Saturday, February 11, 2012

William Theophilus Brown, Bay Area figurative painter, dies at age 92

 Self-portrait. 1994. courtesy Thomas Reynolds Gallery.

William Theophilus Brown, a painter who enjoyed success for more than half-a-century and was closely associated with the San Francisco Bay area's "figurative" movement, has died. He was 92.

Theophilus Brown and Mat Gonzalez. photo from Thomas Reynolds website. Photo @ Gonzalez.

Theophilus Brown died Wednesday in his apartment at a San Francisco high-rise retirement community, gallery owner Thomas Reynolds told the San Francisco Chronicle ( He said Brown painted and took art classes until the end of his life.

Brown's partner of nearly 50 years, artist Paul Wonner, died in 2008.

A descendant of early-American intellectuals, Brown was born in Moline, Illinois. His great-grandfather was friends with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Brown's father was an inventor and chief designer, at the John Deere Company in Moline, Illinois. While attending Yale University in the late-1930s, Brown met composer Paul Hindemith and poet May Sarton, with whom he would share lifetime friendships. After graduating in 1941, Brown was drafted in World War II.

Following his discharge, he began to study painting, moving between New York City and Paris, meeting an impressive range of artists that included Pablo Picasso, Braque, Giacometti, Balthus, and de Kooning, among others. Brown, who studied piano at Yale, was also close to a number of composers, including John Cage, Poulenc, Samuel Barber, and Igor Stravinsky.

In 1952 Brown enrolled in the graduate studio program at the University of California, Berkeley, joining a group of artists—including Richard Diebenkorn, David Park, Elmer Bischoff, James Weeks, and Nathan Oliveira — that would later be known as the Bay Area Figurative Movement. While attending Berkeley, Brown also met and fell in love with his long-time partner and fellow-painter, Paul Wonner.

In the early 1960s, Brown and Wonner moved to Santa Monica, where they developed a close friendship with fellow gay couple, novelist Christopher Isherwood, and portrait artist Don Bachardy. Over the years, Brown and Wonner also fostered friendships with playwright William Inge, composer and conductor Andre Previn, actress Eva Marie Saint and her husband, director Jeffery Hayden, and New Zealand novelist Janet Frame.

 Caroline Jones, in her seminal examination of Bay Area art, wrote of Brown, "... His paintings are Expressionist idealizations. He presents a better, more desirable world, a paradise cut again and again by a sharp green, or highlighted by a blue which seems to warm the room in which the paintings hang. " (Caroline A. Jones, Bay Area Figurative Art. p. 95).

Many of his best works from this period have an intimate feeling, even a sexual tension. There is an erotic sensuality in his lush pink figures, positioned in the center of semi-abstract landscapes.

He befriended younger artists and poked fun at himself. Attorney Matt Gonzalez, a former city supervisor who had a ritual of spending weekends with Brown, working in the artist's studio and then going out to eat oysters and drink fine whiskey, said he last saw his friend on Saturday.

"I took him 36 oysters Saturday night and we shared dinner," Gonzalez said. "He had a good appetite and was in good spirits. But he couldn't leave the apartment, and he was clear that if he couldn't go to his studio and make art anymore, he didn't want to live. So it was time."

His papers are held at the Archives of American Art.

 Sun and Moon
Four months before his death, Brown gave an interview in which he fact-checked his Wikipedia entry. He found the entry accurate, on the whole, but termed his classification as an abstract expressionist "horseshit."

A private memorial was being planned.
Information from: San Francisco Chronicle,

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