Landscapes depict artist's optimism in U.S. of 1880s

ArtReview

February 21, 2004|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

Landscape painting was the most important form of American art at the end of the 19th century. Artists used landscapes to express the young nation's democratic ideals of individualism, freedom and opportunity and as a metaphor for national pride.

Among the artists carried westward with the country's geographical expansion was Grafton Tyler Brown, a Pennsylvania native who, in the 1880s and 1890s, became the first African-American artist to record the Pacific Northwest.

Brown's spectacular landscapes of California, Oregon, Washington state and British Columbia are the subject of an exhibit opening today at the Walters Art Museum.

The show, organized by the California African American Museum, Los Angeles, brings together nearly 50 of Brown's oil paintings, watercolors and lithographs to trace his development from commercial lithographer and draftsman to a painter whose luminous wilderness views helped shape Americans' conception of their country's character and promise.

Brown was born in 1841 to free black parents in Harrisburg, Pa., and worked in a lithographic print shop during the early 1850s.

But on the eve of the Civil War, he moved with his parents to San Francisco, where he worked as a draftsman and lithographer in a shop that printed stock certificates, street maps and views of mining towns.

His family's migration west paralleled that of many Americans who sought more freedom and opportunities than possible in the Northeast.

The California Gold Rush had prompted the rapid growth of towns and settlements, and Brown himself, says art historian Sharon Patton in the Oxford History of African-American Art, "represented a particular type of American character - ambitious, an entrepreneur and, most of all, unable to resist wanderlust."

Over time, Brown managed to purchase the lithography business where he worked and rename it G.T. Brown and Co. Clients included such firms as Wells Fargo Mining Co., Levi Strauss and Ghirardelli Chocolate Co.

The Walters exhibit devotes much of the first gallery to the lithograph prints Brown produced during the 1860s and 1870s.

Lithographs were the first process for reproducing quantities of color images cheaply, and these works reveal Brown was a meticulous craftsman.

But toward the end of the 1870s, Brown sold the business and embarked on a series of travels through the pristine wilderness of the Pacific Northwest.

He apparently taught himself to paint. His early pictures, such as Goldspring Falls, B.C. (1882), and View of Lake Okanogan, B.C. (1883), executed near the provincial capital of Victoria on Vancouver Island, tend to be rather small and influenced by the topographical tradition of British landscape painting.

These are mellow paintings, with carefully modulated, harmonious tones, and the paint is applied smoothly in thin layers.

After Brown returned to Portland, however, his paintings became larger and more monumental in scale. He began to specialize in dramatic scenes, such as Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone from Hayden Point (1891), in which his colors took on a brilliant, almost surreal quality.

In these later works, often done in early morning or at dusk, he exploited the dramatic effects of sunrise or sunset on the massive rock formations in his pictures.

Patton suggests these later works, created during a period of increasing racial divisiveness and segregation in America, can be read "as expressing an alternative view of individual freedom."

"The dramatic scenes he depicted were of places where few blacks actually lived, and those few did so virtually free of racism," Patton writes. "While these landscape views reflected whites' ideas of nationhood, for African-Americans they were ironic images about freedom and a process of cultural colonialization."

Brown settled in Portland in 1886 and was a member of the Portland Art Club. A few years later, he left the West and took up residence in St. Paul, Minn., where he worked as a draftsman for the U.S. Engineering Office. He died in St. Paul in 1918.

Brown embodied both the spirit of the pioneering 19th-century black artist - others included the sculptor Edmonia Lewis and painters Robert S. Duncanson, Edward Mitchell Bannister and Henry Ossawa Tanner - and the historic migration of African-Americans into the American West.

This show is rich in historical and aesthetic interest at a time when African-American art has re-emerged as a vital chapter in the history of American art.

Grafton Tyler Brown

Where Walters Art Museum, 600 N. Charles St.

When: Tues-Sun. 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; through May 30

Admission: $8 adults, $6 seniors, $5 students

Call: 410-547-9000 or visit www.thewalters.org

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