Collection Highlight - Grafton Tyler Brown

Grafton Tyler Brown Trout

This trout hanging on a board is a fish out of water-in more ways than one. As a somewhat atypical example of the trompe-l'oeil genre by an artist known for landscape painting, one could say the piece is a rare catch.

Trompe-l'oeil (literally, "fool the eye") is a category of still-life painting popular in America between 1880 and 1900. The convincing illusion of a door or vertical board occupying the surface of the picture plane forces realistically painted objects out into the space of the viewer. The sensation must have captivated 19th-century Americans much like the experience of today's 3-D movie.

Popular trompe-l'oeil variations pictured a door to which were affixed hunting equipment, game, creased papers, and other objects to enhance the illusion. Grafton Tyler Brown's more spare approach directs attention to the trout's rose blush and spotted skin, architectural head, and delicately fanning fins. Against the painted wood grain background, Brown's trout is not presented as a trophy of the fisherman's prowess or even of the painter's virtuosity, but as a native creature of the American wilderness.

In some ways, Brown lived the iconic American story: a young man heads West to seek opportunity. Brown was among numerous African American men who participated in the 19th-century wave of westward expansion. At home in Philadelphia, Brown had trained as a draughtsman and lithographer-a burgeoning, commercial field in the late 19th century. With his skills, he was hired in Nevada, then California, in the mid-1850s to draw maps, views of gold-mining towns and other growing settlements. Brown is recognized as the first Black artist working professionally in the American West.

After owning a lithography business in San Francisco for several years, Brown moved on to Canada to assist in a geographical survey. Trout was painted in 1886, a year of transition, when Brown moved from Canada to Portland, Oregon, shifting his focus from commercial work to landscape painting. While his life's work for over 20 years had been witness to the environmental effects of westward expansion, Brown had become interested in the preservation of America's natural beauty. He applied his skill to painting scenic views of Oregon, Washington and Yellowstone, for which he is best known.

In contrast to Brown, some prominent artists of the period produced landscapes that enhanced the West's romance and idyllic majesty-underscoring the belief, known as Manifest Destiny, that American expansion across the continent was a destiny ordained by God. Brown's more reserved, naturalistic style-revealed in his landscapes and this rare still life-may have developed from several factors: his environmental outlook, his experience as a minority in American culture and a habit of accurate detail, gained from his artistic training in lithography.

Karla Niehus
Associate Curator of Exhibitions