A Summer of Art with Grafton Tyler Brown

Working at the Colby Museum of Art last summer as a curatorial intern opened my eyes to the inner workings of an art museum. My job was to assist the curatorial staff with their responsibilities, which included research, writing, and organization, and I focused on studying the art of the American West and the history of Canadian art. I also had a few other specific tasks throughout the summer, including researching one of Grafton Tyler Brown’s paintings, Yellowstone Falls, which recently became part of Colby’s collection. Spending my summer learning about Colby’s museum made me realize that museums change and grow more actively than I had previously understood, and my work with Yellowstone Falls taught me how to research and analyze primary sources effectively, as well as write and speak critically about art.

There is little literature about African American artists in the American West, which made my research on Brown both challenging and significant. A gifted painter, cartographer, and lithographer, he was among the first African American artists to capture the grandeur of the American West. He was born in 1841 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to parents who had settled there after escaping slavery in Maryland, and he left for California in 1858. Brown worked in Sacramento as a hotel steward, practicing art in his free time, before moving to San Francisco. There the German printer Charles Conrad Kuchel hired him as a lithographer tasked with creating maps for Californian miners and prospectors. After Kuchel’s death in 1867, Brown took over the business.

In 1872, Brown left commercial art to devote himself to painting western landscapes, focusing particularly on California and the Pacific Northwest. Like other artists active in the region, his work promoted the American West as a symbol of freedom in the post–Civil War era. In 1882, Brown left the Bay Area for Victoria, British Columbia, to work as an artist associated with the Amos Bowman Geological Survey of the Cascade Mountains. Two years later he returned to the United States, where he painted such natural wonders as Mount Rainier, Yosemite, and Yellowstone National Parks. It was during this time that he completed Yellowstone Falls.

Grafton Tyler Brown, Yellowstone Falls, 1891. Oil on canvas, 12 x 14.5 inches. Museum purchase from the William A. Oates, Jr. Fund for American Western Art and gift of Marjorie M. Fisher.

When I first began my research, I had only seen photographs of the painting. Nevertheless, the composition interested me from the start; the strong vertical elements within the waterfall itself are balanced by diagonals in the rocks and in the water at the bottom, giving the piece a sense of motion. Additionally, the mist at the bottom of the falls conceals the bottommost rocks and gives the viewer some room for imagination. The column of water cascading down resembles a curtain, as some of the rocks on the left curl into the waterfall and become shrouded in shadow. The left-most rocks are angular and polygonal, while the rocks on the right are sloped more softly.

The sharp contrast between the waterfall and the shadows that surround it ensure that the waterfall is the focal point. Most of the painting features warm colors, and some of the only cold shades appear as icy blues in the middle of the waterfall, further indicating its importance. When I saw the painting for the first time in person, I was amazed and impressed with Brown’s use of such a vibrant and at times unexpected palette. Many colors are contained within the water: the dark green next to the forest at the top of the falls gives way to a mostly white and light blue waterfall with some tones of light yellow and light blue violet within it, the splashes in the pool include pale yellow green, and the water at the bottom of the falls is rendered in vivid blues and greens with some pale green and white to emphasize movement. By employing a vast array of colors to capture the waterfall and its mist, Brown represents not only the water but the light reflecting off it.

Under Brown’s brush, the rocks flanking the waterfall get a similarly multicolored treatment. They are mostly dark red and orange, with some red violet, yellow, and even peach. Spots of lavender indicate where some rocks have been splashed and become reflective. Where the rocks meet the sides of the waterfall, dark green and blue shadows appear, making the falls appear to project toward the viewer. The darker green from above also reappears on the rocks at the bottom with some red and orange still showing through, providing an interesting contrast in complementary colors. Brown’s brushwork is visible in many instances, especially in the pool at the bottom of the falls, depicting the quick movements of the water. His masterful capture of the might of the waterfall made me anticipate a larger painting, so I was surprised to learn that it is only twenty-one by fourteen inches. Despite the work’s diminutive size, Brown’s carefully considered brushstrokes and complicated palette endow his subject with sublime importance.

Brown’s painting is an important addition to Colby’s collection because it adds the perspective of an African American painter to an area of art that mostly concentrates on white artists. It enhances the reinstallation of the Southeast galleries, which aim to add greater context to works already on display and elevate narratives of nonwhite painters as well as indigenous people living in this region. It also displays a diversity of style, sharing the same message of grandeur as many works of the American West, but manifesting this through a closer, more intimate view of nature, rather than the wide, sweeping landscapes favored by artists like Thomas Moran.

Thomas Moran, Acoma, 1902. Oil on canvas, 20 x 30 inches. The Lunder Collection, 2013.211

The chance to carry out specific, object-based research on a new acquisition at the Colby Museum of Art taught me so much about the fields of art history and museum studies. Though I am no longer an intern, my involvement has not ended: I am now a member of the Museum Student Advisory Board, which coordinates events in the arts for Colby’s student body. Having studied a range of paintings, including Yellowstone Falls, and decorative arts, I have gained a greater understanding of the art world. I am excited to learn more about art and its history, not only in my future classes at Colby, but also through the community I discovered last summer.