Benjamin Chambers Brown (1865–1942)
Benjamin Chambers Brown was among the first Arkansas artists to attain national and international recognition as a painter, lithographer, and etcher. He is best known for his plein-air impressionist landscapes of California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains and expanses of brilliantly colored poppy fields. His works are in major museums in the United States and Europe, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington DC and the British Museum in London, England.
Benjamin Brown was born in Marion (Crittenden County) on July 14, 1865, one of five children born to Judge Benjamin Chambers Brown and Mary Booker Brown. He spent much of his boyhood in Little Rock (Pulaski County).
Brown’s parents wanted him to become an attorney, but he wanted to be an artist. In 1884, after attending the University of Tennessee, Brown began his art studies at the St. Louis School of Fine Arts in Missouri, later a department of Washington University, under Paul Harney and John Fry. In 1886, following a family trip to California seeking to improve his father’s health, Brown returned to Arkansas and settled in Little Rock. Later that year, Brown again entered the St. Louis School of Fine Arts and was enrolled there until 1888.
In 1890, Brown and two artist friends, William Griffith and Edmund Wuerpel, traveled to Paris, France, for study at the Académie Julian under Jean-Paul Laurens and Benjamin Constant. After returning from France, Brown opened his own art school in Little Rock and built a prosperous career as a portrait painter. Brown was one of a small enclave of artists in Little Rock during the late 1800s. Others in the group included Jenny Delony Rice and Maude Spiller Holt.
In 1896, following the death of his father, Brown, his mother, and younger brother, Howell, moved to Pasadena, California. Brown found little demand for his portraits in California and turned instead to painting landscapes. He was among the early artists of the area to paint in the impressionist style. Brown developed a distinctive bold style filled with bright colors.
Brown retained close ties with Arkansas and its art community. When his hometown of Marion celebrated its centennial anniversary in 1925, Brown presented the town with a landscape painting, Sunset, Grand Canyon, Arizona. In May 1928, the Little Rock Fine Arts Club (later called the Arkansas Arts Center and then the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts) opened Arkansas’s first permanent art gallery, on the fourth floor of the Pulaski County Courthouse. The gallery’s early collection had twelve paintings, several created by club members, including Benjamin Brown’s Morning Light, Adrian Brewer’s Ozark Valley in Autumn, and May Danaher’s Old Graphite Mill. Brown’s oil on canvas depicted a sunrise over Mount Whitney with light focused on the mountain’s snow-capped peak in the distance contrasted with shadows in the foreground. Evidently, Brown’s painting was lost in 1984 while on loan to the Little Rock mayor’s office.
During his lifetime, Brown’s work was exhibited throughout the United States. Beyond Pasadena, Brown’s paintings of California vistas, the Grand Canyon, the Painted Desert, and European scenes were regularly exhibited at major venues in New York City and Los Angeles and San Francisco, California, as well as locales in Arkansas, Texas, and Missouri. Other exhibitions and awards included a silver medal at Seattle’s Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in 1909; the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art in 1915, 1917, 1918, and 1929; and the Oakland Art Gallery in 1932.
In addition, Brown displayed his work at international expositions. He exhibited in the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis. Brown won a bronze medal in the 1905 Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition in Portland, Oregon, and an etching garnered a bronze medal at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco.
Brown was active in the arts community. He was a member of the California Art Club and served as president from 1915 to 1916. He founded the Painter’s Club in 1906. In 1914, Brown, with his brother Howell, co-founded the Printmakers of Los Angeles, later named the California Society of Printmakers, and Brown served as the organization’s president until 1929. He took part in the Pasadena Society of Arts, Chicago Society of Etchers, American Federation of Artists, and the Laguna Beach Art Association.
Brown’s works can be seen today in the British Museum, Smithsonian Institution, Library of Congress, Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery, Oakland Museum of California, Kellogg Library in Kansas, New Jersey’s Montclair Art Museum, Cleveland Museum of Art in Ohio, California State Library, Boise Idaho Public Library in Ohio, Los Angeles Southwest Museum, and Pasadena Public Library, as well as the public library in Helena-West Helena (Phillips County).
Throughout 1925, Brown’s health worsened, and his artistic production decreased. While Brown’s health and productivity recovered marginally, he continued to suffer extended illnesses. Brown died of pneumonia in Pasadena on January 19, 1942. At his request, no funeral services were held. In the years since his death, Brown’s life and career accomplishments have been chronicled in more than forty-five art publications, and he has been memorialized in retrospective exhibitions many times. In October 2007, the Pasadena Museum of California Art opened an exhibition to honor his vibrant impressionist paintings. Brown was known and is today remembered in California as the dean of Pasadena painters, one of the first artists to settle and paint there.
For additional information:
Bayless, Stephanie, Daniel Benton, Teresa Lauderdale, Jennifer McCarty, Jamie Metrailer, Sara Thompson, and Deborah Baldwin. One of the Greatest Success Stories in Arkansas: Sketching the History of the Arkansas Arts Center. Little Rock: Arkansas Arts Center, 2007.
Hudson, Ralph M. “Art in Arkansas.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 3 (Winter 1944): 299–350.
Shields, Scott A., Jean Stern, and Jenkins Shannon. Benjamin Chambers Brown, 1865–1942: California Colors. Pasadena, CA: Pasadena Museum of California Art, 2007.
Thomas A. Teeter
Little Rock, Arkansas
Last Updated: 02/02/2021