Brown (1761-1831), born in Boston, descended from Cotton and Increase Mather. He started studying under Gilbert Stuart at the age of twelve, then Benjamin Franklin gave him a letter of recommendation for further studies with Benjamin West in London (1781). West and possibly James Barry strongly urged Brown to pursue history painting. In 1782 he was admitted as a student to the Royal Academy where he exhibited Portrait of a Gentleman that year and four paintings in the following year. His earliest known painting is Girl at a Harpsichord (1782; Glasgow Art Gallery), which is still harsh and amateurish. By 1784 Brown had his own studio and that year he executed Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane and The Annunciation (St. Mary-le-Strand Church, London) both in the style of West. Reportedly, Brown “worshiped” West’s religious works. Art historian Dorinda Evans called these two paintings by Brown “two superbly imaginative works.”
William Dunlap (I, 269) reports that Mather Brown was “not highly esteemed as a painter,” and that Gilbert Stuart had reservations about his character. Charles Robert Leslie saw in Brown’s work “facility but nothing else . . . a feeble imitation of the manner of West.” After Stuart left for Ireland in 1787, Brown became more popular. Thomas Jefferson, American Ambassador to France, chose Mather Brown to paint his portrait (1786; private collection). John Adams, then the American Ambassador to England, was so pleased with Brown’s portrait that he commissioned a copy (Charles Francis Adams Collection) and the Boston Athenaeum has Brown’s portrait of Adams, as well. Mather Brown also painted full-length portraits, for example, Portrait of a Gentleman (late 1780s; Beaverbrook Art Gallery, New Brunswick, Canada), which recalls Sir Joshua Reynolds, and Frederick Augustus, Duke of York (1788; Waddesdon Manor) who appointed Brown his own history and portrait painter. From the same year is Thomas Dawson, Viscount Cremorne (National Gallery of Art, Washington). At times, Brown’s unsigned portraits have been confused with those of Stuart.
Around 1797 comes Brown’s Thomas, Earl of Surrey, Son of John, 1st Duke of Norfolk, Defending His Allegiance to Richard III after the Battle of Bosworth Field (Duke of Norfolk). After being disinherited by his father, Brown turned to religious themes and history painting, works, however, which never sold. He left London in 1809 to work in Bath, Bristol and Lancashire. In 1824 he came back to London where he painted The Finding of Moses (Mrs. Johan Koppernaes) and many other religious works. It was as if Brown underwent a second phase of West’s influence. His sketch for The Battle of the Nile (National Maritime Museum, London) from 1825, is a monumental, highly Baroque diagonal composition with a multitude of figures in action, struggling for their lives during a battle at sea. Sadly, Brown died in poverty in a room full of his unsold works, in London. There never was a taste for history or religious painting in England, much to the chagrin of Reynolds, West and James Barry.
Evans, Dorinda. Benjamin West and His American Students. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1980; Idem, Mather Brown: Early American Artist in England. Middletown, CT: 1982; Robert C. Alberts, “Brown, Mather,” in Encyclopedia of American Art before 1914. Grove Encyclopedias of the Art of the Americas series. London: Grove Dictionaries, Inc., 2000, pp. 70-71.
Submitted by Michael Preston Worley, Ph.D.