James Brown


(active 1806–1808)
produced seven signed works, along with seven other portraits linked stylistically to his name, each painted in an expressive, realistic style. Little is known about Brown’s life, however, and until the publication of Elizabeth V. Warren’s article “The Mystery of J.Brown” in
Folk Art
magazine in 1998, not even Brown’s first name had been uncovered. A portrait of Maxcy Fisher of Franklin, Massachusetts, signed “James Brown” on the reverse inthe same bold, block script as other signatures found on works by Brown, helped solve the mystery. As an additional clue, “Brimfield,” also written on the back of this portrait, is a town located near Franklin and Medway, Massachusetts, where four of Brown’s other portrait subjects lived. What is known about where Brown workedhas been discovered largely through studying the lives of his sitters. It appears that he worked in towns in northwestern Massachusetts as well as in Plymouth, in theeastern part of the state. Brown’s portraits, all painted in oil on canvas, vary in size and complexity. Some are bust and three-quarter length portraits, but the portrait of Laura Hall is a full-figure depiction, measuring more than six feet in height. Some of his other portraits are oval in shape, and all are painted using a warm palette. He paid great attention to lace details and hair—painting, for instance, the wispy ringlets of his female sitters. Brown lightened the area behind the heads of his subjects,thus highlighting and illuminating the sitters’ features. Anatomically, there are few deficiencies in his portraits, but scholars of Brown’s work have observed that his sittersdo not appear to be comfortably seated in their chairs.Barbara and Lawrence Holdrige, experts on Ammi Phillips, have suggested that Phillips, the younger of the two artists, may have studied painting with Brown, as both artists painted in locations in New York State, Vermont, and Massachusetts, and there are striking similaries in the format of and in the attention to detail in someof their paintings.
See also
Painting, American Folk; Ammi Phillips.
D’Ambrosio, Paul S., and Charlotte Emans.
Folk Art’s Many Faces.
New York, 1987.Heslip, Colleen Cowles.
Between the Rivers: Itinerant Painters from the Connecticut to the Hudson.
Williamstown, Mass., 1990.Museum of American Folk Art.
Revisiting Ammi Phillips: Fifty Years of American Portraiture.
New York, 1994.Rumford, Beatrix.
American Folk Portraits: Paintings and Drawings from the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center.
New York, 1981.Warren, Elizabeth V. “The Mystery of J.Brown.”
Folk Art,
vol. 23, no. 3 (fall 1998): 55–62.