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Charles Francis Browne (1859-1920)


charles francis brown,new church,cape ann
charles francis brown,new church
Charles Francis Browne

By Melissa Wolfe Ph.D. and Joel S. Dryer © Illinois Historical Art Project

“Mr. Browne’s color is good. He draws beautifully: technically he is a master…Mr. Browne is without question one of the most accomplished Western painters and he is one of the most popular.”1 “[He is] one of the group of painters and sculptors who have added greatly to Chicago’s fame, and a man so lovable and charming…Seeing the world with a poet’s eye, he has put the rhythm and harmony that lurks in many a sweep of country into paint.”2

Charles Francis Browne was born on May 21, 1859, in Natick, Massachusetts, to a family with a long history in New England. His mother was Emmeline Wetherbee and his father was George Warren Browne, a builder and contractor.3 In 1865 the family moved to Waltham, Massachusetts, the place Browne would always think of as home. He had three siblings. The oldest was George who became the headmaster of The Browne and Nichols School in Cambridge, Massachusetts; a sister, Emmie, died in childhood, and a younger brother, Roger, was later a foreman at the E. Howard Watch Factory in Waltham.

In his second year of high school Browne was afflicted with appendicitis (called inflammation of the bowels). Sick for nearly two years, he never returned to school but rather began working as a clerk in a Boston hat store, a job for which he had little aptitude. After several years of work he ill enjoyed he started at a design job for Forbes Lithography Company along with a youthful Edmund Charles Tarbell (1862-1938), who was also an artist soon to make his name.4 In 1882, Browne began taking evening art classes at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. He specialized in stained glass mostly to placate his father with a craft that appeared most practical. After working during the day and taking classes at night for two years, however, the young artist was still unable to pass the rigorous examination in anatomy required to enter the life classes.

Browne moved to Philadelphia in 1885 where he enrolled full-time at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, almost immediately taking anatomy under Dr. W. W. Keen.5 Browne’s earlier “practical” training came in service, as he often earned the needed finances to pay for art classes by taking on extra jobs at various local glass window establishments.6 Browne became acquainted with the New Church during his student years at the Academy. He boarded at 1718 Green Street along with Enoch Price, Fred Waelchli, Carl Theophilus Odhner, and N. Dandridge Pendleton, students of theology at the Academy of the New Church in Bryn Athyn. Browne had given up his Unitarian background to become a member of the New Church.7 He was active in the church’s Cherry Street Society and while still a student at the PAFA was asked to teach drawing in the Academy School for the fall of 1885, in essence, becoming their first art teacher.8

Browne continued his artistic studies with the major instructors at the school—Thomas Eakins (1844-1916), Thomas Pollock Anshutz (1851-1912), and Thomas Hovenden (1840-1895)—until the spring of 1887. He seems to have been quite successful, as he was awarded the Second Toppin Prize at the 1887 annual Academy exhibition.9 After spending the summer of 1887 painting landscapes and enjoying the company of well-known artist Abbott H. Thayer (1849-1921) in Rockport, Massachusetts, the young artist sailed for France in the fall, ready for more intense study, having convinced his parents that support of a thirty-some year old budding artist would be a worthwhile venture.10

In Paris Browne entered the Académie Julian, to study with Jules Joseph Lefebvre (1836-1911).11 He shared rooms with Wilton Lockwood (1862-1914) also a Massachusetts native. Lockwood already spoke French and Browne was working to learn the language quickly as it was a requirement to sit for entrance at the Ecolé des Beaux-Arts where he wished to study.12 It was likely in late spring of 1888 that he took the entrance examinations. His previous studies served him well as he placed 15th among the eighty accepted from the four hundred prospective students and by June he had already begun his studies with Jean Leon Gérôme (1824-1904).13 That July Browne sketched landscapes in Écouen, a rural area about thirteen miles north of Paris, with the noted sheep painter August Friedrich Schenck (1828-1901) offering criticism.14 In 1889 Browne had one of his works accepted into the Universal Exposition in Paris15 and the following summer he conducted his own sketching classes in Auvers.16 Attempting to remain practical under the financial support of his parents he also entered classes with Pierre-Victor Galland (1822-1892).17 Browne also shared his atelier with American sculptor Cyrus Edwin Dallin (1861-1944), who even at that time was working on themes of Native Americans.18 In his last year at the École, he had work accepted for the Glasgow Exhibition and Gérôme placed seven of his sketches in a student exhibition with the other ateliers. It is clear that also in this last year Browne had begun to think about using his training back home in the States. While he continued working primarily with Gérôme, he also began to study decoration, a more dependable commercial trade, with P. V. Galland.19

By December of 1891, Browne had returned to the States and was working out his finances to go to New York City.20 However, before this transpired Browne was drawn to Chicago, as was nearly every other accomplished young artist in America, to assist with the preparations for the World’s Columbian Exposition. Browne had met a fellow École student, George Lawrence Schreiber (1862-1940), while visiting New York City and Schreiber asked Browne to join him in Chicago for a possible mural commission. The commission came through and Browne was in Chicago by March of 1892 with Schreiber to complete the mural decorations for the Children’s Building.21

Chicago during the World’s Columbian Exposition was a heady place for any artist. The exposition brought in over 21.5 million paid admissions and its preparation had created a gathering place for the best of American artists in a city ripe for cultural growth. Towering figures of the art world such as Daniel Burnham (1846-1912), Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907), Daniel Chester French (1850-1931), Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) and others all worked on the exposition plans. In the words of one scholar, “For Chicagoans, the fair became a landmark in the history of their city, changing former opinions of Chicago as ‘Porkopolis,’ and opening up a new era of civic commitment and cultural flowering in the Midwest.”22 Browne’s career following his move to Chicago was deeply shaped by the kind of cultural desires and expectations the exposition left in its wake—and the mixture of these expectations with the disappointments experienced as a result of the deep economic depression that followed.

On one hand, artists including Browne felt sharply the lack of patronage and cultural support after the ebullience of exposition activities. Browne seems to have scraped around a bit looking for his place in the community.23 He accepted a position as an art instructor at Beloit College in the fall of 1893.24 This position was dropped in the ensuing economic depression, though he was re-appointed the following fall to teach cast drawing, life drawing, and painting classes.25 While Chicago artists responded for the most part to this economic and cultural depression by banding together in various ways, Browne also relied heavily on his involvement in the New Church, the church of the Swedenborgian faith in the United States.  As he wrote to a fellow New Church member, “The Church has been the one thing that has held me in this hopelessly unartistic city.”26 His association with the Swedenborgian faith was deeply held and he remained closely associated with his church friends for the remainder of his life.27 He was active in the founding of the New Church in Glenview, just north of Chicago, attended the dedication of its first building in 1894, and taught an art class there that Winter.28

Though Browne bemoaned the lack of artistic support in his newly adopted city, he, like many others, was invigorated by the possibilities suggested by the temporary artistic community experienced during the exposition. The remaining artists like Browne felt a heightened awareness of the benefits and the possibilities especially available to a young, becoming city like Chicago. There was a flush of community activity marked by closeness and an insistence that the native area, Chicago, could and should be fertile ground for artistic inspiration. Practicing artists created organizations to support and provide camaraderie for each other as well as to promote regional art. Browne was one of the artists most active in such matters, matched in his enthusiasm and dedication by a core of fellow Chicagoans that included the sculptor Lorado Taft (1860-1936), the painters Ralph Elmer Clarkson (1861-1942) and Oliver Dennett Grover (1861-1927), and the writer Hamlin Garland (1860-1940).29

A selected listing of Browne’s artistic and civic activities in Chicago, equally matched by these other artists, is indicative of this climate and of Browne’s thorough involvement and leadership in its creation. He was a founder of the Central Art Association (this organization will be treated in-depth later); a founder of the Cosmopolitan Club of Chicago and served as its secretary and president;30 he served several terms as trustee and president of the Chicago Society of Artists;31 a charter member of the Cliff Dwellers; director and vice president of the Chicago Watercolor Club;32 he served two terms as the director of the Municipal Art League; an honorary member of the Palette & Chisel Club; secretary and president of the Society of Western Artists;33 a founder and trustee of the Arts Club of Chicago; and board member and president of the Artists’ Guild.34

One of the earliest widely influential social communities to form amidst the Chicago art world in the void of the exposition was the “Little Room,” of which Browne was a founding member. While the date this group began their meetings has come into question, current research dates it to 1897. The group took its name from the short story by Madeleine Yale Wynne (1847-1918), also one of the founding members, in which a little room appears or disappears depending on the need of the visitor.35 This seemed to fit the character of the Chicago group as well. Inclusion was congenial, though held to persons of artistic endeavors and interests. As one writer has described the group, “The Little Room was neither exclusively intellectual nor exclusively artistic; its importance lay not in its production of art, but in the degree to which it both comprised and symbolized the largest official acceptance of the arts as a living cultural force which Chicago had been able to achieve.”36

While such activities were social in demeanor, they constituted the flush of esprit des corps at the basis of much more rigorously artistic endeavors such as the Central Art Association, formed in 1894, of which Browne was also a founding member. The Association’s motto, “For the promotion of good art and its dispersion among the people,” echoed perfectly the kind of civic-mindedness that shaped nearly every activity in Browne’s career and he jumped into the work of the Association with a true belief it’s the goals. The organization offered those institutions that joined as members traveling exhibitions complete with lectures and the opportunity to purchase works. They wrote pamphlets to train the Midwestern audience in the appreciation of the arts and provided a “bureau of criticism” for young artists in remote towns to receive suggestions about their own work.37 As Taft’s sister recalled:

“A group of congenial spirits zealous for reform gathered often in his [Taft’s] studio….Hamlin Garland…Charles Francis Browne….They were exhilarated by the feeling that Chicago was new ground where they could plant seeds that would enrich the city. Its newness was an incentive to creativeness. It gave them confidence and quickened their energies as an old city might not have done. They started a traveling art exhibit, spending hours repacking boxes of paintings to send out again to the different towns of the middle west. Lorado, with Hamlin and Charles, who called themselves the triumvirate, wrote little pamphlets on Impressionism, and felt, oh, so liberal and progressive for daring to introduce such radicals as Monet, Theodore Robinson, and Twachtman, who ‘painted shadows blue’! They felt they were making a contribution to the community and they were woven into the warp and weft of the big city and became part of it.”38

Browne was indeed one of the ‘Triumvirate.’ In the pamphlet of which Taft’s sister spoke, “Impressions on Impressionism,” Browne took the voice of the ‘conservative painter’ in a conversation with Taft as the ‘sculptor’ and Garland as the ‘novelist.’39 Browne’s viewpoint would be easy to understand as he protested “vigorously against being called an impressionist” yet he [got] in altogether too much sunshine for an artist who insists on belonging to the purely conventional school.”40 While the writers did espouse the acceptance of Impressionism, they did so within nativist terms—or terms empathetic to the regional artist. According to the ‘conservative painter’ the impression of the scene was good, so long as it expressed what the artist felt, “nature seen with reverential eyes.”41 However, he continued that, “When you see the technique, it’s bad; when you feel too much color, it’s bad—when anything is vague and incomprehensible it’s bad.”42 To the ‘conservative painter’ art had to be about more than formal concerns as well. As he admonished, “Painting
is more than paint, and sunlight is more than orange and purple, and a landscape as well as a figure means more than a symphony of color, a pang in grey, or a ‘whoop in violet’. We painters must think beyond our tools or we won’t do much.”43

While the three critics supported Impressionism as long as the style was a means and not an artistic end, they all agreed that what was disturbing about Impressionism was its favoring of foreign styles and subject matter. Browne was an enthusiastic apologist for regional artists working in the native scene. As the ‘conservative painter’ of the pamphlet, he asserted that, “We will never have any home art with the real home flavor unless we are in close touch with what’s around us here….Is a Brittany peasant more to us than everything else? Haven’t we outdoor subjects in our fields, or our mountains, by our glorious lakes, on the shores of our loud sounding seas? We assuredly have. American art must be developed by the artists in happy sympathy with American surroundings, and supported by a public loving the home things more than imported foreign sentiment.”44

Certainly with this sentiment in mind in 1894 Browne, Hermon Atkins MacNeil (1866-1947) and Edward Kemeys (1843-1907), both sculptors, spent part of their Summer at the Chippewa reservation in Wisconsin making sketches of the American equivalent of the “Brittany peasant.”45 It appears from this trip a bust of Browne by MacNeil resulted as it was exhibited later that October in the American Annual exhibition at the Art Institute.46 The two had become fast friends, probably helped along by the fact they were both Massachusetts men in the West. Browne brought back a great many sketches for completion in his studio. They varied from indoor depictions of the Indians to outdoor landscapes that incorporated everyday Indian life.47

Extending this new interest, the following summer Hamlin Garland, MacNeil and Browne went on a tour of Indian lands in Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico, each taking large numbers of sketches and notes and returning with the requisite “Indian curios.”48 Upon their return Browne and MacNeil held a reception in their new studio on the seventeenth floor of the Marquette building to display to the Chicago art world their new-found “American” subject matter.49 Profusely decorated with artifacts from their trip west, the studio was for some time the subject of delight to its visitors. The curios were so numerous that one critic commented the artists likely hadn’t any funds left and the Indians likely had no wearing apparel or bedding left. So much material was brought back that the critic stated the Art Institute would be filled if it were put on canvas or cast in bronze.50

Unfortunately for Browne, he was about to lose his best friend and studio mate to good fortune. At the end of November it was announced MacNeil had won the Rinehart Scholarship from the Peabody Institute in Baltimore. The prize carried with it use of a villa, travel expenses and a $1,000 per year stipend. MacNeil for his part was said to have mixed feelings at his good fortune and sadness of leaving behind his adopted city and good friends.51 MacNeil was never to return to Chicago, moving instead to New York after his studies in Rome.52

Inspired by the Native American, Browne completed several portraits, unusual in his oeuvre, in addition to landscapes and Indian genre scenes. His portraits are typical of the accepted approach to Indian portraiture. In Nai-u-chi (Sid Richardson Collection of Western Art, Ft. Worth), Browne labeled the portrait with the sitter’s name, tribe, tribal position, and date. Naiuchi is depicted bust-length, in three-quarter view, and rendered in the broad brushwork and strong anatomy that shows clear evidence of his figure training under Gérôme.53 Naiuchi was a well-known Indian to Anglos because of his position as the elder brother, or chief priest, in the Bow Society, the most prestigious and secretive of the Zuni esoteric orders. The Bow Society, and Naiuchi, had been written about extensively by ethnologists of the time, particularly by the ethnologist Frank Cushing, who had gained great notoriety among Anglos for his initiation into the Bow Society.54

Browne emulated the idea of local subject matter in his more typical genre, landscape, as well. While his travels to Europe and the coastal Massachusetts provided material for numerous landscapes, his greatest source of inspiration came from participation in summer sketching outside Chicago.55 In 1894 Browne, tired from his travels among the Ojibwa, was coerced into joining a group of sculptors, being the only painter, including Taft, MacNeil, Charles Mulligan (1866-1916), Elizabeth (Carrie) Brooks [MacNeil] (1866-1944), Edward Kemeys, Julia Bracken [Wendt] and Bessie Potter [Vonnoh] at Bass Lake, Indiana, for the summer.56 For the next three years a growing congenial group of artists summered there, strengthening personal and artistic bonds.57 Browne’s work from these local areas aroused critical attention equally for their local subject matter as for their style.58 A reviewer from 1898 noted, “Even the conservative painter, Charles Francis Browne, is represented by some landscapes in the exhibitions this winter that suggest his ability to find the atmosphere he goes in search of every summer. Bass Lake… [is] a dreamy symphony of poetical motion and color.”59 His material from these summer outings was sparking success in his career as in 1898, the prestigious Arché club, purchased his Moonlight, Bass Lake, Indiana (location unknown) from the annual exhibit of Chicago artists at the Art Institute.60

When a malaria scare at Bass Lake persuaded the artists to find other summer digs, they took up an offer by Chicago attorney and art patron, Wallace Heckman, to settle on land within his summer estate, Ganymede Farm. Founded July 1, 1898, the Eagle’s Nest Art Colony, overlooking the Rock River just four miles north of Oregon, Illinois, was chartered by an initial group of eleven that included Browne, Taft, Grover, and Clarkson.61 The group found the landscape particularly suited to their tastes with broad sweeping skies, the Rock River below a long series of bluffs and thickly forested sections:

“[they] used the whole panorama as their studios. They found plenty of subjects, such as the long-remembered ‘vervaine year,’ when all our gentle hills were clothed in blue and lavender.”62

The camaraderie that had begun at Bass Lake was even more closely felt, as on May 21, 1898, Browne was married to Doctoria Turbia Taft Newberry, one of Taft’s sisters.63 Likewise, another of Taft’s sisters, Zulime, a sculptress64, married Hamlin Garland.65 Taft, Clarkson, and Browne all built permanent structures at the camp; Browne’s cottage, complete with stone fireplace and a second floor, was located just east of the camp house.66

While the artists certainly sketched and sculpted, the camp was equally known for its various costume parties, boating trips, dinners, and general summer diversions to be expected from a group of congenial, creative, artistic people on break from the demands of the city.67 As one scholar has noted, “While the rest of the country was sweltering in trailing skirts, starched shirts, high collars and ties, these colonists were enjoying the most casual of casual wear. The women wore their hair in braids, Indian fashion, and wore short skirts and dresses with low necks. Taft and Grover sported the black beret of Paris student days, while Charles Francis Browne wore wide corduroy trousers.”68 Browne’s personal connection to the colony was strengthened in 1900 when his only son, Charles, Jr., was born at the camp. Charlie, from all accounts, equally enjoyed the freedom of the camp and the opportunity for pranks and high-spirited childhood adventures it offered.

Browne’s life in Chicago as well became more centered in 1898 with the completed construction of the Fine Arts Building.69 Artist’s studios were located on the 10th floor and nearly every other kind of artistic endeavor filled the remaining floors. Chicago had a center for its artistic culture and Browne’s studio was located there until 1909.70 Again, this center was neither economic nor artistic only, but equally social and Browne seemed to join into the impromptu events enthusiastically. As Anna Morgan remembered, “The Fine Arts Building… was a blending of the social with the artistic life in the studios that was truly delightful… visitors were frequent… it was a show place in the town, a rendezvous where you were sure to see interesting people… on the 10th floor, which was exclusively an artists’ colony… not only afternoon teas but night spreads, generally in the Browne studio, were of weekly occurrence… there was an informality, a comradeship that is sweet to remember.”71

Browne increased the power of his artistic thoughts by writing. He began contributing in 1895 as an art critic for the Chicago Sunday Tribune and as a writer for The Arts and Arts for America (Central Art Association publications, once superseding the other). In 1897 Browne served as editor (until 1900) of Brush and Pencil magazine.72 The publication format included several lengthy articles about local artists—often written by Browne himself—that are still notable for their clear writing, insightful criticism, and accurate information. The issues also included reviews of exhibitions and events in the Chicago art world, good coverage of national art events, and advertising and announcements from the commercial art community. Complementing this role of critic, Browne also served on an extensive number juries for local exhibitions including the Art Institute of Chicago, Artists’ Guild of Chicago, Cosmopolitan Art Club, Society of Western Artists, Municipal Art League, and even for national exhibitions like the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts’ annual exhibition.73

As the 1890s closed and a new century beckoned, Browne’s stability within the core group of Chicago artists strengthened. He continued his interest in the creation of a supportive, intelligent, democratic and cohesive art community in Chicago. In 1897, he participated in the formation of the Chicago Art Association (known after 1900 as the Municipal Art League). The organization was created through the merging of the various arts organizations in Chicago, by one account numbering thirty-four, in an attempt to consolidate the support of local artists. As Browne wrote:

“The unification of the various art interests with the women’s and other clubs into a concerted movement, focusing in the exhibition of the work of Chicago artists…was the most important step toward progress that our local art has experienced…. general taste must be improved, and it can best be developed through judicious exercise of taste. The prize system places the choice largely in the hands of artists, while the purchasing idea would place the choice where it belongs—with the people who furnish the money and who are to be benefited by what is purchased….An artist paints to give pleasure to others, and his usefulness, ability, his power to create, are increased by knowing that his work is being scattered and admired.”74

The ideas and associations that had the flush of youthful enthusiasm and esprit de corps in the actions of the Central Art Association were continued with the force, political pull, and critical push of a mature leader in the Chicago art world.75

Browne’s influence had also solidified when was hired to teach at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1895, a position he held until 1910. His assignments covered a wide range of courses from antique, artistic anatomy, history of art, drawing and painting still life and from life, composition, and mural decoration, though he most regularly taught anatomy and lectured on art history.76 Browne entered into school life with the same leadership and enthusiasm seen in his other artistic activities. By all indications, ‘Browne the teacher’ held very clear ideas about the rigors of artistic learning and his adherence to them, at least in life drawing, gained notoriety among the students. One writer recorded that:

“Mr. Browne has been given the title ‘Dark Browne’ by some facetious pupils, from his insistence, in and out of season, of the importance of light and shade as a vital means of expression in drawing, and in his classes from life he has advocated the employment of a background so that the figure might be studied in tone and in its environment or surrounding. This had been his panacea and aid to connect the work of the outline draughtsman with the painting classes. His ardor for these theories has awakened considerable enthusiasm among his pupils and not a little criticism from the ‘outlinists’.”77

That Browne was not above the enthusiasms of student life and was a favored teacher despite, or because of, his rigor is indicated in the students’ burlesque of him. The event of the year for the art students was a costume parade that burlesqued the school and its teachers. Browne was highlighted in the 1901 parade when his anatomy class had one of their female students dress in a beard and white linen work suit pulling along a skeleton.78 Some years later he was called “one of the best beloved” teachers.79 Browne also offered his summers to the extra-curricular activities of his students. He taught in 1901 at Macataw Bay, Michigan, with University of Illinois professor Frank Forrest Frederick;80 held his own summer classes for three summers from 1907-09 at Grand Detour, Illinois;81 and one in 1912 at Wilmot, Wisconsin.82

Though his painting style was to change by 1904, the works from this earlier period were praised especially for their refined effects and depictions of clouds. For instance, a reviewer of a work in 1900 expressed:

“There is a man in the city who paints without any efforts after astonishing combinations….[his painting] tells the story in plain language….[he shows] knowledge and true feeling for juxtaposition of lines….the artist’s management of the honest blue sky and those big cumulous clouds is very satisfying…to tell the simple story of a summer’s day, of its light and glow, of its commonplace colors and effects, and to tell them convincingly and still charmingly, means a chosen selection of good words, just right words, words softly spoken. So this artist talks in select brushstrokes, every one plainly uttered, every one tender but firm, visible, fitting its neighbor stroke. It is not easy to do, this summer landscape, without any extravagant gestures or straining after smartness.”83

Such works garnered attention locally and nationally. While Browne showed heavily in local Chicago exhibitions, his work was also accepted in the annual exhibitions of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the National Academy of Design, the Society of Western Artists, and the Carnegie Institute International. Browne’s work was also accepted into the major expositions of the period, including the Wold’s Columbian Exposition in 1893; Trans-Mississippi & International Universal in 1898; Paris Universal Exposition in 1900; Pan-American Exposition in 1901; St. Louis Universal Exposition in 1904; Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition in 1905, and Panama-Pacific Exposition in 1915.84

Falling back on his own student training, Browne was also a leader in the development of Institute curricula. In 1906 he and fellow instructor Thomas Wood Stevens (1880-1942) oversaw the completion of ten murals depicting old English sports in the Institute refectory.85 The following year mural painting, along with decorative line composition and etching, was added to the curriculum.86 The first class, again under the direction of Browne and Wood, completed three large murals for the auditorium of the Elm Place Grammar School.87

Browne carried his student lecturing to a much wider art public. In fact, between what is most likely his first Chicago lecture as part of his activities with the Central Art Association in 1894, to the end of his career, Browne gave hundreds of lectures to groups including high schools, women’s clubs, cultural clubs, art students, exhibition openings and at the Art Institute lecture series.88 His topics were equally varied, ranging from Italian art, Scottish art, landscape painting, history of American art, the Art Institute as a democratic center, his various international trips, to lectures on actual works in the Art Institute galleries. In fact, Browne was so involved in teaching and lecturing during this time that it was noted by critics. In 190289, when Browne exhibited a large group of his works at O’Brien’s, a popular commercial art gallery, the Chicago Evening Post critic lamented, “For the first time in many years Charles Francis Browne exhibits a collection of his paintings. From time to time one or two landscapes have appeared, leading the art-loving public to hope that he had found leisure in his busy days of teaching and lecturing to devote a few hours to the development of an undeniable talent for landscape painting.”90

After the close of the school term in 1903 Browne left for an extended European visit, not having been back since his student days. Though he spent some time in France, the majority of his stay was spent in southwest Scotland, painting en plein-air with artists known as the Glasgow School, even showing one of his works in the Glasgow Exhibition.91 Upon his return he had a solo exhibition of sixty-six works at the Art Institute of Chicago to much critical acclaim about the change this trip had wrought in his style.92 Field and Sky (location unknown), his entry in the 1905 Art Institute of Chicago American annual, won the Martin B. Cahn prize for best painting by a Chicago artist, where it was noted the work, along with Robert Henri’s (1865-1929) prize winning painting, A Lady in Black “easily led in popularity93 One critic noted his stylistic change with the prize winning piece:

“The canvas of summer fields over-shadowed by floating clouds was a new departure for Mr. Browne. He has painted with a careful brush, and made many canvases agreeable in composition and color, but none before that had such special distinction. It was painted largely with the palette-knife, and, in a way, was a reminder of the skies of Maris or kindred Dutch painters, who catch the blue of upper air, the moist of the gray mist, and the billowy whiteness of cloud masses under the summer sun."94

Likewise the reviewer for the Chicago Record-Herald noted the change in Browne’s work, reporting, “In this landscape [Field and Sky] Mr. Browne shows a radical departure from his former method. Going into broad impressionism at a bound as he does, he surprises his admirers, and pleasantly. The coloring in the prize winner is all in blues and drabs and the paint…is put on in clots and ridges after the most advanced impressionistic manner.”95

Though the reviews of Browne’s work suggest a sudden relinquishing of his conservative posture, by 1904 the Glasgow School had become an accepted sub-group of the general trend toward naturalism begun by the Barbizon painters and pushed to extreme by the Impressionists. The school espoused a direct approach to painting landscapes through en plein-air painting; simplified palettes and compositions of the Tonalists; loose, wide brushstrokes that created a more active surface; and a moody, poetic atmosphere created by cool tones and grays.96 Certainly Browne’s oeuvre had expanded with his time away as mentioned by an art critic who said, “During his year abroad Mr. Browne has enlarged his scope very perceptibly and has developed in accordance.”97

Indeed, Browne’s new paintings of 1904 reflect this approach. In 1906, Browne’s change of style received an extended discussion by James Pattison in the Sketch Book. Pattison noted:

“Now Charles Francis Browne has declared his independence and gone over to the lovable line of rebels. I presume that he still lugs that package of ‘traps’ out to the frosty meadows, but there is a different attitude now in his worship. He has ceased to ‘grovel’ before the god of Truth…in ‘Field and Sky’…there is no troublesome array of useless weeds, bushes or other rubbish. It is a servant to a more worthy master, the hill in the air…no effort at elaborating trees, though we know well that a little forest blankets the slopes. All this is but a servant to the immensity of the sky, the soaring place for birds and clouds, the refuge of summer light, the bigness of aerial space…. Browne used to pay much attention to truths of color, the color of an autumnal tree, of one green tree against another green one, of the color of summer grass or winter dryness. Here he tells us only of tones, plays with two or three trifles of harmony…. Does anything so proclaim the arrived master as the ability to suggest great things with select and slightly differential tones, tones and no definite local color?”98

With the stylistic change came extraordinary success as in 1906 he garnered the Young Fortnightly Club Prize,99 Municipal Art League Prize for Group of Pictures,100 Mrs. William Frederick Grower Prize, at the annual exhibit of Chicago artists at the Art Institute and the important Fine Arts Building Prize at the Society of Western Artists annual.101

Upon his return from abroad at the end of 1908 it became evident Browne’s style had further developed in an impressionistic, tonalist direction after a 1908 sojourn to France, especially in terms of creating a mood through an even greater simplification of his palette and compositions.102 His entries in the Society of Western Artists annual for the 1908/09 season upon arriving in Chicago were once again awarded the Fine Arts Building Prize.103 Five months later he followed this success with an exhibition at the Fine Arts Building in 1909, which received notice of continued development:

“This group of pictures has a completeness denied earlier works. The paintings winning the prize of the Western Artists approached it,104 but these play on another theme….They are distinguished by simplicity…these harmonies of color above river, hills, the sky and the vegetation call for echoes in the mind, they have harmonies of their own translated form the emotion produced by the landscape under its mood….the strength…is to be found in the decision, the personal note, and the free exercise of artistic power to grasp a mood. The exhibition is one of the memorable ones of the year.”105

The same year Browne was divorced from his wife. The cause of separation was reportedly due to a difference in “temperament.” However it seems Tubby, as she was affectionately known was in the hunt for more income than her husband could provide.106 The marital stir caused some commotion in Chicago society as the Brownes were noted close friends of the wealthiest of artists in town, those with closest ties to the social elite.107

Browne’s inherent artistic conservatism, as well as his well-established leadership in the Chicago art community, is given full expression in his response to the International Exhibition of Modern Art, better known as the “Armory Show” that traveled from its venue in New York City to the Art Institute in 1913. As one of the most popular art lecturers both to the Chicago public and to its students, as well as the current president of the Society for Western Artists, Browne’s dismissal and castigation of the Modern artwork was widely quoted and respected. On March 25th, one day after the exhibition opened to the public, Browne spoke to a full house at Fullerton Hall in the Art Institute where he questioned the sincerity of the artists, asking “In this movement how many are leaders and how many merely camp followers?”108 He characterized the works as a “toss-up between madness and humbug,” and focussed on van Gogh’s insanity, the immorality of Gauguin’s life in Tahiti, and Matisse’s supposed assertions that his child’s paintings were masterpieces. Two days later he spoke at a ball held to spoof the cubist works where works were mocked in life through costume and music, all with a harsh sarcastic tone.109 As an Art Institute instructor, Browne was in a powerful position when he encouraged his students to dismiss the exhibition.110

Several art organizations publicly ridiculed the exhibition as well. Two days after the exhibition opening the Chicago Society of Artists sponsored a “Futurist Party” at the Art Institute in which the attendees behaved and dressed as bizarrely as they could imagine in order to “stage a hilarious parody of works by artists who seemed so entirely beyond the pale as to be utterly ridiculous.”111 The Cliff Dwellers, another local artist group to which Browne belonged, also took on the exhibition in their own way by hanging satires of the modern works in their clubrooms atop the Orchestra Hall Building. “Earl Howell Reed (1863-1931), who with Charles Francis Browne and Louis Betts (1873-1961) constitute the art committee of the Cliff Dwellers, started the ball rolling by dashing off sixteen cubist works in a couple of hours. A.M. Rebort did a cubist impression of the head of Hamlin Garland in less than twenty minutes…. Taft with a picture of ‘A Nude Eating Soup With a Fork,’ done in sixty strokes…. It is all one mad riot of color and composition.”112

Browne himself admitted that such non-traditional modes of art would never make sense to him. In one of his public lectures on the exhibition he stated that, “I talked all night with a cubist in Paris. He called me a blackguard; I called him another. That’s as much as either of us got out of the chat.”113 However, Browne’s entrenchment in traditional painting never allowed him to even consider that such works had any validity or that their challenge to traditional painting might be as fundamental as they indeed were. In another of his lectures, Browne assured his audience and maybe himself as well, that “time will have its way with the cubists, and it will not be long until they are only a memory.”114

Browne’s activity as an ‘official voice’ of the art world grew to a national voice in 1913 when he was appointed superintendent for the U.S. Section of the Department of Fine Arts in the Panama-Pacific International Exposition.115 He had, in part, been readied for the selection by his 1910 appointment as the Assistant U.S. Commissioner for the International Exposition in Buenos Aires and Santiago, Chile.116 Browne left for France in late July 1913 to inform American artists working in France of the committee and process for selection. He spent the summer, however, to his own benefit, sketching in the French countryside near Les Andelys with another rather tonalist artist, Alexis Jean Fournier (1865-1948).117 The results of this trip were shown at the Artists’ Guild galleries in Chicago’s Fine Arts Building. Included were five scenes of Chateau Gaillard rising above the river, which showed a “sense of drama in nature’s contrasts of color.”118

Browne’s typical democratic ideals seen from his early work with the Central Art Association and strengthened in his lobbying for the Chicago Art Association held sway with his selection of works on a national level. A reporter for the Chicago Evening Post wrote, “It is interesting…to consider the stand taken by Charles Francis Browne in regard to the exhibition of American paintings at the San Francisco exhibition. Mr. Browne is sturdily opposed to the greediness of individuals who would take whole walls and galleries. ‘No man has a right to space for a dozen pictures, while he may be keeping eleven others out of the gallery….Let us be fair to our painters, give the modest man who has neither friends nor influence a chance and limit the big men to two exhibits at the most. In that way we can secure a genuinely representative exhibition of American painters.’”119

It was on the strength of his international art activities that in some circles he was considered a replacement for the recently deceased director of the Art Institute, William M. R. French. While his name was mentioned, most likely among art circles, the directors and wealthy patrons of the museum would no doubt have other thoughts, so it never came to pass.120

Browne’s personal life suffered a deep tragedy in August of 1916 when his son, Charlie, Jr., broke his neck while diving off a pier at Palisades Park, near South Haven, Michigan. After Browne’s divorce from his wife, Charlie had lived with Annie and Seymour Nelson, members of the Glenview New Church society. Charlie was with the Nelson’s at their summer cottage in Michigan when the accident happened.121 He was immediately paralyzed from the waist down. He was taken by boat to Chicago’s Washington Park hospital where he underwent an operation for the removal of a fractured vertebra. He was not expected to recover, and he died the evening of the operation, August 6, 1916, at the age of seventeen.122 Browne took consolation in his faith and his connections to the New Church, particularly with those old friends from Bryn Athyn, became even closer in the following years.123

In 1918 Browne was awarded the most prestigious of all prizes for Chicago artists, the Silver Medal of the Chicago Society of Artists awarded for the most meritorious group of paintings at the annual show of Chicago artists at the Art Institute.124 Later that year he traveled to Santa Barbara for an extended stay with Hobart C. Chatfield-Taylor, formerly of Chicago.125 In early May of 1919 Browne suffered a stroke that left him bed-ridden for over a month. Though he returned to Eagle’s Nest that July intending to spend the remaining summer there, he was still too ill to work and was admitted to the Henrotin hospital. After nearly a month of recovery in the hospital, he was taken to reside with the Nelson’s in Glenview.126 The clearest and most telling evidence of Browne’s position in the Chicago art world, as well as the personal respect his ideals had garnered, was shown in the response of the art world to his difficulties. Headed up by Ralph Clarkson, and officially overseen by the Governor and Mrs. Frank O. Lowden, a tribute exhibition of twenty-five canvases opened at the Art Institute on December 16, 1919, in order to raise funds to help support the ailing artist.127 Over forty names in the Chicago art world served on the committee and nearly every major art organization held receptions at the exhibition, including the Cliff Dwellers, Cordon Club, Arts Club, Municipal Art League, Friends of American Art, Chicago Society of Artists, Arché Club, Little Room, and Chicago Woman’s Club. Purchases from the exhibition raised $12,000.128

Most telling are the tributes printed in nearly every Chicago paper. After an extended tribute to Browne’s citizenship, Marguerite Williams of the Chicago Daily News continued: “Mr. Browne’s exhibition of quiet landscape might easily be overlooked by the casual visitor to the Art Institute. Though they do not shout to the throngs because of their size, technique or subject, they are none the less full of sincerity, refinement and a certain amount of poetic feeling.” She then quoted Lorado Taft’s tribute from the exhibition’s catalogue: “the land and sky that one desires to remember are Mr. Browne’s engrossing theme. His pictures are livable companions. Unlike many, they do not wear out and speedily reveal their emptiness.”129 Equally, critic Lena M. McCauley championed Browne’s leadership in the development of the art world in Chicago, stating: “he was the pioneer in calling attention to the beauty of the winding Rock River….It is pleasant to review years of advance in any profession, yet far more wonderful is it to be able to live with a growing city, to watch it develop in its pride and to take note of those things of the spirit that make for the nobler side of life.”130

Even before the benefit exhibition, Browne had spoken to his friends at Bryn Athyn about moving back East when he had recovered. He discussed possibly reworking the curriculum of the Academy art department with his old friend N. Dandridge Pendleton and to Enoch Price he had written, “I am nourishing an idea which I must thoroughly examine of making my home in Bryn Athyn.”131 Browne did move back to live with his mother and brother, Roger, in Waltham in the winter of 1920. He died at his mother’s home on March 20, 1920, as a result of another stroke.132 Browne left the residue of his estate, about $14,000 plus over sixty paintings, to the Academy, which used the monies as a fund for scholarships in honor of his devotion to New Church education.133 The Congress Hotel in Chicago purchased the remainder of the paintings in his estate as use for decorating their hotel rooms.134

Browne moved to Chicago at a time when artists felt as passionate about the promise of the city as an art center as they did about creating their own art. Browne’s career, in essence, paralleled that of the art community in Chicago. He was untiring in his work towards the realization of an art community that had a sense of its own identity. He dedicated his time to educating the Midwestern public towards a greater understanding and patronage of local art. Lastly, he created a body of landscapes characterized, if by their conservative nature, then also by their directness and honesty in recording the artist’s responses to nature.

Lorado Taft provided a moving tribute to Browne at close of a fine life and career:

“No one among us has contributed more abundantly of his time to the service of the community… All of this activity combined with earnest, unremitting and valuable aid… would seem to be enough for one man. But… Mr. Browne, the citizen, has ever been first and foremost an artist. Never have we known a man more in love with nature… When one thinks of the joy that he has been able to record and to carry over to other hearts… it seems as though the most enviable of all estates is to be a landscape painter – a landscape painter like Charles Francis Browne!”135


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