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Flowers and Copper Pot on Tabletop -- Matilda Browne
Women were the exception in a man's world when it came to painting. They were reconciled to what was then considered feminine subjects among them being flowers in gardens and still lifes of flowers. For years women were prohibited from taking life study classes sketching from either male or female nudes which was the sine qua non of art study. The human body encompassed the sum total of theory. Not only was proportion studied but with it linear perspective, foreshortening, values, shading, color and color perspective as well as anatomy. The traditional course for young aspiring painters was to study meticulously the drawings of the masters copying each dot and diddle from reproductions. This was followed by sketching in the antique room from plaster casts of classical and renaissance sculpture. Once the instructor felt that his students were sufficiently competent, they graduated to life classes.
Julian Onderdonk famous for his Texas bluebonnet paintings from the Hill Country outside of San Antonio, struggled to learn anatomy and draw from plaster casts in the antique room of classes then taught by Kenyon Cox. When he graduated to life drawing, he was astonished how different the human body looked from these plaster casts. Even the color and shade differed as well as the fact that no matter how steady the model was there were traces of movement. Where the angle between feet or between shoulder and head were in one position they later shifted in an unseen manner. The art student had to compensate for those microscopic shifts. As it turned out, Onderdonk avoided figurative painting for the landscapes in which he excelled first painting scenes of Staten Island and later open prairie with flowing hills often covered with bluebonnets, Indian paintbrush, and blossoming cacti punctuated with cotton wood trees around his native San Antonio.
Unlike the women painters of the day, Matilda Browne did not just paint flower gardens. Before she embarked on painting broad landscapes, she focused on animal depictions in rural environs featuring that beloved animal of dairy farmers, the bovine. Male artists would joke about her portrayal of cows saying such things in good spirit as, “Come see Tillie's calves” (Larkin, G. Susan 2017. p.60). Yet, animal paintings were the domain of male artists. Her endeavoring to portray barnyard animals was a way of challenging a male dominated profession. She was, however, in good company with the trouser-wearing French feminist and animal painter Rosa Bonheur who in the eyes of France glorified rural life.
Zinnias and Gladiolas -- Matilda Browne
Her bucolic depictions used classical norms to portray these beasts of burden as majestic creatures. Unlike Bonheur, Browne did not set out to glorify or idealize farm animals though they were an integral part of her landscapes. However along with her passion for portraying these creatures who dragged plows or provided milk, she also had a keen interest in floral painting which was clearly at that time in the feminine domain.
Her education in the visual arts started when she was only nine initially exhibiting her work when she was in her early teens. A precocious child, she grew up in a New Jersey household where her father was a jewelry manufacturer and the arts were pursued and enjoyed. Art came before marriage and family. Thus she delayed finding the right man which would have ended her career for the sake of building a nest. Her first instructor on painting cattle was none other than Carleton Wiggins later to join her as a member of the Old Lyme Art Colony. And in the year 1888 to 1889, she was in Paris studying under Adolphe-William Bouguereau returning the next year to study at the Academie Julian. She was sidetracked not for long and resumed her study of farm animals in Holland under the American cattle painter Henry Bisbing returning to the United States in 1892 to an exciting but busy schedule for exhibiting her work.
Settling with her sister in Greenwich Connecticut, she remained active in the Greenwich Society of Artists, also loosely affiliated with the Cos Cob art colony with the likes of John H. Twachtman and Childe Hasam., and became a highly regarded member of Old Lyme being the only female painter to paint a door panel in Florence Griswold's house.
Cow Lying Down -- Matilda Browne
Although she had at times worked in the Barbizon tradition of deep contrasts between dark and light, she preferred the bright colors of Impressionism. Even though the popularity of cattle paintings declined in the early Twentieth Century, Browne continued to win awards on such themes at the National Academy of Design, Connecticut Academy of Fine Arts, and the Greenwich Society of Artists. From 1911 to 1924, she exhibited her animal pictures at the Lyme Art Association.
Not only did she also pursue floral paintings, but enjoyed gardening for herself such that her renderings of flowers flowed from an active understanding of each specie and its temperament. Her experiences overturning topsoil with a trowel, planting seeds, waiting in anticipation to see what comes up every spring, the planning of seed beds, the use of spikes or sticks to keep vines from entangling, and necessary fencing to keep unwanted critters out entered unconsciously into her paintings. But they were not solitary garden paintings. She had to have her house or that belonging to someone else captured in each of them. Human artifice and nature were clearly balanced and intertwined in her paintings.
Not all of her paintings depicted the New England countryside or her domesticated gardens. Upon the death of her mother in 1912, she accepted an invitation from friends to travel to Puerto Rico where she captured in watercolor its architecture not just of stately structures but the bodegas and peasant huts that showed the starkness of island rural life. Five years later, she married historian Frederick Van Wyck and widened her repertoire to include urban landscapes. She illustrated the memoir of her husband thus adding illustration to her bailiwick of artistic prowess.
Unlike male artists of that era, women painters' provenance was rarely found in museums but rather in private collections. Her garden variety paintings were by-and-large small in stature tailored to the domesticity of home life. Some of these works may have been commissioned by homeowners as well. This is an additional reason why her work is predominantly found in private collections.
Not part of the Ten who bucked the establishment to show independently, Matilda Browne, was also a product of their era where the influence of French painting had a profound impact on the hearts and minds of generations of American artists. When contrasting the American Impressionists with their French counterpart, one sees distinctly how and where they placed the brakes stopping short of the daring exploration that formed the trademark of their continental compadres. And Browne was a part of that trend living and breathing the rarefied air of Paris bringing back hard won skill to evolve and to unfold her own voice as one of a few American women artists who had contributed so significantly to American Impressionism in the first half of the Twentieth Century. She remains to this day an inspiration for generations of artists both female and male who followed her.
Miss Florence's -- Matilda Browne
American Art Review . Larking, “Susan G. Matilda Browne: Idlylls of Farm and Garden”. pp. 56 – 63, 111 . American Arts Media Leawood, Kansas . April 2017.