Matilda Browne (American painter) 1869 - 1947
The Prodigy Browne was born in Newark, New Jersey, to parents who nurtured her talents and could provide excellent teachers. As a young girl Matilda was encouraged by noted landscape painter Thomas Moran and his wife Mary Nimmo Moran. Mary, along with teachers Eleanor and Kate Greatorex, represented excellent role models of successful women artists for the precocious child. In 1884, when Browne was just fourteen, one of her floral paintings was included in the American Water Color Society’s annual exhibition at the National Academy of Design. By the time she was twenty-one, she was not only a regular exhibitor at the NAD and AWCS but had also shown with the Society of American Artists and the Boston Art Club. As further evidence of her emerging reputation, her work was reproduced in the AWCS exhibition catalogues in 1887 and 1888. In 1889-90 she continued her studies at the Académie Julian in Paris where her painting Azalées was accepted at the Salon de la Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts. After studying in Holland with noted American cattle painter Henry Bisbing, Browne returned to the States in 1892. One of her Dutch paintings, An Unwilling Model, which depicted a calf straining at the rope that ties it to a tree, received honorable mention at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago – a prestigious venue for her first award. Critical Acclaim In 1895, a critic for The Philadelphia Inquirer noted, Matilda Browne will give leading maile animal painters “a hard run in due time, as she indicates by her bold and all-alive” style of depicting livestock. Browne’s life illustrates the challenges women artists of her era confronted. Critics respected her, but even positive reviews sometimes betrayed gender bias. Novelist and critic Theodore Dreiser wrote that she brought to her flower painting “a vigorous, masculine way of seeing nature.” In the same vein, a Boston reviewer wrote approvingly, “some oxen by Matilda Browne [were] painted with masculine feeling for vigorous forms and direct brushwork.”[i] Even a woman expressed that prejudice. Calling Browne “one of the best equipped of women painters,” Henriette Daus added, “She often wields her brush with almost masculine vigor.” Some writers described the artist’s appearance, as they would be unlikely to do when writing about her male colleagues. Dreiser prefaced his praise of her cattle painting with the reassurance that “although she stalks boldly in farmyard and stable, [she] lacks none of those subtle charms of femininity, nor is she without the attractive grace of face, form and dress, that bespeak the delicate refinement of youthful womanhood.” Artistic Themes Throughout her career, Browne favored two themes: animals and flowers. Visitors to Idylls of Farm and Garden can admire her ability to shift in style from accomplished academic depictions to atmospheric Barbizon-influenced subjects to impressionist-infused canvases – selecting the style that best suits the mood she intended to convey. For The Last Load, ca. 1899 (private collection), Browne demonstrates mastery of animal anatomy, one of the academic skills she had acquired in America and Europe, integrating them with an Impressionistic palette and brushwork. The oxen are depicted with classical precision in small, deliberate strokes, whereas the grass and hay are rendered in the quick, loose marks of Impressionism. At the National Academy o Design annual exhibition in 1899, The Last Load won the Dodge Prize for the best picture painted in the United States by a woman. For Cornfield Point, ca. 1910 (Florence Griswold Museum) Browne depicts pastureland illuminated by a full moon that gleams on the distant Sound. With its limited palette and moody atmosphere, Cornfield Point epitomizes Browne’s Tonalist style. The artist felt that it was one of her finest works. Describing Matilda Browne’s “pictures of old-fashioned gardens,” one critic wrote, “it is a pleasure to see them, they are so well painted and . . . so full of the true fragrance of their subject.” Browne included figures in only a few of her garden paintings and broke with convention by depicting not the young beauties featured in other Impressionist paintings but rather mature women like the gray-haired model featured in In the Garden, ca. 1915 (private collection). No granny in a rocking chair, the model’s vividly colored kimono unites her with the blossoms that surround her. Just as the kimono’s green background connects the woman with the foliage, her gray hair blends with the house, uniting woman, home, and garden. In choosing floral still life as one of her major themes, Browne risked being dismissed as a dilettante. Such paintings had long been the province of schoolgirls and genteel ladies, largely because life drawing and anatomy classes had been barred to women. Nonetheless, Browne launched her career exhibiting floral still lifes. The painting Azaleas (private collection) may be the canvas titled Azalées that was accepted at the Paris Salon in 1890. Contributions to Connecticut Art In Greenwich, where she spent the majority of her adult years, Browne taught drawing and painting at Rosemary Hall, a private girls’ school from 1907 through 1912. She was a founding member of the Greenwich Society of Artists (now Greenwich Art Society) and exhibited with them from 1912 through 1931. The Cos Cob section of town was a thriving art colony, where Browne enjoyed the company of such notables as John H. Twactman, J. Alden Weir, Childe Hassam, and Elmer MacRae. In Old Lyme, as part of the art colony there, Browne was accepted as a peer by the male artists and given the honor of being invited to paint a pair of door panels in the Florence Griswold House. In addition, Browne was the only woman depicted in Henry Rankin Poore’s mantelpiece frieze, The Fox Chase, a caricature of the Old Lyme artists on an imaginary fox chase across the Old Lyme landscape. Browne is portrayed with arms in the air in shock at the sight of Hassam at his easel, stripped to the waist. Poore knew that Browne could take a joke. While her professionalism won the respect of the male artists, her sense of humor captured their affection. She shared jokes on herself, telling a friend, for example, that whenever her work was on view, her male colleagues in Old Lyme would say, “come, let’s go see Tilly’s calves.” Visitors to the exhibition can explore the Florence Griswold House (now part of the Florence Griswold Museum), once the boardinghouse of the Lyme Art Colony.