George Browne’s “A Bluebill Drake”
When I look at a duck painting by George, I am immediately transferred there with the duck; I am on its level, whether it be a power stroke, setting wings, or a flight pattern.
To me that is the greatness of George. (Sporting art dealer Robert Fraser, Ordeman & Schreiber, 20041)
The best sporting art—appreciative representations of game, fish, waterfowl, and upland birds, along with their landscape settings and sometimes sportsmen in the act of pursuing them—is interpretive rather than academic. Sporting artists strive to do more than accurately represent the physical features of an animal; they also seek to capture the ambiance of a moment in time, such as a misty trout stream at dawn, the startled flush of a covey in grasslands, or—as in this oil on canvas panel painting of a Greater Scaup by George Browne that we are now offering for sale (update: sold 2/19/18)—a duck alighting on an open patch of water.
In the opinion of sporting art connoisseurs, George Browne (1918-1958) was not only a master at painting animals and their habitats, but also of that hard-to-capture essence of place, time, and the spirit of wildlife. Browne was as talented as, yet less well-known than, his sporting art predecessors and contemporaries—luminaries such as Frank Benson (1862-1951), Carl Rungius (1869-1959), Frances Lee Jacques (1887-1969), and Aiden Ripley (1896-1969). Although Browne was quite prolific as an artist, he produced a more limited body of work than these other sporting artists, and had less time to be promoted and appreciated, given the brevity of his professional career due to his untimely death in a shooting accident at the age of 40.
Browne’s painting of a Greater Scaup, known colloquially as a “bluebill” or “broadbill,” exemplifies his expert ability to capture a bird’s shape, feather patterns, and posture.
Wildlife artists such as Browne must have superb observational acuity, a skill they have in common with both naturalists and sportsmen.
George Browne’s observational skills were honed during his many hours in the outdoors watching wildlife as well as hunting. His field notes, a sample of which follows (Ordeman & Schreiber, 2004), are not unlike those that a naturalist would write while observing birds, although Browne’s observations of the subtle plays of light are distinctly those of someone with an artistic eye and purpose:
Bird: Canada Geese 13
Background: Timbered Ridges
Lighting: Sun just set, Early twilight
Distance: 35 yrds over River
General Impressions: Birds noticeably flying fast. General color tone cold. Black areas noticeable lack of detail. Head and body unaffected by motion of wings, but base of neck and chest rise and fall alternately with wing beats. Chests cool whitish gray, check marks buckskin color. More light areas visible on geese in profile than when coming and going. Flock seemed dense, birds between 6 and 8 ft. apart on average.
Browne often captured the finer details of feather colors and patterns of the birds he had shot by creating small oil sketches that he then kept in his studio for reference. His wife Tibby once wrote:
Fishing and shooting were his relaxation, inspiration and spiritual refreshment…George prided himself in deriving the multi-faceted satisfaction from the hunt: the bird in the hand, the sketch of the same, the meal of the same, and finally the use of the feathers of the same for fly tying. (Ordeman & Schreiber, 2004)
Browne’s total immersion in his subject matter comes forth in the insightful representation of a Greater Scaup in this painting.
Fortunately, Browne was as fastidious in keeping records about his art production as he was about the accuracy of his paintings, which allows us to trace the creation of this painting to 1945, and its original sale to 1950. Before exploring this painting’s history, however, let’s first put it into the context of Browne’s life and career.
George Browne’s Early Development as an Artist
The life story of George Browne must begin with his father, Belmore Browne (1880-1954), an accomplished artist, author, explorer, mountaineer, hunter, all-around outdoorsman, and widely respected man of integrity. Belmore was arguably the most important influence on George, who followed remarkably closely in his father’s footsteps.
Belmore Browne grew up in privilege, but by the time he was a young man his father’s lumber business in Tacoma, Washington was failing. In the early 1920s Belmore’s love for the western frontier led him, together with his wife Agnes and their two small children (George and his sister Evelyn), to move to a one-room cabin at the conjunction of two rivers near the then remote village of Banff, Alberta.
Settling into the Rocky Mountain countryside resulted for the Browne children in what their mother called an “idyllic existence.” Over the next decade the family took summer trips on horseback with pack mules into the Alberta wilderness to explore, camp, hunt, and fish. In 1922, when Evelyn was 6 and George was just 4, Agnes wrote about her children:
I’m very proud of them, I must say. They’ve seen magnificent country and have learned to love it and appreciate it. Because they walked, they’ve learned the deer, bear, goat and sheep tracks and many of the wild flowers. They’ve learned the discipline of keeping up and bearing fatigue, hunger and even cold from the rain. They’ve learned to be good sports, to cast a fly, and no one can ever take from George an interest in fishing that has been awakened on this trip. He has been a constant source of amazement to Belmore and me. This ability to travel—the way the trip has developed him and roused him, and with it all his sweetness to all of us. (Ordeman & Schreiber, 2004)
During these camping excursions Belmore would often sketch, which is when George first became interested in drawing.
George reflected on his father’s ongoing influence on his development as an artist and a person in a letter to his mother in the 1940s: “He represents (the wilderness life) and has presented it to me in his paintings and in his tolerance and patience with my feeble efforts to follow in his footstep as an artist and out door man.”
Indeed, George was much more drawn to learning through an active outdoor life than he was to passive school learning. He struggled with dyslexia, and simply did not like school. A headmistress in Banff said “his mind goes on private exploring expeditions” during school hours. A teacher in Santa Barbara, CA where the family later lived during winters said “George resisted formal education with greater ferocity than any student I have had.”
At age 15 when George was in 8th grade, his request to quit school and devote his time to drawing and painting was granted by his parents. He thus became his father’s apprentice as well as receiving formal instruction for the next five years at the California School of Fine Arts.
George’s artistic training was interrupted in the early 1940s when he was drafted to serve in the U.S. Army Air Corps during WWII. He was assigned to a U.S.-based unit that tested survival equipment being developed for aircrews whose planes might be shot down. In his capacity as an equipment tester he survived for three weeks without food or water adrift in a small inflated life raft in the Gulf of Mexico. He was also the first person to survive a parachute jump from over 40,000 feet, an assignment for which he eagerly volunteered.
But painting remained his central passion throughout his years in the service, as he expressed in one letter home:
I can no longer continue life without a paint brush in my hand, and when I get paid…I will go into town and purchase a small oil paint kit. Then when Sunday rolls around, I will rise at dark and go out and get some duck skies for future reference and to keep in practice. I will also get some sketches of water with both lakes and streams with reflections of trees, grass and mud banks. The dead grass and autumn trees will provide me with valuable sketches for bird pictures, and after the war I will be as good and probably better a painter than if I just let it go. (Ordeman & Schreiber, 2004)
In a subsequent letter he wrote:
I am learning a lot from my Sunday painting, and it means a lot to me…Painting is my biggest form of recreation and takes all my days off. For the first time I am beginning to know a little about water and reflections. I have been painting a lot along the river and the lake, and this practice is just as valuable to me as painting in the Rocky Mountains, but not so much fun. (Ordeman & Schreiber, 2004)
While in the army George also went hunting on his free days. In a letter he recounted one adventure in which his gun went over the side of his boat one pre-dawn morning while he was setting up decoys for waterfowling. He dove in the water while it was still pitch dark and followed a decoy line downward for seven dives before realizing the gun had sunk into the mud. So he dove again to search more deeply on the bottom, where on this eighth dive he found and recovered the gun from a foot of mud. This episode reveals his perseverance, stamina, daring, and strength of mind and body—characteristics that people noted about George throughout his life.
When George came back home following his discharge at the end of the war, he and his father did much bird hunting while George concentrated on painting waterfowl and other gamebirds. His mother commented in 1947:
George was developing fast—the grouse picture, a beauty—the groups of pintails on the marshes in the early morning. The bluebills around his decoys. And he often worked into the late hours by electric light. (Ordeman & Schreiber, 2004)
Browne painted our “A Bluebill Drake” in 1945, so it was completed during the period from the early to the late-1940s when George was focusing on perfecting his painting of waterfowl. The late 1940s is also when his career started to take off as his work began to be more widely shown and promoted.
George Browne’s Early Professional Career and Gallery Representation
Prior to going into the military George had sold a dozen or so paintings for $10-$50 each, and while in the army a New York art dealer sold three of his paintings for $25-$45. In 1947 a more prestigious gallery in Manhattan that had been handling Belmore Browne’s paintings, the Grand Central Art Galleries, agreed to exhibit George’s work. They sold ten of his paintings from 1947-1949 in prices ranging from a few hundred dollars up to $750, a marked increase over his former earnings.
George became increasingly focused on the amount of money he was able to earn as a painter after marrying Isabel “Tibby” MacGregor in 1948, and eventually having two children to support as well. As his parents had done before him, he and Tibby moved to a small cabin in the Canadian Rockies of Alberta where George focused fulltime on producing art.
Although George admitted that he became a painter of wildlife in part to spend a lot of time outdoors, he became a disciplined artist in his studio as well. He was devoted to the life of painting, working between 12-14 hours a day which according to Tibby allowed “scant time for sleeping and eating and still it gave him a solid sense of fulfillment.”
His concern about providing for his family by selling paintings came through in the detailed records he kept of every painting he completed, how large it was, how long it took him to paint it, and how much the painting sold for—he even calculated a “Square Inch of Canvas to Sale Price Ratio” and broke down his yearly income as gross income per picture, profit per days worked, and income per day, week, and month.
We were able to locate our 16” x 20” bluebill painting on several pages of his log books (reproduced in Ordeman & Schreiber, 2004). In one book it appears as the 103rd painting he had sold since 1934.
Another log page shows the “Blue Bill Drake” as the 11th and final painting he produced in 1945, the prior ten of which he had sold for a total of $220.
He did not sell “A Bluebill Drake” however, until 1950 when Grand Central Art Galleries (abbreviated as “G.C.G.” in Browne’s logs) mounted a one-man show of Browne’s paintings at their Manhattan gallery.
“A Bluebill Drake” was included in the Grand Central Art Galleries 1950 show, and the gallery’s label is still intact on the back of the painting.
When this painting sold at the show, George went back to his 1945 record book and added the information “Exhibition G.C.G 1950,” and in the Remarks column he noted that the painting sold to “Cousin Elizabeth” for $175, which is the price that is on the label still present on the back of the painting.
Browne’s Upward Career Trajectory, Move East, and Tragic Death
George Browne’s solo exhibition at Grand Central Art Galleries in 1950 provided a substantial boost to his career, helping him sell 22 paintings that year. But an even more significant opportunity came in 1952 when George made a connection with Ralph Terrill, the director of the a New York gallery specializing in sporting art, the Crossroads of Sport Gallery. From 1952-1958 Crossroads sold half of the paintings Browne produced.
Based on Terrill’s advice that “People seem to like to buy something which reminds them of their favorite shooting terrain,” Browne accepted invitations from Terrill’s clients to hunt with them and then paint their favored eastern terrain around the Chesapeake Bay, Georgia, and the Carolinas, as well as the birds they hunted there.
Crossroads gallery sold George Browne’s paintings through their annual catalogs from 1952 until his death in 1958. Sporting art collectors across America could thus purchase Browne’s work along with that of Pleissner, Rungius, and Jacques whose paintings appeared in the same Crossroads catalogs.
As Browne was gaining success selling paintings of upland game birds and waterfowl to eastern sportsmen, his patrons convinced him to move closer to New York which was the center of the sporting art business. So George and Tibby Browne eventually sold their house in Alberta and in 1956 they moved into a home they had built in Norfolk, Connecticut.
Remarking on George’s artistic development, especially during his time in Connecticut, one critic wrote the following in the magazine Sporting Classics:
Almost daily his work grew stronger, richer, more poetic. Not only did he have the gift for breathing life into his birds and mammals, he knew how to arrange them in a composition for maximum dramatic effect. Few artists have been better at crafting the illusion of space, of three dimensionality; perhaps it was because of Browne’s own lack of depth perception,* a function of his monocular vision, forced him to pay extra attention to perspective. (*He had sustained an eye injury when he was 10 from the ricochet of a shotgun pellet.)
Likewise, his sister Evelyn once wrote about George’s deep knowledge of habitats and the individual qualities of each species he painted:
George knew what he was painting with scientific accuracy, and he had the transcendent ability to render what he saw, in paintings of unparalleled and arresting beauty.
It is all the more tragic then, that this artist of great accomplishment and even greater promise, was accidentally killed in 1958 by an acquaintance who was inexperienced with guns.
They were in the Adirondacks attending a March outing of sportsmen who served on the Camp Fire Club of America’s Conservation Committee. They were target practicing by shooting balloons blowing across a frozen lake when one of the men mishandled a gun’s hang-fire; the delayed discharge of the bullet then struck Browne in the neck. Thus George Browne, who by the age of 40 had survived parachute jumps, weeks alone in a life raft, an expedition up Mount McKinley, Rocky Mountain wilderness excursions, and countless hunting adventures, died within an hour being shot.
His family and friends lost a gem of a man that day, and the world lost a talented artist. Through his work George had attained what he once predicted and aspired to, as written in a letter to his parents:
“I believe I will gain an individuality and originality found in the work of men who are inspired by their subject rather than by themselves.”
Fortunately, photos of Browne, his personal records and letters, and descriptions of him as a gifted man of integrity written largely by the women who loved him—his mother, sister, and wife—remain for posterity, as do the images of landscapes and wildlife he so deftly captured on canvas.
1 Background information, images, and page references throughout this article are drawn from the book Artists of the North American Wilderness: George and Belmore Browne (2004) by J. T. Ordeman and M. M. Schreiber. Toronto: Warwick Publishing.