A Yellowstone Geyser
Grafton Tyler Brown (American, 1841–1918)
Height x width: 28 x 11 in. (71.1 x 27.9 cm)
Medium or Technique
Oil on canvas
Penny and Jeff Vinik Gallery (Gallery 233)
Grafton Tyler Brown was the first professional African American artist to work on the West Coast of the United States and one of the few black painters, along with Robert S. Duncanson [1970.496] and Edward Mitchell Bannister [2011.1820] to achieve any degree of popular success in the nineteenth century. Trained as a lithographer, in the 1870s he sold his printing business in San Francisco and turned to painting the dramatic vistas of Yosemite, Yellowstone, and the Pacific Northwest. Such views, including this image of Old Faithful geyser at Yellowstone, required rigorous travel across a vast region and thus reveal Brown’s ambition and determination.
Capitalizing upon his commercial experience as a printmaker, Brown actively promoted himself as a landscape painter. He skillfully navigated the social and commercial infrastructure to sell his works, despite obstacles that many artists, much less those facing racial discrimination, found daunting. Brown advertised his work to prospective clients and cultivated productive associations with potential patrons and artistic peers. He negotiated an agreement to show his paintings in the sales gallery of a prominent Yellowstone hotel, competing successfully with other artists who depicted similar western subjects. Brown also publicized his Yellowstone paintings by producing brochures that promised “careful studies from nature,” with “all the truths in color.”Thumbnail sketches of his popular views—including Old Faithful and other thermal features, Yellowstone Lake, and the Yellowstone Falls—allowed buyers to choose a scene to be painted to order.
A Yellowstone Geyser is one of Brown’s finest achievements. The composition relates to a view advertised in Brown’s 1886 catalogue of Yellowstone sketches. The vertical composition emphasizes the height of the spray, while a dramatic storm-darkened sky is rendered with confidence and skill. As a subject, Yellowstone had particular poignancy. The park’s creation in 1872 reflected a growing imperative to preserve areas of wilderness; its subsequent history illustrates the contradictory impulses characteristic of American management of natural resources. In the early years, lawlessness (including poaching and the vandalism of natural features) was rampant. With the arrival of federal troops and the granting of leases for concessions to a newly formed Yellowstone Park Association in 1886—the year of Brown’s visit—the park entered a new phase as a tourist destination and a highly popular stop on the Northern Pacific Railway. Developed by moneyed railroad magnates as a profitable playground for the wealthiest eastern tourists, the park struggled to reconcile the ideals of both broad public access and the nascent conservation movement with the pressures of commercial development.
Numerous prominent painters worked in Yellowstone in these first decades, among them Albert Bierstadt, who painted Castle Geyser [47.1253], just a short walk from Old Faithful, in about 1881. Bierstadt was one of many artists who were drawn to the dramatic landscape and also to the well-heeled clientele who were potential patrons. Brown’s Yellowstone Geyser was likely produced precisely for the wealthy tourists who could afford to visit the park. Excluding reminders of the troublesome aspects of park management and the more unpleasant realities of the visitor experience in the 1880s, such painted souvenirs, by Brown and others, presented a purified ideal of natural wonder free of discord or discomfort.
Brown’s often-overlooked story is that of a successful, ambitious, and skilled professional artist who navigated class and racial divisions in order to market his work to wealthy tourists visiting the natural wonders of the West and Pacific Northwest. To paint a landscape is, in some small way, to possess that land, to stake a claim to knowing and belonging to it. With his art, Grafton Tyler Brown made a place for himself in the American West.
1. Yellowstone National Park and Pacific Coast Scenery Series (G.T. Brown, Artist, 1886). One page of text and two pages of images. Copy in curatorial files, Department of Art of the Americas, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
By 2009, private collection, Oregon; August 3, 2009, California and American Paintings and Sculpture Sale #17326, Bonhams and Butterfields, San Francisco, lot 13, to the MFA. (Accession Date: September 16, 2009)
Emily L. Ainsley Fund and The Heritage Fund for a Diverse Collection