Grafton Brown: Lithography

Grafton Tyler Brown (1841-1918) was born of free parentage in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. In all likelihood, he had the distinction of being the first professional African-American artist to venture into Nevada. In the 1860s, Brown created numerous hand-drawn black and white lithographs of communities and buildings around northern Nevada, notably in the celebrated Comstock mining district.

An advertisement in the 1864-1865 Virginia Business Directory read, "Grafton T. Brown. Traveling Artist in Nevada Territory," and promoted his specialization in "Views of Mills, Mines, Business Houses, Residences, etc." Further, he guaranteed that his mining certificates would be "executed with Neatness and Dispatch."

An artist with no little or formal training, Brown arrived in San Francisco, California in 1861, and was initially employed as a draftsman, then a lithographer, for Kuchel and Dressel, a commercial printing firm that served, among others, mining companies, banks and music publishing companies. He opened his own company in 1867, and operated it until 1879. In 1882, he pulled up stakes and traveled north to work with the Canadian Geological Survey. It was at this time that Brown began to paint views of scenic vistas in Canada and the Pacific Northwest, notably Mt. Hood and Mt. Tacoma (now known as Mt. Rainier). He eventually settled in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he was a draftsman for various governmental agencies.

Brown's lithographs, drawn on the surface of non-fossilized limestone with frequently sharpened grease pencils, revealed the artist's respect for architectural detail and an exceptional knowledge of the attire of his day. His epic panorama of Virginia City, "drawn from nature" in 1861, not only featured virtually every structure in this mountainside community, but also conveyed a dramatic sense of depth by means of subtle shading. Thirty intimate studies of individual businesses surround the larger image, each drawn with precision and in fair perspective.

The first comprehensive exhibition of Brown's work was held at the Oakland Art Museum in 1972; it featured many of the artist's lithographs and commercial work from his San Francisco firm, G. T. Brown and Company.

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