Bay Area Figurative Painter William Theophilus Brown Dies at 92

william theophilus brown football 1954 888 54 Bay Area Figurative Painter William Theophilus Brown Dies at 92

"Football" (1954) by William Theophilus Brown.

William Theophilus Brown, whose figurative work in manifold styles aligned him contemporary West Coast figurative painters like Richard Diebenkorn and Elmer Bischoff, died on Wednesday at his home in San Francisco, at the age of 92.

Mr. Brown’s career began just as the influence of abstract expressionism was cresting on the East Coast, the San Francisco Chronicle notes, and his work, along with that of his colleagues, which would come to be known as the Bay Area figurative movement, charted a way out of that resolute strand of abstraction.

The artist was born in Moline, Ill., and earned early plaudits for his artistic abilities, though he studied music at Yale, after reportedly finding the school’s painting department “prehistoric.” He would attend the University of California, Berkeley’s studio program in 1951, after World War II, falling in with Diebenkorn.

Success came early, and he traveled widely, spending time with Giacometti and Picasso in Europe, John Cage and Rothko in New York, though his work did not engage those artists’ more vanguard projects. He picked to live in the Bay Area, the Chicago Tribune reports, because, “I was orbiting around all of these famous people, and I needed to find out who I was.”

Perhaps best known for his brushy portraits of figures in unusual color spectrums—a style that can recall Milton Avery or even Marlene Dumas in some instances—he also made works that leaned more aggressively toward abstraction (as in an early work of football players that was reprinted in Life magazine and has been likened to de Kooning’s) or more natural realism.

His work is in the collections of numerous museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. His papers are in the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, and many have been scanned online—they’re well worth a visit.

Thomas Reynolds, the artist’s dealer in San Francisco, told the Chronicle: “He was everybody’s favorite dinner companion—charming to the ladies and bawdy with the boys.” And one of the artist’s close friends, Matt Gonzalez, who often worked with Mr. Brown, shared this story with the Chronicle about their habits: “Our routine was we’d get together on the weekend, start working at around noon, and at 4:30, we’d pack up and go eat oysters—and drink single malt whiskey.”