Seders felt that she was so used to living alone, it would have been hard to accommodate someone else’s foibles. "Which is laughable now, because then my father moved in with me for 15 years and I took care of him." Then Francine’s sister moved in and, over the years, various combinations of Annie's children and grandchildren have come and gone, making it more of a family compound than a private home. "So, for someone who loves to live alone, I’ve done really well!" Seders concluded wryly (Farr interview). 

Challenges and New Skills

In addition to her devotion to family, Seders continually challenged herself, intellectually and physically. She once built a harpsichord, just for the pleasure of it.  During her fifties, when she felt she wasn’t getting enough exercise, she signed up for Tai Chi Chuan and became a long-term, serious practitioner of the art and philosophy. In her late 70s, Seders pushed herself to earn a brown belt in Aikido. "It did give me, I must admit, some pleasure to be able to throw a big man down on the floor," she said, with a smile (Farr interview).

In her 70s, also Seders began studying Chinese, simply because she wanted to learn a new language. "I may take it up again now," she noted. (Farr phone call). In other words, at 81, Seders may have closed the gallery -- its last day was December 24, 2013 -- but retirement was not part of the picture. She bought a Bed and Breakfast in La Conner, which her nephew ran for her, and she set up a little showroom in her Greenwood home, where she continued selling art to longstanding clients. 

As for marriage? You never know: That could still be in the picture too. There is longevity in Seder's’ family and she was quick to point out that three of her father’s sisters married later in life -- one at age 72. For her, the gallery closing was simply the start of a whole new set of possibilities. 

For the many artists she represented, though, and all the many art-lovers and collectors who frequented her salon over the years, Michael Spafford summed up the sentiment: "It's the end of an era" (Farr interview).


Sources:

Sheila Farr interview with Francine Seders, October 22, 2013, at her home, emails and a phone call on November 12, 2013; Sheila Farr interview with Michael Spafford, November 10, 2013, Francine Seders Gallery, Seattle; Francine Seders, unpublished memoir in progress, portions used by permission of Francine Seders, in possession of Francine Seders, Seattle; Anne Todd, "Parisian Lawyer Runs Seligman Art Gallery," The Seattle Times, April 13, 1966, p 31; "Otto Seligman, Gallery Owner," obituary, Ibid., February 10, 1966, p. 49; Anne Todd, "Seligman’s Passing Saddens Art World," Ibid., February 13, 1966, p. 41; Jean Batie (no byline), "Guy Anderson Paintings at Woodside," Ibid., July 30, 1968, p. 28; "New Show due at Seligman," Ibid., September 12, 1968, p 34; Karen Mathieson, "Seders: Serious About Art," Ibid., May 8, 1991, p. C-1; Bobbi McCallum, "Never Tired of Learning," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 15, 1966, p. 16; Liz May, "Francine Seders," The Phinney Ridge Review, Spring 1995, p. 6; Sheila Farr, "Someone to Watch Over Guy," cover story, Seattle Weekly, July 24, 1996; Sheila Farr, "Art Business Based on Trust and Reputations," The Seattle Times, October 3, 2004; Steven Vroom, "The Doyenne of Phinney Ridge," CapitolHillTimes.com, February 3, 2010; Robin Updike, "Seders Quietly Marks Her Gallery’s 30th Anniversary," The Seattle Times, June 10, 1996; Mike Dillon, "Francine Seders: Still Doing Things Her Way," North Seattle Herald-Outlook, December 28, 2005, p. 1-8; Jen Graves "The Dealer Who Doesn’t Deal," The Stranger, September  26, 2006; Robert Ayers, "Francine Seders Gallery To Close After Nearly Five Decades," The Seattle Times, August 30, 2013; Matthew Kangas, "Francine Seders: Silhouette," Visual Art Source, May 2013, Visual Art Source website accessed November 9, 2013 (http://www.visualartsource.com/index.php?page=editorial&pcID=22&aID=1658); Roland Barthes, "The New Citroen," Mythologies translated by Jonathan Cape Ltd (New York: Hill and Wang, [1957], 1972), 88.
Note: This essay was updated on March 21, 2014.


Related Topics:   Biographies | Visual Arts

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