‘An elegant and irreverent painter’

February 8, 2012 § 2 Comments

William Theophilus Brown
April 7, 1919 – February 8, 2012

San Francisco Chronicle

William Theophilus Brown, an elegant and irreverent American painter and member of the venerated figurative movement who met and befriended some of history’s great artists, from Pablo Picasso to Igor Stravinsky, died Wednesday [February 8, 2012] at his home in San Francisco. He was 92.

Mr. Brown, who lived in the opulent San Francisco Towers, which he christened the “Versailles of retirement communities,” was painting until the end, said his friend and gallerist Thomas Reynolds. He had a studio a few blocks from his home and continued to participate in drawing sessions.

“Theophilus Brown was one of those rare artists who was successful at every stage of his career,” Reynolds said. “And he was always at the center of the action — in France with Picasso, in New York with (Mark) Rothko and (Willem) de Kooning, in California with the Bay Area figurative painters.”

Reynolds added, “He was everybody’s favorite dinner companion — charming to the ladies and bawdy with the boys.”

Read more

‘It seems improbable, this life’

October 2, 2011 § Leave a comment

Theophilus Brown | Photograph by Sarah Rice

San Francisco Chronicle

William Theophilus Brown walks through the opulent marble lobby of San Francisco Towers where he lives and remarks, “It’s the Versailles of retirement communities.”

Brown, who is 92, is accustomed to moving in luminous circles. From Yale to New York, Paris to Antibes, Brown studied, painted or partied with a cast of artistic giants: Pablo Picasso, Igor Stravinsky, Samuel Barber, Georges Braque, Mark Rothko, Alberto Giacometti and Willem de Kooning. Once in California, he found his own place in painting and is known as one of the members of the venerated Bay Area Figurative Movement.

“It seems improbable, this life,” Brown said. “I was so lucky running across such creative and interesting people. The encounters and friendships inspired me to take chances and to try new mediums. It freed one up from a certain rigidity. I still look forward to going to the studio, even today.”

Brown’s paintings are featured in a new show at the Thomas Reynolds Gallery in San Francisco, and a documentary is being made on his improbable life. His works are held in major California museums, from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum to the Oakland Museum and the Cantor Center at Stanford. Nationally, his paintings are at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Hirshhorn Museum at the Smithsonian.

“Sure, he’s a key player in the Bay Area Figurative Movement, but he’s far more than that,” gallerist Thomas Reynolds said. “He’s a bridge to the whole New York scene of the ’40s and ’50s, and even to postwar Paris.

“This is someone whose life and art deserve to be celebrated. He’s got more going on at 92 than most artists half his age. He’s engaged. He’s creating. And he’s still everybody’s favorite dinner companion.”

Read more

A walkthrough with the artist

October 1, 2011 § 1 Comment

Theophilus Brown is one of the great figures in 20th century California art and a pioneering member of the Bay Area Figurative Movement. At 92, he is still in his studio every day. In this video he leads a tour of “An Artful Life,” his recent exhibition at the Thomas Reynolds Gallery, offering insights into his working methods and telling stories about how some of the paintings and drawings were created.

A friendship with Theophilus Brown

September 3, 2011 § 4 Comments

Matt Gonzalez and Theophilus Brown | Photograph by Charles Gonzalez


Much has been written about Theophilus Brown the artist, but little about his personal qualities — his elegance, for instance. Everything he does, he does with style and consideration. At 92, he still wants to be sure he’s dressed appropriately for a social gathering. He listens attentively and looks carefully. He is honest, yet always encouraging, even to artists with little in common. Though well known in art circles, he makes art generously with beginners. He’s not impressed by his own renown as a member of the Bay Area Figurative Movement. Ask about it, and he’ll tell you he just wants to paint.

I first met Theophilus at the Potrero Hill home of gallery owner Charles Campbell and his wife, the artist Glenna Putt, in the early 2000s. Theophilus’s partner, the artist Paul Wonner, was alive then. Theophilus’s wit and charm and Paul’s wry humor and mischievous smile made for a wonderful afternoon of storytelling and laughter.

Soon after, I visited Theophilus and Paul in the San Francisco Towers, where they moved when they left their longtime home in Noe Valley in 2001. Theophilus had kachina dolls and a few prehistoric atlatls, known as bird stones, as reminders of his days as a serious collector. There were two Hopi dance wands, a Panamanian Cocle bowl, and, of course, paintings on the walls, including a Cezanne-like bathers scene by Wonner. One of his own early paintings of football players — an oil on canvas from 1952 — hangs over his bed. He painted it in New York and exhibited it at the museum in Davenport, Iowa, when he was en route later that year to California. The painting won a prize and his parents were proudly photographed standing beside it in a local newspaper. Theophilus bought the painting from a dealer in Massachusetts after I found it offered for sale online. It was gratifying to play a role in reuniting him with a painting he hadn’t seen in 50 years.
« Read the rest of this entry »

‘It was pretty heady’

August 31, 2011 § Leave a comment

What those hands have done: artists Manuel Neri, Theophilus Brown and Nathan Oliveira

San Francisco, August 2, 2011

Interviewer: Paul Karlstrom, formerly West Coast Regional Director of the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art

WTB: I was born in Moline, Illinois, on April 7, 1919. My father, who was an eastern boy born in Massachusetts, was forced against his will to accept a job at John Deere Plows for an invention he had made. And he met my mother there, and we had a nice, big-enough house on the top of the hill where we could watch riverboats on the Mississippi go back and forth.

My father had 160 patents to his name. And one day, when I was about six or seven years old, my father and I were waiting for my mother, who was visiting someone in a hospital. And to kill time, he pulled out a blank notebook and showed me how to draw the houses across the street. I was fascinated. So the next day or two he gave me a blank drawing book which I kept for about five years, working on it continually — not necessarily every day, but I finally filled it up when I was about 11 years old.

When I was 11, I made a drawing of my father asleep, a profile in his reclining chair he used to sit in after dinner. He liked it, and so he framed it and entered it into a juried show for adults only. The juror, the sole juror, was Grant Wood. And to my amazement, I got third prize. And so sitting in the Davenport Art Museum the night, where the awards were given, everyone was quite surprised when they saw this little kid get up and go to the podium and reach up and get his prize and shake hands with Grant Wood — a big moment in my life.
« Read the rest of this entry »

‘One of California’s most eminent artists’

April 17, 2011 § Leave a comment

Wayne Thiebaud and Theophilus Brown in Sacramento | April 2011

In today’s Sacramento Bee, Victoria Dalkey writes of Theophilus Brown:

Brown’s drawings of male nudes, in particular, are direct and solidly observed without flash or flair. There is nothing ingratiating about these studies, though a couple are androgynously sensual. There is also a female nude, presented in a more complex composition in which she sits in front of a window with a light-seeking plant to her right. It’s a complicated, hard-won drawing that exemplifies the seriousness of his approach.

Another element, an emotive use of color, comes into his paintings. A male figure sits in a chair facing the viewer, his stolidity compromised by the strong color of his blue shirt and the red wall behind him. Similarly alive with color, warm reds and shades of blue from teal to aquamarine, is a straight-on self-portrait, barefooted, cross-legged in a studio interior.

Other works get into the realm of the archetypal. A woman and a child on the beach remind one of Matisse’s 1909 “Nude by the Sea” and his 1907 “Le Luxe II.” Here, the bright sea and dark sky take on the force of symbols, the figures timeless evocations of the human in an idyllic landscape.

Another scene of nudes near water makes one think of the bathers of Cézanne. These homely, raw figures rise up from a rocky shore like primal beings placed in a timeless scenario.

Read more

The charmed life of Theophilus Brown

April 7, 2010 § Leave a comment

Theophilus Brown with self portraits in 1969.


The charmed life of Theophilus Brown — it could have been the title to an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. Our protagonist is a dashing young artist with immense talent and little direction. After enduring the horrors of World War II, including the soul sucking Battle of the Bulge, he hopscotches around the world, making the acquaintance of such cultural heavyweights as Pablo Picasso and Igor Stravinsky. He has a boyfriend on the Left Bank, and friends in high social places from New York to The Hague. The editor of ArtNews is a former classmate who introduces Brown to the likes of Mark Rothko and Willem and Elaine de Kooning.

The parties are extravagant, the destinations exotic and the people famously beautiful, but there is something missing. A young Theophilus finds himself orbiting greatness without really touching it. A critical decision to head west to California and an encounter with a down to earth, no nonsense young man from Arizona changes everything. It is not love at first sight. The two young men are very different. One is gregarious and flamboyant; the other is quiet and reserved. But maybe opposites do attract. Perhaps it is fate. Theirs would be a love story spanning more than a half-century, and providing the foundation for two impressive artistic careers. Unlike the doomed characters of a Fitzgerald story, our hero escapes the pitfalls of privilege to live what can only be called a charmed life.

Read more

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing the Brown, Wm. Theophilus category at Art Matters.