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Grafton Tyler Brown: Visualizing California and the Pacific Northwest

By Blake de Pastino | Posted 4/7/2004

Grafton Tyler Brown: Visualizing California and the Pacific Northwest

At the Walters Art Museum through May 30

In its notorious revisionist look at Western landscape painting, 1991's The West as America, the Smithsonian Institution derided America's brand-name frontier artists as brainless boosters of Manifest Destiny. Well-known painters like Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran were scorned for their fulsome depictions of the West--majestic mountains in halos of sunlight, defeated-looking Indians shuffling in the sand, and so on. Grafton Tyler Brown was spared the show's ridicule, largely because until the California African American Museum assembled a collection of his work last year, few outside academia knew of him. But to the artist's credit, he wouldn't have fit in anyway. While his contemporaries were indeed packing east a vision of the frontier that was downright Victorian in its romance, Brown proved to be ahead of the march, capturing an outlook on the West that now seems decidedly modern. In the survey of his career, now visiting the Walters, it's clear that Brown gave little quarter to the idyllic. Born to a free black family in Pennsylvania, he worked as a lithographer and draftsman in San Francisco in the 1860s, only taking up the brush some 20 years later. But his straightforwardness of vision made the transition easily from the drafting table to the easel, and this is what gives his paintings their edge.

His "Above the Gorge" from 1882 (pictured), for instance, meticulously depicts a bend in the Columbia River in the plainest terms--no rose-dappled sunsets or fearsome feats of geology, just muted green pines swaying over quiet waters. In 1886's "A Canyon River With Pines and Figures," Brown takes up an even more modern vocabulary, his love for detail giving way to a bulkier geometry--the whitewater rendered as a nearly impressionistic whorl, the rutted canyon walls that flank it fading into the distance with a stylized rhythm, seeming to suggest sandstone rather than stand for it.

By the late 1880s, Brown got as close as he ever would to developing his own stylistic language, as his paintings of Yellowstone from those years well attest. In all three views on display of the park's famed waterfall, Brown uses an economy of stroke that seems more in keeping with European studios than with the likes of Bierstadt and Moran. And in perhaps the most subtly evocative piece here, a perspective of a rugged pass called "The Golden Gate," Brown unveils a sharpness of contrast and a vitality of color that the West wouldn't see until after his death in the early 20th century, a newly clarified view of the land that would return in the works of Gustave Baumann, Fremont Ellis, and other early moderns who, whether they knew it or not, worked in his debt.

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