Frederic William Browne (1877-1966), American
“Fishing Boats” about 1920s
oil on canvas, 18 in. x 21 in.
(framed dimensions: 25 ½ in. x 28 ½ in.)
signed lower right: “Fred Browne”
A lovely example of Impressionist painting from the hand of an American painter. What appear to be two* fishing boats moored alongside each other are shown in the full sun of midday with a hillside just beyond with a Breton type stone cottage on its crest (*the title on the reverse seems to read the singular “Fishing Boat”). The painting shimmers with light from its high color key and juxtaposed complementary colors. The artist did not skimp with his paints, applying them liberally from his palette without overmixing on the canvas. The surface is painterly and appealing to the viewer with areas of impasto throughout. I cannot place the scene for sure - it could be a port in Brittany or the south of France. It could also be a north African locale. The artist created several paintings in Tunis and Algiers, some with colors and brushwork that are quite similar to this painting. If the latter, one intriguing possibility is the port of Collo, Algeria, which has just such a hill (there are other places I found also – such as Ilfracombe, England). The painting is not dated, and it is difficult to pinpoint when it was done. Judging by the signature alone it would seem to be earlier, say 1914-1920. If it was a scene in Algiers, then it may be from the later 1920s. There are not many exemplars available for me to compare Browne’s signatures, but he varied from “Fred Browne” to “Frederic Browne” to “Fred Wm. Browne”. In some of his later paintings he capitalized all the letters. He often slanted his small “e” in a distinctive way as seen in this painting (about 1918, the artist switched his passport signatures from “Frederick” to “Frederic”, adopting the French variant).
Frederic Browne was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland in 1877. He emigrated with his father to the United States in 1880, settling in Philadelphia. As a teenager, Browne studied at the School of Industrial Art of the Pennsylvania Museum and afterward at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Living in Brooklyn, New York during the prewar years, Browne began a series of trips to Paris, France beginning in 1911 when he stayed in France for three years. He would return in 1916 for two months and again in 1917, this time for four years. During these years, he studied in Paris at the Julien Academie, the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere, and the Academie Colorossi. The work of painters and artists continued in Paris despite World War I and the city’s proximity to the front. After the war but while still in Paris, the then middle-aged Browne met 21-year-old Reine Aimee Batier*, of Limoges, France. The two married and returned together to the United States in 1921 to reside in New York City (*in 1925 the student newspaper at Rice University would note that “Mr. Browne’s attractive French wife is one of his most valuable assets”). In 1922, Browne exhibited two paintings at the National Academy of Design, both Parisian scenes.
From 1921 to 1925, in New York City, Browne was instructor in glass staining and designing (his 1917 passport application said that he intended to “study stained glass windows in the cathedrals” and “research work in art”). Even so, he continued to paint during those years as there are extant paintings of his from that time showing such iconic New York landmarks as the Brooklyn Bridge and the Woolworth building. As early as 1914, Browne exhibited at the Macbeth Galleries in Manhattan alongside other well-known American artists such as Childe Hassam, Frederick Frieseke, Emil Carlsen, Richard Miller, and more. In 1922, Browne exhibited two paintings at the National Academy of Design, both Parisian scenes.
In December 1925, Browne accepted a position at Rice University teaching free hand drawing and watercolor in the Department of Architecture, thus beginning a long association with his adopted city of Houston, Texas. He would become instrumental in the development of the fine arts in that city and was among its first professional artists, as well as a prominent art teacher and early academician within the higher education community.
In 1934, Browne moved on to become the first Chairman of the University of Houston Art Department. He also taught concurrently at the Museum School from 1927 until 1940, enriching the lives of many art students. He retired from his administrative duties at the university in 1950 but continued to teach at the university until his death.
Frederic and Reine traveled extensively together, often returning to Paris and the south of France to visit her family and to sketch and paint. While Browne continued his academic career in Houston, he always maintained an affinity for Paris and the French countryside, painting Impressionist scenes that became the hallmark of his oeuvre.
As one of Houston’s most significant artists of the 20th century, Browne was among several early Texas artists who actively studied and traveled the world, adopting elements of both American and French Impressionism. These early Houston painters ventured to Europe for their subject matter and some of them, including Frederic Browne, ventured all the way to North Africa between the 1920s and the 1950s, bringing back with them images of what they saw to share with their fellow Houstonians.
It was sometime in the late 1920s when Browne ventured to Tunis where a found material for a number of compositions. He and Reine, in their nearly annual summer trips to France, had discovered that it really wasn’t difficult to get a boat from Marseille or other ports in the South of France across the Mediterranean, and the painting potential repaid the voyage handsomely. We know that the Brownes also traveled to French Algeria since he exhibited a number of paintings depicting scenes in Algiers in 1928, 1929, 1930, and 1931. His first solo exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston in 1928 consisted of paintings done in France, Algiers, and Tunis.
His later paintings seem to show influence of the Post Impressionists while the earlier works appear closer to Impressionism in their use of color and paint application.
Browne died at the age of 89 at his Houston home in 1966 and his wife Reine died two years later at the age of 69.
His work was most recently on exhibit in the exhibition “The Art of Texas: 250 Years”, held at the Witte Museum in San Antonio in 2019.
Exhibitions: National Academy of Design, New York, NY (1922: 2 oils); Texas Fine Arts Association – Abilene, TX (1930, 1931); Annual Houston Artists Exhibitions, (1926, 1927, 1928, 1930, 1931, 1932, 1933, 1934, 1935, 1936, 1937, 1938 *won Museum Purchase Prize), 1939, 1940; Dallas Museum of Art (1936, 1937); New York Watercolor Club (1915: 2 Tunis scenes); Philadelphia Water Color Club (1915: 4 French scenes); Macbeth Galleries, New York, NY (1914); Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX (one-man shows, 1928, 1934, 1944); Exhibition of Texas Artists, Nashville, TN (1927: won prize); National Exhibition of American Art, Rockefeller Center, New York, NY (1936); Greater Texas & Pan-American Exposition, Dallas (1937); University of Houston, Memorial Exhibition, (1967); Mrs. Hardie Robinson Home Gallery (1928); William Reaves Fine Art, Houston, TX (2010: “A Texas Artist Abroad: A Selection of Early Works by Frederic Browne”); The Heritage Society, Houston, TX (2004: “Houston Art by Houston Artists”); The Witte Museum, San Antonio, Texas (2019: “The Art of Texas: 250 Years”)
Collections: Woodson Research Center, Rice University, Houston, TX; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston TX; The Clark Institute, Williamstown, MA;
Condition: the painting is in remarkably good condition given its age. The canvas in unlined and the stretcher bars are original. The paint surface is clean, and the colors are vivid. Under blacklight, there are two small areas of retouch: about ½ inch area along the ridge of the building on the hill. Another small area just above and to the right of the right-most chimney (not the darker blue, which may be a wisp of smoke, but the lighter blue above that). Much of the paint surface is applied alla-prima, creating impasto throughout with occasional peeks of the underlying ground layer. The one area where there is stable, minute crackle is in the blue hulls of the fishing boats where the paint is laid on more thinly. The modern gilt frame is in fine condition. The painting is titled on the canvas reverse, seemingly in the artist’s hand as “Fishing Boat”. There is an inscription in pencil on the lower stretcher which reads “Return to Fred Zender Borrowed Aug 1942” (perhaps for an exhibition?). There is another pencil inscription which appears to show the title again “Fishing Boat” as well as “#16” (possibly an exhibition number) and what might be a date “Aug ..??” and the size of the canvas “18x21”.
Frederic William Browne, "Fishing Boats", oil on canvas, 1920s