Monday, February 11, 2019

African American (Art) History Month I

Grafton Tylor Brown (1841–1918, US), View of Yosemite Valley, 1886. Oil on canvas, 29 ¾" x 17 ½" (75.6 x 44.5 cm). © 2019 Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-4841)

When we usually read about the Rocky Mountain School of painting, we are presented with artists like Albert Bierstadt (1830–1902), Thomas Hill (1892-1908), and Thomas Moran (1837–1926). This school (a loose term to indicate similar subject matter) is credited with portraying the newly opened western territories of the US to easterners. One of the hopes was to encourage migration, which, unfortunately for the environment and the indigenous peoples, happened en masse.

African Americans somehow escape that discussion. For African American History Month, you will observe that black artists, too, were part of this artistic phenomenon in the West. When California joined the Union as a free state in 1850, many free African Americans migrated there. Although the Fugitive Slave Act meant that slaves taken to California remained so, blacks continued to move west, numbering 2000 in California by 1852.

Grafton Tyler Brown is the first-known African American artist on the west coast of the US. Born in Harrisburg, PA, it is unknown whether his family moved to California when he was a child, or whether he migrated as a young man. He was settled in Sacramento in 1858, where he taught himself art. By 1862, he was an established lithographer with a land management firm in San Francisco. He painted and drew new settlements around the city, afterward committing them to lithography.

By 1865, Brown was well-known enough to set up his own lithography business, Grafton T. Brown and Co. His lithographs of growing early California were in great demand in the East. While managing this business, he traveled throughout California, Oregon, and Washington, producing paintings and sketches of the grandeur of the new territories.

In 1871, Brown sold his lithography business to concentrate full time on painting landscapes. He is not known to have produced portraits or still life, simply landscapes. He documented, like Bierstadt and Hill, views of the mountains and valleys between California and Colorado. However, unlike the romantic element injected into grandiose views of the West by other Rocky Mountain painters, Brown’s tended to be more topographic, in the matter-of-fact views on postcards. He typically painted from a birds-eye view with little reference to human beings.

Drawn to views of snow-capped mountains, Brown moved to Victoria, British Columbia, in 1882 and then Portland, Oregon, in 1885. Unfortunately, Brown’s paintings did not achieve the popularity of his lithographs, which were usually credited to his company rather than his name. Additionally, eastern galleries and museums would not exhibit works by African Americans. In 1893 he gave up painting entirely and moved to Saint Paul, Minnesota, to be a draftsperson for the US Army Corps of Engineers.

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