Posts Tagged ‘Richard Lonsdale Brown’

Richard Lonsdale Brown, Class of 1910

Richard Lonsdale Brown 1910

In January, I posted the story of an African American artist named Richard Lonsdale Brown (1892-1917). Recently I came across new information that inspired me to revisit his life.  Raised in West Virginia, he traveled to New York City where his talent was recognized. He was featured in the New York Times.  As was often the case for young fine artists, supporters hoped he’d continue his artistic studies in Paris. The trip would never take place. Brown died at the age of 26. Few of his watercolor or oil paintings survive today but he may have left an unexpected legacy in the impact he made upon W. E. B. Du Bois.

W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois 1868-1963

The two men would meet shortly after Brown graduated from West Virginia Collegiate Institute, earlier known as the West Virginia Colored Institute. There “In connection with his academic studies he took painting as a trade, under the late George Collins of South America, who was quite an artist. In addition to house painting and interior decoration, the boy showed wonderful aptitude for artistic painting, and was encouraged to paint the hills and scenery along the Great Kanawha River near the institution.” (1)

Brown would eventually make his way to New York City where he would share his portfolio with artist George De Forest Brush. Brown would later share in an interview that he remembered walking up and down Fifth Avenue trying to sell his pictures to galleries to pay for food and rent. He was about to give in to despair when …

Mourning her Brave by George de Forest Brush, 1883

Mourning her Brave by George de Forest Brush, 1883

Brown found the artist’s studio and knocked at his door. Brush answered. He listened and then he reviewed the modest portfolio. An internationally renowned artist, Brush recognized the young man’s talent and invited him to study for a summer in Keene, New Hampshire.  Afterward he studied at the American Academy of Design.  Through Brush, Brown’s work would catch the attention of the founders of the newly formed National Association for Colored People (NAACP), including W. E. B. Du Bois and Mary Ovington. He became their protege.

On January 1912, his artwork was exhibited during the first annual meeting of the NAACP, and would be exhibited during future annual meetings as well.  In March, with Ovington’s aid, his work was exhibited in a NYC gallery. The press was spectacular. The turnout was great. Brown’s works were purchased by collectors from around the world.  Later in the year, his artwork would grace at least two covers of The Crisis, the national magazine published by the NAACP.

In 1913, he would turn his attention from painting landscapes to design and decoration as he worked with Du Bois to execute The Star of Egypt.  In 1911, Du Bois had written The Star of Egypt, a historical pageant presenting the history of African Americans over time. Brown would serve as set decorator, along with Lenwood Morris. He would travel with Du Bois as they met with both blacks and whites in an effort to raise funds. An elaborate production involving casts of thousands, it was well-received though struggled with financing. The pageant would be staged in three cities during Brown’s life, New York in 1913, Washington, DC in 1915, and Philadelphia in 1916.

December 1915 Cover by Richard L. Brown

December 1915 Cover by Richard L. Brown

His time in the northeast studying art, his work with W. E. B. Du Bois, the changing landscape of America and a world that was on the brink of war, all of these things were influencing Brown’s artistic aspirations. In a 1913 interview about his art, he tentatively but determinedly brings up the question of race.

A few years later he would confide in Mary Ovington about his changing perspective. She shares in her memoir:

That trip South she refers to would take Richard Brown to his parent’s home in Muskogee, Oklahoma.  The year was 1917.  On his World War I draft registration card, completed in Muskogee in June,  he notes his occupation as artist and his race as African. He died of pneumonia in September of that year.

While it is unclear why Brown returned to his parents, it is clear from subsequent editorials by W. E. B. Du Bois in The Crisis that Brown, like many black artists in that time, was not making a living as an artist. Always a proponent for nurturing art within the black community, Du Bois took pride in showcasing the talent of young artists like Richard Brown. As he refers to Brown in editorials over the next few years it is with an underlying note of frustration if not outright anger at the loss of this young man’s talent from the world. Those feelings are directed at the white community and at the black community for not financially supporting the creativity within its midst.

An obituary for Brown in the January 1918 issue of The Crisis states “he started on a trip to see what beauty he might find in the South. … Some of us, perhaps all of us, are to blame that Richard Brown was not given a better chance to develop a gift which some of the greatest artists called wonderful.

In a May 1922 editorial in The Crisis titled Art for Nothing, Du Bois writes:

There is a deep feeling among many people and particularly among colored people that Art should not be paid for. The feeling is based on an ancient and fine idea of human Freedom in the quest of Beauty and on a dream that the artist rises and should rise above paltry considerations of dollars and food. At the same time everybody knows that artists must live if their art is to live. Everybody knows that if the people who enjoy the artist’s work do not pay for it, somebody else must or his work cannot go on. Despite this practical, obvious fact, we are united with singular unity to starve colored artists.

He proceeds to list a series of living artists from Meta Warrick Fuller to William A. Scott all struggling to make a living but he concludes the list with his lost protege, “Richard Brown died of privation while yet a boy.

In another essay about art, in October 1926, he says, “There was Richard Brown. If he had been white he would have been alive today instead of dead of neglect. Many helped him when he asked but he was not the kind of boy that always asks. He was simply one who made colors sing.

Landscape by Richard Lonsdale Brown

Landscape by Richard Lonsdale Brown

In 1928, Mary Brown, Richard Brown’s mother, wrote to Du Bois. She had a dozen of his paintings and sought his aid in selling them in New York. With the money raised she hoped to create a monument for her son. They were all unframed, she said, and encouraged him to deduct the expense of framing from the sell of the paintings and also to deduct a stipend for his time. He took on the task but was unsuccessful. Even with the aid of Mary Beattie Brady of The Harmon Foundation, he could find no one willing to spend more than few dollars per painting. Brady and he agreed that they should not be sold for so little.  In the last letter between Du Bois and Brown’s mother, dated April 1931, Du Bois expresses his regrets and asks if she’d like him to return the paintings or to hold on to them in hopes that the New York scene might improve.

Today Brown’s paintings sell for thousands of dollars.

Sources and Additional Reading

West Virginia Collegiate Institute Monthly, December 1917, p. 3

The Sun Newspaper, October 5, 1913, p. 39

Star of Ethiopia Photograph, The Crisis Magazine, August 2016

Black and White Sat Down Together: The Reminiscences of an NAACP Founder (pp. 75-76)

Letters of W. E. B. Du Bois, UMASS Special Collections – http://credo.library.umass.edu/

W. E. B. Du Bois


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Richard Lonsdale Brown was born in 1892 in Evanston, Illinois. When less than a year old, his parents moved to West Virginia. There he attended public school and then trained as a sign painter. After finishing trade school, he remained in West Virginia for five years, “and then being a journeyman sign painter I traveled through the mining districts of the state … My journeys took me almost altogether through the mountains where, when God made them, He placed scenery the equal of which, I think, cannot be found in all America.”

Richard Lonsdale Brown, 1912

“It was there I believe that my love for landscape painting was awakened. When not painting signs I was doing what I could to reproduce the scenery of the mountains and valleys, the rivers and the streams on canvas.” Brown shared those words in a 1913 article that appeared in the New York Sun.

Mary White Ovington and Oswald Garrison Villard, circa 1910-1920

Mary White Ovington and Oswald Garrison Villard, circa 1910-1920

Mary White Ovington (1865-1951), co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, remembered first learning of Richard Lonsdale Brown in 1910.  In her memoirs, she recounts it was during a meeting with Oswald Garrison Villard (1872-1949).”In 1910, when Mr. Villard and I were working in the newly organized NAACP, he gave me a letter from the artist George de Forest Brush, asking me if I would take up the business mentioned in it. It told of a young colored artist, Richard Brown, from Charleston, West Virginia, who had recently come to New York with some excellent sketches.”

George De Forest Brush

George De Forest Brush

“I called upon Mr. Brush in his picturesque studio on MacDougall Alley and saw his pictures. They were lovely things, trees and melting skies, alive in form and color. Mr. Brush was deeply impressed with them.  ‘He is no more than a boy,’he said, ‘and he came into my studio, shy, discouraged. He had brought his sketches under his arm to New York, and when not in one of our great galleries was spending his time trying to sell them. No one wanted even to look at them. He was poor; he was colored. Could one have greater handicaps?’ Mr. Brush welcomed him to his studio and looked with interest and appreciation at his work. ‘Can I ever be an artist?’ Richard asked when had shown all he had. The answer was, ‘You are an artist.'”

Brown would exhibit his work in the Ovington Brothers Gallery in New York, March 18-23, 1912.  It would showcase paintings done in West Virginia before he was 18 years old and in the hills of New Hampshire while under the tutelage of Mr. Brush. Mary Maclean, a writer with the New York Times wrote a profile of the young artist for the newspaper. The article appeared in March, just before the exhibit, helping to make it a great success.

It was estimated that 2,500 people attended. Twenty-six pictures were for sale and sixteen were sold including little sky sketches. The young man charmed people with his demeanor as well as the quality of his work. Collectors who reportedly purchased his work included Jacob H. Schiff, Edward Warburg, Mr. Coster, and celebrity Miss Mary Garden.

Art Critic Joseph Edgar Chamberlin quoted in the New York Age, March 1912

Maclean’s profile would also be printed in the April 1912 issue of the NAACP’s The Crisis Magazine for which Richard Lonsdale Brown produced the cover.

Cover Art by Richard Lonsdale Brown

Ovington remembered, “Crowds came and he had many purchasers. The prices for most of the pictures were high, and so Richard would paint little cloud sketches in the evening and sell them the next day. He made over a thousand dollars. We all hoped he would use it for study; I had plans for Paris but the money went where his affections dictated. He spent it on a sister, who he used to tell me, was more talented than he, in a vain attempt to cure her of what proved to be an incurable disease.”

by Richard Lonson Brown

by Richard Lonsdale Brown

White and black publications of the period described him as “the rising young artist.” Instead of Paris, Brown would study in Boston, living at the Robert Gould Shaw House. Ovington remembers him producing posters for W. E. B. Du Bois’s Pageant. He exhibited in private homes. He would eventually travel down South. Before he left, he would confide to Ovington that he could not paint as he used to. He’d begun painting landscapes but was now intrigued by figures. As he studied those figures he was discouraged at how society beat them down. He was excited by what was happening in Harlem and hoped to be a part of it. “Not that I have forgotten what I want to do most of all, ” he would tell her. “Someday, when I am the artist I hope to be, I want to return and paint those West Virginia hills.”

Mt. Monadnock, originally purchased by Jacob H. Schiff

While it is unclear if he returned to those West Virginia hills, he would not be part of what became known as the Harlem Renaissance, nor would Ovington see him again after that last encounter. In 1915, he would exhibit his work in the Washington, DC home of Mrs. Carrie W. Clifford.  He died September 23, 1917. Posted in the March 1918 issue of The Crisis was the following passage: “The parents of the late Richard Lonsdale Brown write us that they are living in Muskogee, Okla, and that the young artist died at their home and under their care.”

by Richard Lonson Brown

A Bend in the Stream, originally purchased by Albert Andriesse

While it appears that the three paintings above and the 1912 Crisis cover are his only surviving work, clearly he produced many other sketches and paintings during his brief lifetime. So perhaps somewhere out there are Brown’s little cloud sketches, scenes of melting skies and his West Virginia mountains.


Sources and Additional Readings

Negro Youth Amazes Artists By His Talent, New York Times, March 1912

Richard Lonsdale Brown Biography by the Indiana Illustrators and Cartoonists

Black and White Sat Down Together: The Reminiscences of an NAACP Founder (pp. 75-76)

Detailed descriptions of his three known paintings

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