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An Artist's Portfolio The California Sketches of Henry B. Brown, 1851-52 Thomas C. Blackburn Malki-Ballena Press: 96 pp., $30

February 25, 2007|Susan Salter Reynolds | susan.reynolds@latimes.com

IN 1851-52, Henry B. Brown toured the newly acquired state of California at the behest of the United States and Mexican Boundary Commission, sketching gold camps, Native Americans, villages and landscapes. The drawings are done in pencil, pencil with ink wash, pencil with gouache, or sepia with ink wash. All convey a straightforwardness and majesty that one associates with the essence of California. They are a reminder that this was a frontier laced with gentleness and diversity as well as the more commonly depicted ferocity and cruelty. They also convey a ghostly sense of change -- primarily due to the 1849 Gold Rush but also, of course, to the wanton abuse of the land in the name of profit. They were commissioned by John Russell Bartlett, head of the Boundary Commission, and were used, unsigned, as book illustrations and covers, making it difficult to collect them under one roof.

Thomas C. Blackburn, author and editor of many books on California's Indians, has pieced together the artist's history, along with his portfolio. Brown was born in Cambridge, Mass., in 1816. His first professional work was an engraving of Dartmouth College. In 1851, he came to California with Jacob Bailey Moore, who had been assigned by President Taylor to set up a postal service there. Through Moore, Brown met Bartlett, who hired him to make "sketches of the characteristic scenery of California, including scenes at some of the prominent gold diggings; also to obtain portraits of the various Indian tribes." Brown was to travel up the Sacramento River, across to the Shasta mines and back to the Pacific. He would receive $20 for each drawing.

During his trip, Brown sent back examples of the native vocabularies in letters to Bartlett. He made drawings in, among other places, a Colusa Indian village, Grass Valley, Sutter's Fort, Nevada City and various settlements along the Yuba River. "The scenery at the head of the [Sacramento] valley," he wrote, "is a combination of beautiful and grand surpassing anything I have ever seen.... The contrast of the level plain sprinkled with broad spreading oaks, and the sharp and jagged mountains covered with snow ... is very impressive." Shortly after completing the drawings, Brown quit California for Bermuda, where, in a turn of events that seems unlikely nowadays but was commonplace in that age of exploration, he became the U.S. consul, a position he held for at least three years. In 1860, he disappears entirely.

In the collection for Bartlett, Brown included portraits of chiefs and children, a doctor, a "young girl of remarkable beauty," the interior of a Patwin dwelling, the inside of a dance house, and a Nisenan mourning ritual that "is one of the few contemporary representations of this dramatic ceremony in existence." Most of these drawings are in the Bancroft and Huntington libraries. The 37 included in this collection are arranged geographically, from south to north, reproducing the order in which Brown is thought to have originally created them. The drawings of landscapes are restrained and carefully composed; some, like "Shasta Peak from Tehama about 100 miles distant," are almost Japanese, with the artist's breathtaking, light touch. The portraits are expressive and shaded in a manner reminiscent of Rembrandt. The interiors are fascinating, detailed insights into the lifestyles of the inhabitants -- the eye never tires of traveling across them in search of some new relationship or object. There is a great dignity and wisdom in these pieces, a quiet reminder of the fine art of observation, a sense of patience, respect and, above all, awe.

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